Francesco Acerbi: the “lion” who conquered cancer will be a pillar in the defense of Italy | Italy

This article is part of the Guardian’s Euro 2020 Expert Network, a cooperation between some of the best media organizations from the 24 qualifying countries. features previews from two countries each day ahead of the tournament kicking off on June 11.

Francesco Acerbi had to stop playing for Sassuolo and started chemotherapy for testicular cancer in early 2014. He had a strange routine. Chemo in the morning while watching TV (his favorite program being House, the series with Hugh Laurie), a little rest in the afternoon, nightclubs, sometimes until 7 a.m. Certainly not a Cristiano Ronaldo approach to life.

The tuna and onion pizza was part of the routine, as the chemo left Acerbi with no appetite for the delicate flavors. “Sometimes I didn’t eat at all and didn’t sleep,” he says.

One day, a year after being diagnosed with cancer, Francesco woke up in terror. “All of a sudden I started to think about all the worries I was giving my parents, all the wasted opportunities and the nights spent at the club. That morning, I was afraid of my own shadow. I started seeing a therapist, who helped me a lot.

Seven years later, Acerbi is ready to compete in its first European Championship. Now 33, he is one of Serie A’s best center-backs and Italian coach Roberto Mancini sees him as a pillar of his defensive line. Left-handed and technically gifted, Acerbi is able to team up with Leonardo Bonucci, Giorgio Chiellini and Alessandro Bastoni to protect Italian goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma. He’s living the life he imagined, but his journey has been a roller coaster ride.

Acerbi grew up near Milan loving football. “I was part of the Fossa dei Leoni, the group of ultras from Milan,” he once said. At 14, he left Atletico Civesio, a small team, to play amateur football with his friends. But somehow he bounced back. At 20, he found a contract in the Italian fourth tier. At 22, he was in Serie B. At 23, he was playing his first Serie A match for Chievo. “I did it for my father, not for me,” he recalls in 2016. “We had a relationship of love and hate. He constantly challenged me. In 2011, after signing for Genoa, I waved the signed contract in front of his face.

Francesco Acerbi gave up clubbing for a life of training and quiet evenings at home. Photograph: Marco Rosi / SS Lazio / Getty Images

Francesco’s father, Roberto, had a weak heart. He survived seven strokes but died in 2012, four months before his son signed for Milan. “I missed his challenges,” Acerbi said years later. “I was wearing Alessandro Nesta’s No 13 but I was partying rather than training. I used to drink anything and seriously considered quitting football. Cancer saved my life. I thank God for this.

In July 2013, during a preseason medical exam with Sassuolo, Acerbi was diagnosed with testicular cancer. The tumor was removed but soon afterward it reappeared, forcing Acerbi to undergo chemotherapy for three months. “At the time, I was not afraid. I just wondered why the cancer hadn’t changed me. Then, during a Sunday afternoon nap, I had a strange dream. It was like my dad and God were the same person, pushing me to improve myself. I cried and realized that cancer was an opportunity. I had something to fight again.

A new life has started. All of those evenings gave way to a regular lifestyle, workouts and quiet evenings at home. No alcohol, only water, vegetables, fruit, rice and bresaola. Improvements followed. Acerbi, from October 2015 to January 2019, played 149 consecutive games, close to Javier Zanetti’s record streak of 162. No rest, no suspension, not a single injury for over three years.

Leicester followed but “Ace” said no. He was in no rush to leave Sassuolo, a family club that was always by his side. Acerbi began spending hours with people with disabilities and children with cancer. Almost every Thursday morning you could find him in a work coat, assembling fishing floats and play dough with disabled workers. “I feel at home here,” he says. “These guys kiss each other, always say ‘thank you’ and don’t judge others. They help me see life from the right point of view ”.

In 2018 Acerbi moved to Lazio and in recent months played Champions League football. However, his priorities have not changed. He still sees sick children regularly and prays to his father. Admirer of Karol Wojtyla, Pope John Paul II, Acerbi leads a life inspired by Catholic values. His WhatsApp profile photo remains the same, a photo of him and Elia, a little boy who is not cancer survivor. “He’s my lion, he died fighting,” Acerbi wrote after losing his young friend. The lion has become a symbol for him. He tattooed the animal on his chest and right arm and adopted the nickname “Leone”, “Lion” in Italian.

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Life has not ceased to challenge him. Acerbi had two desires in 2016. First, to play the Euros in France. Second, marry his girlfriend, Serena. Antonio Conte did not select him for the Italian team and the relationship with Serena ended. Five years later, no one doubts that Mancini will include him in his squad. And Claudia, his partner since 2020, is now pregnant. “Ace” will soon become the father of a girl and maybe one day a little boy will be part of the family. As for her daughter’s first name, it’s a race between Celeste, Aurora and Vittoria. As for a future son, why not Elia?

Luca Bianchin writes for Gazzetta dello Sport.

Follow him on twitter @ lucabianchin7.

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