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When Inter Milan’s analysts run the team through Erling Haaland’s 52 goals in all competitions this season, Francesco Acerbi, their veteran centre-back, won’t be afraid. It isn’t that Acerbi is emotionless. It’s that he learned to live without fear a decade ago.

The 35-year-old from Vizzolo Predabissi, on the outskirts of Milan, has overcome far scarier things than a 6ft 4in (194cm), prolific blonde striker with a top speed of 36 kph (22.4mph).

Next month will mark the 10th anniversary of Acerbi finding out he had testicular cancer while undergoing a routine pre-season check-up at his then-club Sassuolo.

He took the diagnosis in his stride. Three weeks after surgery to remove the lump, Acerbi was back out on the pitch. It all happened so quickly, he didn’t have time to process the experience. However, when an anti-doping test came back positive in the December, the hormones generated by his body signified the cancer’s return. The Italian Olympic Committee swiftly and insensitively banned him for two years until the bloodwork came back the following month and vindicated Acerbi.

“It may seem an awful paradox,” he explained. “But cancer saved me.”

Acerbi was in his mid-20s, the age we tend to think of as a player’s peak, depending on their position. But his career was drifting. He even questioned his own desire.

“I played for my dad,” Acerbi told sport magazine L’Ultimo Uomo. “He cared a lot. Maybe too much, and by investing so much in me maybe he ended up doing harm even though his intentions were good. I lost my passion.” Acerbi’s father passed away just as he was turning professional. It left Acerbi without purpose. Adriano, the former Inter striker who once had the world at his feet, was never the same, for instance, after losing his dad, Almir.

“Once Dad died, I had no one else to play for,” Acerbi explained. “I definitely wasn’t playing for myself.”

Natural ability took him so far. Further than most players anyway. Acerbi came late to Serie A. He was 24 when he broke into Chievo’s team in the 2011-12 Serie A season. Within months of establishing himself at the heart of their defence, then-champions Milan identified him as the future of their back line.

For Acerbi, it was a dream come true. He’d grown up supporting Milan, a club whose legend is in part founded on a long line of world-class defenders. It was the ultimate for an up-and-coming centre-back and the expectation was Acerbi would slot right in, just as Thiago Silva had when Paolo Maldini retired three years earlier. He joined them the same summer a 36-year-old Alessandro Nesta left for MLS, and by handing Acerbi the No 13 shirt, which had been Nesta’s for almost a decade, Milan anointed the newcomer as his successor.

Wearing Nesta’s number didn’t weigh on Acerbi. But only because he didn’t attach importance to it. He didn’t value much of anything at that stage of his career. What was the point of it all?

Milan were aware when they signed him that Acerbi wasn’t the best professional. They found him a house near the training ground in Gallarate, almost an hour’s drive out of the city, to try to keep him away from Milan’s nightlife. But it didn’t work. “I lacked motivation,” he said. “I didn’t know what to do anymore. And I drank.”

Acerbi would get in late from a night out, barely sleep and go to training still tipsy. His talent was still enough to get him through the sessions. But he did not look like the next Nesta. “I didn’t have respect for myself, for my job or for the people who paid me,” Acerbi admitted.

He was sold to Genoa halfway through that first season in one of those old-fashioned co-ownership deals whereby Milan held onto 50 per cent of his rights. But Acerbi was never going back even when they retained a stake, and the following summer newly promoted Sassuolo bought out the one belonging to Genoa. He’d blown it and told team-mates that quitting football altogether had crossed his mind.

Then came Acerbi’s awakening.

“Without the illness, I would have probably been playing second-division football at 29. (and) I wouldn’t still be playing today,” he claimed. And yet here Acerbi is, preparing himself for a Champions League final.

Everything didn’t suddenly click into place for him. As Acerbi underwent chemotherapy, he didn’t immediately become a different person. There were times when he wondered why cancer wasn’t changing him. He started seeing a therapist and began to understand himself and the people around him better. It allowed Acerbi to recognise and deal with past traits of self-sabotage. He got his mind right and everything else flowed from that.

The purpose he lost when his father died re-emerged, without any grandiose ambitions, but in a desire to improve every single day. He didn’t have woolly dream to realise, only a clear set of objectives.

When Acerbi got the all-clear and returned to action in the autumn of 2014, he began belatedly making his impact in Serie A. It was as if he wanted to make up for lost time. He became dependable in a way he never had been before.

Acerbi went on a run of starting and finishing 149 consecutive games in all competitions, a feat of durability that encompassed a move from Sassuolo to Lazio without skipping a single beat. He finally missed a match not through injury but because of suspension when a second yellow card in a defeat away to Napoli in January 2019 ended his chances of surpassing Javier Zanetti’s record of ever-presence. Pupi, as the legendary former Inter captain is known, featured in 167 games in a row.

It was at Lazio that Acerbi first began working with current Inter coach Simone Inzaghi. They won a couple of trophies together, qualified the Roman club for the Champions League for the first time in 13 years and then managed to get out of the competition’s group stage at the first attempt in two decades.

Acerbi’s form and consistency were rewarded by Italy coach Roberto Mancini, who leaned on him heavily when Giorgio Chiellini was absent for more than a year after knee surgery. The majority of Acerbi’s caps — 27 of the 29 — came in that period as he established himself as the best centre-back outside of the Juventus legacy pairing of Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci.

He seemed set to finish his career at Lazio but Inzaghi’s departure to Inter, a change of system under successor Maurizio Sarri and a major fall-out with the club’s ultras precipitated a move back to San Siro.

Acerbi had made the mistake of shushing the Stadio Olimpico’s Curva Nord after scoring against Genoa in December 2021, a major no-no for any player.

In a statement, the ultras said: “We took on Giorgio Chinaglia, Alessandro Nesta and Sinisa Mihajlovic to name but three pillars of our history. We came into the dressing room in (Lazio’s training grounds at) Tor di Quinto and Formello because far more prestigious players than you with your past at Chievo and Sassuolo showed us a lack of respect. And what? Should we let this gesture against an entire fanbase slip?”

The ultras did not. They finished the communique demanding “Acerbi get out!” Another pretext for his departure followed when he was pictured laughing after Lazio conceded a stoppage-time winner to Milan near the end of that season. The laugh was a ‘That’s football!’-style reaction to a crazy end to a crazy game. But the optics weren’t good.

“After the game, I read and listened to the most absurd insinuations which I cannot and will not accept,” Acerbi said. “The mere fact I’m here having to defend my integrity and professionalism hurts me deeply. I’m not perfect. I’m not a robot. But I am a serious professional and this shouldn’t be up for debate. I don’t forget a single moment of my time at Lazio. I’ve become a reference point for this team, receiving respect, affection and support. I’ve even got to proudly wear the armband.”

Acerbi hoped that the ultras would move on. But they didn’t, and when Inter failed to sell Milan Skriniar and subsequently lost out to Juventus over Torino’s Serie A Defender of the Year Gleison Bremer, new coach Inzaghi asked the club if they’d consider signing Acerbi on loan. “I know him well, the club listened to me on it,” Inzaghi said. “I knew he’d give us a hand because he’s got exemplary concentration levels and has the aggression we need.”

Acerbi replaced Stefan de Vrij at Lazio and he has nudged the Dutchman out of the Inter team as well. Their first-choice back three is all-Italian and while it does not have the profile of Juventus’ old BBC (Bonucci, Andrea Barzagli and Chiellini), it does not lack character.

“Before cancer, I was losing everything I had to lose,” Acerbi said. “Then I got a second chance and I’m trying to make the most of it.” And he means on and off the pitch. Acerbi does charity work for the Italian Foundation for Cancer Research. After that red card against Napoli, he fined himself and donated the proceeds to the foundation.

When the national team paid a visit to the cancer ward at a children’s hospital in Rome in 2019, he stayed back to talk to the kids. “It’s getting late,” he was told. “We have to go. Everyone’s already on the mini-buses back to the hotel.” Acerbi resisted. “It doesn’t matter. Go ahead. I’ll take a taxi. I’m not leaving until I’ve done a round of the entire ward.”

To him, cancer is “a world you never leave behind”, a “parallel world”. Part of his journey from playing for Milan and almost quitting to joining Inter and being 90 minutes away from winning the Champions League.

(Top photo: Getty Images; design: Eamonn Dalton)



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