Francesco Acerbi: Inter's veteran cancer survivor out to stop Erling Haaland in the Champions League final

Comments (0)
Francesco Acerbi Inter 2022-23 HIC 16:9
There is no more heartwarming subplot in Saturday's showdown in Istanbul than the 35-year-old centre-back's long and difficult journey to the top

Italian street artist Mr. Savethewall posted his latest piece to Instagram earlier this week. It depicts Inter duo Lautaro Martinez and Romelu Lukaku trying to take down Manchester City striker Erling Haaland with a pair of slingshots, an amusing and apt reference to the David versus Goliath-like nature of Saturday's Champions League final.

It's not entirely accurate of course. Neither Lautaro nor Lukaku will actually be tasked with tackling Haaland - that unenviable challenge will instead be assigned to Francesco Acerbi.

It, too, looks like a mismatch of biblical proportions. Haaland is 22 years of age and a physical phenomenon enjoying an unchecked rise to superstardom. Acerbi turned 35 in February and his body has gone through more than most on a career path that has been anything but straightforward.

He should be terrified of facing the most feared forward in world football. But Acerbi "stopped being scared" of anything a decade ago.

  1. 'I felt empty and football was meaningless'

    'I felt empty and football was meaningless'

    "Cancer saved me." It's a jarring sentiment, "a terrible paradox" as Acerbi has put it, but one he has repeated time and time again over the past few years, because he truly means it.

    To understand why, one has to go all the way back to his time at Chievo. Acerbi was in his early-20s and considered a centre-back of real promise, good enough to play for the team he supported as a child, AC Milan. However, just before moving to San Siro in the summer of 2012, his father passed away. And with him went Acerbi's raison d'etre. “After his death, I felt empty and football was meaningless," he told the Gazzetta dello Sport. "From there, it all went downhill."

  2. 'I often arrived at camp tipsy'

    'I often arrived at camp tipsy'

    Acerbi had always enjoyed a night out, and Milan knew that too. When he joined, the club found him a home in Gallarate rather than Milan in a bid to keep him away from the bright lights of the city centre. Acerbi went out anyway. Why? Two reasons, essentially.

    Firstly, he felt he could get away with staying out drinking until all hours. "I often arrived at camp tipsy, not having recovered from the night before," he told l'Ultimo Uomo. "I was fine with it because physically I've always been strong. It was enough for me to sleep for a few hours because, on the pitch, I was still performing well."

    Secondly, and far more significantly, Acerbi no longer cared - about anything. Not even himself. By the midway point of the 2012-13 season, Milan had had enough. And so too had Acerbi. He wanted to quit, at just 25 years of age.

    Even the shock of being sent back to Chievo on loan failed to change his mindset. He told team-mate Alberto Paloschi that he couldn't take anymore. "Come on, Ace, what the f*ck are you saying?" the striker replied. "Hold on!" And Acerbi did, agreeing to join Sassuolo in the summer of 2013.

    Mentally, nothing had changed, though. As far as he was concerned, the life of professional footballer didn't extend beyond the pitch. His free time was own, and he could do whatever he wanted with it. Then, everything changed.

  3. 'A world of pain and of courage'

    'A world of pain and of courage'

    Acerbi underwent a routine medical after signing for Sassuolo, but the blood test produced unusual readings. He was promptly diagnosed with testicular cancer and underwent immediate surgery to remove the tumour. It was all relatively "painless", the way he tells it.

    Just a few months later, though, he failed an anti-doping test. Again, it was due to irregular hormone levels caused by cancer. It had returned and, this time, the treatment would be far less straightforward.

    “I had chemotherapy from January 7, 2014 to March 14," Acerbi told La Repubblica. "It was like stepping into a parallel world, the entrance to which is closer than you could possibly think, so you never leave it again. It's a world of pain and of courage." And full of surprising and humbling sources of inspiration.

  4. Elia

    After overcoming cancer for a second time, Acerbi returned to the field in September 2014. After a subsequent game at Udinese, he was approached by the parent of one of the patients at the paediatric oncology department of the local hospital.

    "I accepted and beautiful friendships were born from there." Including one with a little boy named Elia, who had terminal cancer. "He taught me a lot," Acerbi said. "I would ask his father if he really knew he had a few months left to live and he answered 'yes'. It seemed impossible to me that he could play and laugh as he did."

    One of the things that most surprised Acerbi most about his battle with cancer was that it didn't appear to change him, at least not initially. He continued to act in the same unprofessional manner for a long time after going into remission for a second time. However, the gradual realisation of just how lucky he had been eventually led to an almost crippling sense of guilt.

    "A year after the illness," he revealed, "I went to sleep one night like nothing had happened. But, in the morning, I woke up in terror. I was afraid of my shadow. I was thinking about all of the worries I had caused my parents, about the opportunities I had thrown away, about the years wasted, about the evenings of excess. All together, all of a sudden."

  5. 'After cancer, my real life began'

    So, Acerbi sought professional help. It helped him realise that he only needed people around him that he both loved and trusted. He began to understand what he really wanted out of life. "Without cancer, I would have retired at 28," he told Gazzetta. "Perhaps I would be in Serie B, at Cittadella, but after cancer, my real life began, giving me a second chance."

    One which he has taken with open arms. His fine form at Sassuolo earned him a move to Lazio in 2018, and he became a stalwart in the Biancocelesti back-line, as well as playing his part in Italy's shock triumph at Euro 2020.

    His time at Stadio Olimpico came to an acrimonious end, though. After a poor start to the 2021-22 season, he made a 'shushing' gesture towards the Lazio fans that had been booing him and his team-mates after scoring against Genoa. It was a mistake. Acerbi realised that right away and he apologised, but the supporters weren't appeased.

    "It wasn't enough," he later lamented in an interview with Corriere dello Sport. "At that moment, something broke." And there would be no fixing his relationship with the fans. Indeed, the longer the season went on, the worse it got, with Acerbi even having to pen an open letter to the Lazio faithful after being slated for seemingly laughing after the concession of a late goal to AC Milan in April 2022.

    It was clear that he needed to leave, even though Maurizio Sarri was desperate for him to stay. The coach had even defended him from furious fans who interrupted a pre-season training session last summer. But Acerbi's mind was already made up. He wanted out - not least because not everyone at Lazio had been as supportive as Sarri.

    "In the last year I have had to eat a lot of sh*t," he told the Corriere. "I made one mistake, but that’s worth five compared to the 95 I had to swallow. I still went about my business, not giving a damn. And I am very proud of that. Others, in my place, would have quit much earlier.

    "But I expected the club to defend me, absolutely. You can make mistakes, but the club has to protect you in public. Even if they slaughter you in private."

  6. 'Now, the real challenge is with myself'

    'Now, the real challenge is with myself'

    Unsurprisingly, the ultras who had labelled Acerbi "a man without honour" were delighted when he left on loan just before the close of last summer's transfer window, and it's fair to say that their Inter counterparts weren't exactly enthused by his deadline-day arrival. In their eyes, the deal smacked of both desperation and favouritism.

    Nerazzurri present Steven Zhang reportedly hadn't been convinced by the merits of signing a veteran defender either, but Simone Inzaghi was adamant that he needed another centre-back that Acerbi was the right man for the job. The pair had worked together at Lazio, and their mutual appreciation remains obvious.

    As Acerbi has pointed out, though, Inzaghi wouldn't have signed him just because they have an excellent working relationship. He's still a fine player, as he's slowly but surely proven over the course of the 2022-23 campaign.

    Indeed, as GOAL recently revealed, Acerbi is now set to sign a permanent contract with Inter, and the supporters couldn't be happier, having been won over by his quality and commitment to the cause over the past six months, in particular.

    While Alessandro Bastoni is a brilliant ball-playing centre-half that brings a wonderful range of passing to the Inter backline, Acerbi has become its bedrock in the absence of the injured Milan Skriniar. Consequently, it is he who will be asked to mark Haaland in Istanbul on Saturday night. He'll obviously get some help from his team-mates, but he could probably do with a slingshot, in fairness. Or maybe even a fishing net.

    But when it comes down to it, this battle is really all about Acerbi, and one can be sure that he will approach with the best possible mindset. "In life, you always need to have a challenge to face," he told Sky Sport Italia. "Challenges have helped me, first with my father, then with the disease. Now the real challenge is with myself."

    His mere presence in Istanbul suggests he'll overcome that one too.