Recap: Inter vs Atalanta 2:3 (Sport1)
Francesco Acerbi remembers the previous Champions League final in Istanbul as if it were yesterday. For him, Milanista Shroff, a member of the Ultras Club of the Reds and Blacks, it was a shocking experience. He was already celebrating another European title when Milan led 0-3, but Liverpool made the famous comeback, winning on penalties - and the tears flowed.
His father, Roberto Acerbi, did not cry at all. He was an avid intrist, and was very sorry when his son chose to sympathize with the city rival. Francesco grew up in the era of Fabio Capello's mighty team in the '90s, and then also came to San Siro George Weah where the boy saw a real idol. He let Dad down, which was one of the reasons for the frequent quarrels in the family. The second reason was the character of the boy, who was not disciplined and did not know how to invest in important tasks. Roberto tried to educate him, but in vain - and the relationship gradually deteriorated.
The greatest moment of his career. Acherbi (Photo by Getty Images, Alexander Hassenstein)
Received Nesta's shirt at AC Milan
Francesco dreamed of becoming a footballer, but was not accepted into any academy, led an unsporting lifestyle, and found it difficult to prove himself even in amateur teams. The ridicule from his father was the only thing that kept him trying, and at the age of 20 he somehow got a place in the Fabia line-up in the fourth division. At the age of 22, he climbed to Regina in the second division and turned professional. One good season was enough to secure a contract at Genoa, and Percenescu threw it in Roberto's face. "There you go, I succeeded," the brake exclaimed. That season he was loaned to Kyiv in the top division, provided some good games, and his agent became quite a busy man.
And so, in the summer of 2012, a real miracle happened. Milan offered him to sign with the club, and not for nothing - he was supposed to be the successor to Alessandro Nesta who had just left the club. Acerbi even inherited the number 13 shirt from him and was shown to the media holding it, alongside the smiling Silvio Berlusconi and Adriano Galliani. This is not just an ambition fulfilled. It was above and beyond the wildest dreams of a rather troubled guy who had never attended academia in an orderly manner. Suddenly, he was the great hope in the luxury club he loved so much. Journalists lined up to interview him, fans were thrilled because they knew about his past in Ultras. From there it was supposed to take off.
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The beginning did not bode well. Little Acerbi Regina (Photo by Getty Images, Maurizio Lagana)
"Cancer saved my life"
Except it wasn't because Dad wasn't there to be happy with him. Roberto, who suffered from chronic heart problems, had died a few months earlier, and the tragedy had deeply affected Francesco. Instead of concentrating on football at its peak, he became addicted to alcohol and barely functioned. "I've hit bottom. I forgot how to play, and I just thought about drinking – and I would drink anything," he recalls in retrospect. It goes without saying that under these conditions he did not exactly rise to the level of Nesta. Acerbi arrived at AC Milan's training sessions after sleepless nights, and his career with the team ended after 10 games in all competitions. By the second round, he had already been loaned back to Kyiv, but did not shine to say the least there either, and considered retiring completely because his mental state was catastrophic.
Cancer saved him. This is not an exaggeration - Acherbi claims so himself. In the summer of 2013, when he underwent medical tests in Sassuolo, which agreed to sign him at a reduced price, a malignant tumor was discovered in his testicles. He underwent surgery to remove it, returned to the field quickly, but in January 2014 he was diagnosed with cancer again, this time requiring difficult chemotherapy courses for two months. And it changed the trajectory 180 degrees. "I had a new challenge, and I saw life in a completely different light. It's like I've started living again," the brake later recalled. Alcohol and recreation remained in the past, a strict diet, investment in training and frequent conversations with a private psychologist took their place. When he recovered a second time and was cleared to return to the pitch, it was the new Acervi, and Sassuolo benefited big.
Only 10 games for AC Milan. Acherbi (Photo by Getty Images, PATRIK STOLLARZ/AFP)
Almost broke Santi's record
The green-and-black have been given a solid rock in the center of defense - a mentally and physically stable player who gives his best at any given moment in training and games. A little more than a year after his first diagnosis, he had already made his debut for the national team. Between the end of 2015 and the beginning of 2019, he made 149 consecutive league appearances, and came very close to breaking Javier Santi's record at Inter - only a controversial red card caused a suspension and prevented it. He exuded joie de vivre, swept his comrades into battle, and along the way also began helping cancer patients with frequent visits to hospitals. From a hopeless alcoholic, Acherbi became the consummate professional and role model.
Acherbi was in no hurry to lose this stability. He knew his long spell at Sassuolo kept him out of the spotlight, but it suited him, and he was quick to turn down interesting offers – including that of Claudio Ranieri who wanted to bring him to Leicester after winning the Championship in 2016. It wasn't until Simona Inzaghi called him personally in 2018 that he agreed to join him at Lazio. After all, this is Pippo's brother, whom he admired so much at Milan. Besides, Dutch Stefan de Vrij left for Inter, the coach explained to Acervi that he would be the right person to step into his shoes.
The phone call from Simona Inzaghi convinced. Acervi Lazio (Photo by Getty Images, Marco Rosi)
European champion as Kyllini's backup
It was a great compliment, and so it was in reality. For 4 years, the defender starred for Olimpico, won the trophy in his first season in 2019, was called up to the national team much more frequently during this period, and even traveled with them to Euro 2020 to replace the injured Giorgio Chiellini when necessary and return home with the gold medal on his neck. "I will try to play until I am at least 38 years old, because I still have a lot to do with Lazio," he claimed two years ago, but last season a strange conflict suddenly broke out between him and some of the ultras in blue.
Soon, Acerbi's status deteriorated from a beloved star to a persona non grata, simply because he signaled to the stands of extremist fans to be quiet when booed. The organizations issued a banner stating that he was "ungrateful and unworthy of wearing the club shirt", demanded that he apologize, did not get what they wanted, and began actively working to deport him. At the same time, Lazio failed in its attempt to qualify for the Champions League, and the sides came to the understanding that it was worthwhile to solve this problem in order not to drag out the crisis. Inzaghi, who had left Lazio a year earlier for Inter, came to his aid this time as well, and last July a loan deal with a purchase option was arranged. Thus Acerbi returned to San Siro to wear his shirt in black-and-blue stripes.
European champion in 2020. Acharbi with the trophy (Photo by Getty Images, Claudio Villa)
Arrived at Inter quietly and became a bunker
If he had been told a decade ago that this is what is likely to happen, he would not have believed it - after all, a Milanista like him cannot be an Inter player. But fate tends to surprise us, and Acherbi's life scenario is full of already surreal twists – even in Hollywood they would reject it because it's not realistic enough. And so, after his most dreamy transition turned into a nightmare, after a life-threatening illness saved his life, it turned out that the most inappropriate transition for him was actually the best imaginable. Because this season was perhaps the best of Acherbi's life professionally.
He arrived at Inter quietly, and no one expected him to be part of a line-up dominated by De Vrij, Milan Škriniar and Alessandro Bastioni. A 35-year-old borrower shouldn't have bothered them, but the picture quickly changed. The Dutchman was caught up in a crisis and moved aside, the Slovak mentally prepared to leave, benched and then injured, and Acerbi took over. With his elegant young partner at Astoni, he set up Nerazzurri's backline in 2023, and in the Champions League it was a dream defence. They kept a clean sheet in 5 of their 6 matches in the knockout stage, eliminating Porto and Benfica, and then beating AC Milan with a pair of wins at the San Siro, 0-1 and 0-2.
Dad holding fingers in Istanbul
And so, it was Francesco who prevented his beloved Milan from returning to Istanbul after 18 years. Instead, he goes there himself, wearing the wrong shirt for him – but it's the right shirt for his father. More than 10 years have passed since Roberto Acerbi passed away, and only now is the son fulfilling his deepest dream. When he shouted at the boy that he had to conduct himself in sportsmanship so as not to throw life into the trash, secretly the father hoped that everything would work out, and that his son would one day become an Inter star. This absurd wish has come true, and the European champion in his national team uniform can also become his team's European champion on Saturday. After overcoming personal tragedy, alcoholism and cancer, some would say he deserves it.
Inter are clear underdogs against Manchester City, but Liverpool were underdogs against AC Milan, and everyone remembers how it ended. Acherbi remembers this better than anyone, and he is determined to close this circle in the strangest way possible. He feels that Dad is holding his fingers.
- World Football
- UEFA Champions League
- Francesco Acerbi