Inter defender Francesco Acerbi revealed that had it not been for his cancer diagnosis, he would have retired from the game at age 28. The veteran centre-back turns 35 today and in a lengthy interview with La Gazzetta dello Sport, he talked through his career, being diagnosed with cancer twice and the difficulty of trying to replace teammate Milan Skriniar:
Best wishes, Francesco . What have you learned in these first 35 years?
“That in life you always need a challenge. I needed it first with my father (who passed away in 2012), then with illness. Now the challenge is with myself. And it is the right one, the one we should all face. Because it’s the one that makes you always have the ambition to improve’.
What is it, a message to the youngsters?
“It is an invitation to react. To get help.”
In what sense?
“I did it, with a psychoanalyst, after the two tumors. He explained to me how to react and take the next step. And then, to the guys, even those in my team, I say: surround yourself with a few people, 2-3 maximum, but very trustworthy. And understand what you want from life. Don’t care if you play or not: give everything because sooner or later the spaces will come. In suffering you have to fight. If, on the other hand, the reaction is lacking, even if you change team you return to the same point, with the same problems’.”
Does that also apply to Inter? Because you had said before the if you won the match against Napoli you could reopen the Serie A race. And instead…
“And instead there was the draw with Monza, which for a team like Inter should not happen. Napoli are a war machine, but I’ll never say it’s all over for the Scudetto: we still have a 5% chance and we have to believe in it. They should slow down, but we have to think we can win them all.”
Regrets for the six losses in the league?
“We should have had five or six more points. And then, with the direct return match still to be played, the gap would have been less harsh…’.
Why does Inter do well against the big teams and then struggle with the small ones?
“Let’s take Empoli as an example: unconsciously you think you can win it somehow, but sometimes it’s not enough. And maybe you get a setback . In ‘dry’ matches it’s a different motivation, but we should always have that hunger. If we have the right nastiness, we win: of that I have no doubt. Sometimes, though, we lacked a bit of bite.
Is this good news for the challenge with Porto? Can Inter be the surprise in the Champions League?
“If we are all well, we can be the surprise. The round has given us confidence: Porto is strong and physical, but we can beat them. And then, once in the quarters, anything can happen: it depends on form, morale, luck. And we’ll get there with Lukaku and Brozo back in the team.”
Will you be at Inter in 2023-24?
“I don’t know, it’s the truth. I would like to stay, I’m happy here. In fact, I know one thing for sure: I won’t join another club in August without knowing my future. In July I will know where I will play. I hope a solution will be found as soon as possible for my transfer: I’m 35 years old, but I’m fine physically and mentally.”
Inzaghi’s best quality?
“He’s intelligent, likeable, empathetic, always positive. He’s lucky, but he seeks his luck. A deep football connoisseur, he knows all the players in the world: incredible! And he’s someone who attracts people. From Rome to Milan, it’s the same.”
How did the locker room experience the Skriniar case?
“We all knew he had an offer from Psg, but he never told us anything. And we cared little… We always saw commitment, that mattered to us. Then at the end of the year it will be sad to see him leave and it won’t be easy to replace him: good young defenders are few and far between and they cost money, see Scalvini.”
Lautaro, Lukaku, Dzeko: who is the most difficult to mark?
“It’s a pleasure to have Lautaro as a partner, the way he fights on the pitch has impressed me. Lukaku if he is fit, is devastating, he is unmarkable. Edin has an uncommon elegance: even if he is so-so, 2-3 chances per game, he always finds them. And then there’s Correa: he’s struggling, we try to help him, but he’s worth the others.”
Skier Elena Fanchini has just died of cancer at the age of 37. Do you feel lucky?
‘”Yes, of course. When I had two tumours, I didn’t give a damn. I knew I was beating them. I was almost happy. I know, it sounds like a paradox, but I was cheeky. I was saying, ‘OK come on, let’s face them’, like a game. I was telling myself, “I’m not afraid.” But then I realised that it is impossible not to be afraid. In fact, I used to hide it, I used to keep it inside. Now I sometimes think: “What if the tumour comes back? What if it comes a third time?” If it has to happen, it will happen…. It will be another challenge to overcome. After all, I grew up challenging my father…’.
What challenge was that?
“I wanted to show him where I could go. He died in February, a few months before my move to AC Milan in 2012. After his death, I felt drained. Football had lost its meaning. From there the descent began: I was arrogant, everyone else was at fault in my mind. Until the illness…’.
If you had the head you have now, even as a young man, would you have had a better career?
“I used to think that with a different head I would have done 15 years in Milan at a high level. But today I say no… Without the illness, I would have quit at 28. Or I’d be in Serie B, what do I know, at Cittadella…. With the tumours my real career began: they gave me a second chance.”
Can you explain the look to the sky you have before every game?
“I have a prayer, all my own: it’s two pages long, but it takes me 40 seconds to say it because I recite it from memory very quickly.”
Are you the definitive post-Chiellini in the national team?
“Noooo… I’m old. But I always want to improve. Otherwise I wouldn’t have come out of the difficulties: I arrived here after the whistles at Lazio and the social insults of the Interisti for that mistake in Lazio-Milan. I remained mute. And if I were still in Rome, I would have played there too.”
By the way: what is your relationship with social media?
“I don’t watch those who write and insult… I’ve had teammates who were hurt by it: if that happens, it means the character isn’t strong. OK, look away, but then don’t feel sorry for yourself…”
Do you see yourself as a coach in the future?
“I would like to. But today it seems almost a fashion, even a plumber gets a licence. And that’s fine, it’s right that everyone has this dream. But with a limit, priority should be given to those who have played. I feel inclined, because I understand the players. And then I’ve experienced all the nuances: I’ve hit rock bottom and gone to the top.”
The first characteristic a coach must have is…: you finish the sentence.
“Empathy. It makes the difference with the players and comes before any form.”