We like to kid ourselves that footballers care about our club in the same way we do, but for a few years at least, Cristiano Lucarelli really did…
“There are players who buy themselves a Ferrari, or a yacht. For a billion lire, I bought myself a Livorno jersey.”
Not many people would give up a billion lire. Even fewer footballers would. But that’s the sum (around €500,000 in today’s money) that Cristiano Lucarelli surrendered when he signed for his boyhood club, Livorno.
Lucarelli had just endured a tricky two seasons at Torino, where he was accused of being unfit, overweight and not particularly bothered, which he didn’t do a brilliant job of refuting in the second season when he only scored twice and they were relegated. Torino were his eighth club, with all the hallmarks of the classic Italian journeyman, even including an ill-advised spell in Spain.
But his heart was always in Livorno. Indeed, his body was in Livorno more often than not: towards the end of his spell in Turin, he missed a game with injury only to turn up at a Livorno playoff, charging onto the pitch in celebration at the end.
So when Torino dropped into Serie B, he reasoned that if he was going to play in the second tier, he might as well play for a team he loved. Off back home he went, taking a 50 per cent pay cut in order to, as Robin van Persie might say, follow the voice of the boy inside him.
Lucarelli was, of course, not your average footballer. Born in Livorno, the city where Antonio Gramsci and Angelo Tasca founded the Italian Communist Party, perhaps Lucarelli was never going to be quite in step with the prevailing politics of the day. An avowed leftie, Lucarelli was one fined for celebrating a goal with a raised left fist and on his debut for the Italian under-21s, Lucarelli scored and removed his jersey to reveal a Che Guevara t-shirt. At the time he said he didn’t actually know much about Che, much like many that age who wear his likeness, but after subsequently reading up his life and work, it’s fair to say he was on board.
When he joined Livorno, he chose the squad number 99 to pay tribute to their most prominent, left wing ultras group. He dedicated one performance to a group of local factory workers who had been laid off. He had ‘The Red Flag’ as his ringtone. He set up a newspaper in Livorno, previously home to just one, because he thought there should be a plurality of opinion in the town.
Lucarelli lived the rhetoric, but it also helped that, for a few years at least, he was really good. In his first season back at Livorno he scored 29 goals, alongside veteran goal machine Igor Protti (who was planning to retire, before being persuaded otherwise by Lucarelli), leading them to promotion back into Serie A for the first time since 1949. The season after that, he was capocannoniere, finishing as Serie A’s top scorer ahead of Andriy Shevchenko, Luca Toni, Adriano, Christian Vieri and Alessandro del Piero.
The first game of that season, as the political fates would have it, was away to Milan, of course owned at that stage by Silvio Berlusconi. There could hardly be a wider ideological gap between the socialism of Livorno and Lucarelli, and the…very much not socialism of Berlusconi. That was the summer Berlusconi had booked himself in for a little hair transplant treatment, and to cover the evidence he sported a ludicrous looking bandana.
Obviously, this was an opportunity the travelling Livorno fans – 11,000 of them – couldn’t miss, wearing bandanas of their own and carrying banners with slogans like ‘Under the bandana, nothing.’ As for the game itself, Clarence Seedorf gave Milan the lead twice, only to be pegged back by Lucarelli both times – once from the spot, once from a free-kick.
“To say scoring against Berlusconi doesn’t mean more is as silly as saying football is just a sport,” said Lucarelli afterwards.
After a few seasons, things ended a little sourly at Livorno, Lucarelli heading for Shakhtar Donetsk after falling out with the club’s president and some fans. But for a few years, Lucarelli lived the footballing ideal, playing for a cause, allowing his heart to overrule his head/wallet. It’s the sort of thing we kid ourselves that more footballers do, and allows us to kid ourselves that it’s at least possible for those out on the pitch to care as much – or at least in the same way – that we do.
Or, as Gab Marcotti put it on the edition of Golazzo dedicated to Lucarelli: “The reason they resonate is a lot of players talk about taking pay cuts to go back to the club they support and love – very few people actually put their money and time where their mouths are.”
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