Francesco Acerbi needed to be on his own for a few hours. “I got on my bike and went for a ride,” he told La Gazzetta dello Sport. On his return he called his girlfriend Valeria and his agent Andrea Cattoli. He had something to tell them.
This was in mid-July. Acerbi had undergone a series of medical tests ahead of pre-season with Sassuolo, the newly promoted club with whom he’d just signed a five-year contract. The doctor had called with the results. It was bad news. Acerbi was diagnosed with testicular cancer.
“It was a frightening time,” he reflected. Sassuolo owner Giorgio Squinzi organised for Acerbi to undergo a further scan at Milan’s San Raffaele hospital the following day. They acted swiftly. Detected on the Sunday, the tumour and affected testicle were removed in surgery on the Tuesday. Thirty-six hours later he was discharged. Don’t let how quickly Acerbi was in and out of hospital allow you to think that this procedure was as routine as, say, having a tooth out at the dentist.
“The removal of a testicle entails no little pain in the post-op phase” he explained. “It wasn’t a stroll in the park.” Acerbi had also kept his illness from his mother. She had lost his father a year earlier and he didn’t want to worry her before the doctors had given him assurances that everything had gone well.
Acerbi felt fortunate. “Through talking to the doctors I understood the luck I had,” he said. “I’d had the same tests in February and nothing showed up. That meant the new test discovered the tumour early… In effect, we athletes are privileged [to have frequent medicals]. I will never stop thanking the doctors who saved my life, but now it seems only right for me to send out a positive message and spread the word.”
Acerbi encouraged men of his age, just 25, to go for a check-up “at least once a year.” In the meantime, he told everyone “to get used to seeing a determined Acerbi on the pitch but also one with a smile on his lips in everyday life.”
During his recovery, the Italy coach Cesare Prandelli had got in touch to say he was thinking about him. Return to the level Acerbi had shown at Chievo the season before last, which had led Milan to sign and bestow upon him Alessandro Nesta’s No.13 shirt, then he could count on another call up to the Azzurri squad further to the one he’d received for a friendly against England in autumn 2012. It spurred him on. Other footballers had come back from such scares: Arjen Robben, Lubo Penev and Alan Stubbs.
Acerbi made his return in mid-September, debuting for Sassuolo at Hellas Verona. They lost 2-0. For him though just playing again was a victory. Sassuolo were hammered 7-0 by Inter the following weekend. They looked out of their depth. But things began to pick up. A 2-2 draw at Cagliari at the beginning of this month was their fourth game without defeat. Afterwards Acerbi was selected for a random anti-doping test. His sample was then sent to the Italian Olympic Committee’s lab in Acqua Acetosa for analysis.
Last week, they communicated that it had come back positive for gonadotropin. It came as a shock. Gonadotropin is a hormone used in the treatment of testicular cancer. It’s also a banned substance, for which you need to inform the Italian Olympic Committee, offer a justification and thereby receive special dispensation otherwise risk a two-year suspension. Acerbi and Sassuolo hadn’t done so. Why? Because, in his words, “I have never taken anything.” Other anti-doping tests earlier in the season had come back negative. “If I had taken something they would have stopped me earlier,” he told Italia 1’s Tiki Taka.
“Anyone who knows anything about medicine has an explanation for Francesco’s positive test,” added Sassuolo’s general manager Nereo Bonato. What CONI appear not to have considered is that the body can produce gonadotropin of its own accord in reaction to the presence of a tumour. The fear is that Acerbi’s cancer has come back.
The suspicion around the result and its communication in the first place has hurt him. “I haven’t thought about suing anyone,” he said. “I am thinking about my health. I understand that the papers have to talk: they can say I’m a rubbish player but don’t joke about my health because that can hurt people; my mother, my girlfriend. They’re really upset. I wouldn’t wish this on anyone.”
On hearing the news, Acerbi immediately went for further blood and urine tests, which La Gazzetta dello Sport understand have confirmed levels of gonadotropin similar to those in his system in July. A CAT scan also apparently didn’t exclude the return of his illness. It would appear Acerbi has another battle ahead of him. After his operation in the summer, he said: “This experience gave me unbelievable strength.” It looks like he’ll need to draw on it again. We wish Acerbi well.
James Horncastle - @JamesHorncastle