Livorno’s Luci faces most important battle of his life

Pitchside Europe

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Goals didn’t come along all that often for Davide Nicola. He promised one of the policewomen, a friend of his, who was on duty on matchdays at Marassi that if he did score, he’d celebrate by running over and kissing her. When Nicola did find the back of the net for Genoa against Atalanta, he kept his word. It was a great moment. But as Nicola pulled away from the passionate embrace, he realised he’d kissed the wrong one. Uniforms, eh.

He laughs about it now his playing days are over. Nicola hung up his boots in 2010 and, keen to stay in the game, decided to enroll at Coverciano, Italy’s renowned coaching school. He has gone on to establish himself as one of the brightest coaches in Serie A with Livorno. At 40 only Fiorentina’s Vincenzo Montella and Cagliari’s Diego Lopez are younger.

Incidentally, Nicola’s thesis at Coverciano on whether players are born leaders or become them received top marks from the examiners. If he were ever to revise and update his study into leadership he could really do no better than take his captain Andrea Luci as an example. So highly is he thought of at Livorno that they even unretired Igor Protti’s No.10 shirt for him.

It was a curious decision. “Technically, I’m not great,” Luci admitted. He isn’t a goalscorer like Protti was either, who in addition to scoring 102 goals in 196 games for gli Amaranto, is the only player, along with Dario Hubner, to have been Capocannoniere in Serie A, Serie B and Serie C1.

Why then give it to Luci? Well, Protti wasn’t a 10 but a 9, so why not? And besides within this context, within Livorno, the 10 can connote the team’s most important player, the soul and spirit of it. That’s Luci. “I feel like a leader,” he told La Gazzetta dello Sport. “I give everything. I see that my team-mates appreciate it and that I’m appreciated off the pitch too.”

He’s a courageous character. If ever there were any doubts about that, there are no longer after his actions last week. Luci is a father of two boys. The eldest, Marco, 6, has been in and out of hospital on a number of occasions in his young life. “Unfortunately no one knew what diagnosis to make until last Tuesday,” his mother Lisa explained.

That was when the specialists at Genoa’s Gaslini children’s hospital revealed that Marco is suffering from Fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva [FOP] or Stone Man syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that is fusing his body’s muscles and joints into solid bone. It afflicts just one in two million and at the moment there is no cure, nor even a treatment.

Funding for research into FOP is limited too. According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, 90% of it is independently raised by just 12 to 15 families around the world. Luci therefore took the decision to go public with the news to increase awareness. As a footballer he has greater visibility than others with a child suffering from FOP. Like them, though, all Luci can do is hope for a breakthrough in research.

Livorno has rallied around the family.

“I’ve already said to Andrea, who I saw in Genoa, to stay calm, because we’ll find a solution together,” the club’s owner Aldo Spinelli said. “The club is by his side. We’ll never leave his family on their own.”

Before Sunday’s game against Juventus, fans organised a collection for Luci outside the Armando Picchi stadium, a ground named after the Livorno-born captain of La Grande Inter, who died at 35 after succumbing to the rare amyloidosis. Lest we forget, it’s just over 18 months since supporters did the same for the physically handicapped sister of Luci’s late team-mate Piermario Morosini who collapsed and died of arrythmogenic right ventricular dysplasia during a game against Pescara.

Livorno, its players and their families have sure known suffering through the years. The Italian football community has pulled together. Some touching gestures have been made. Nicolas Burdisso, the Roma defender, whose daughter Angelina suffered from leukaemia, took out a page in Livorno’s local paper Il Tirreno and wrote: “Andrea, this is the most important game that you must play… Don’t think about the result, try to fight day after day for Marco and for your family... Forza!”

As Luci warmed up in the tunnel on Sunday, Juventus coach Antonio Conte came over and embraced him. “We’re all fathers,” he said. Luci had captained Juventus’ Primavera earlier in his career. He had played in the same team as Claudio Marchisio, who’d also later seek the 28-year-old out to let his former teammate know that he was thinking about him. As Luci led the team out, he saw a 60m long banner along the Curva Nord. It read: “Together with you Andrea for the greatest of battles. We support research into FOP.”

It must have moved him. But for 90 minutes he had to put it and everything else to the back of his mind. Luci told himself he had to be professional. “When you go out on the pitch,” Luci said, “you isolate yourself from your problems. Today I only thought about winning this game. We didn’t manage to do it [Livorno lost 2-0], but we tried. If we keep playing like this we can survive.”

Afterwards, he went under the Curva and clapped the fans. “I’d like to once again thank the city of Livorno for being so close to me since I revealed the news about my son’s illness. I hope that this helps us to find a treatment,” Luci said. So do we. To reference another banner in the Curva Nord: Forza Marco.

James Horncastle - @JamesHorncastle

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