In recent weeks football has demonstrated once again that is has now come a tremendously long way from its beginnings as a public school method of transforming the weakling children of the British upper classes into gentlemen ready for the trials of Empire. Even its second and more influential incarnation as a pastime and escape from the drudgery and savagery of working class industrial life held few clues to its current uses.
It is rare for the new rulers of football to stick their heads above the parapets and declare their most dearly held intentions, yet Ian Ayre’s comments on the possibility of changing how the substantial wealth generated by television is distributed should have come as no surprise to anyone. Ayre is a capitalist, football is capitalism. The inspiration for this series of articles on footballers who break the mould was the Spanish defender Javi Poves. His comments following his retirement ring ever more true.
In order to finish the XI on an appropriate note, the final member of the team has to be a player who epitomised a commitment to political ethics, a deep attachment to community and the ideals of that community over-and-above the commitment to self-enrichment and glory. The chosen Italian striker above all displayed a willingness to be different in a footballing culture that requires robotic sporting personalities. A player who became a hero, an icon of the left-wing who was actually prepared to stand by his professed values. The first player chosen in this series was Volker Ippig, an iconic German goalkeeper who literally lives the left-wing values at the heart of the community he came from. Ending the series with Cristiano Lucarelli seems appropriate.
Searching for a footballing hero is a difficult task, but for fans of Livorno Lucarelli was just that for most of his time with the club. Although in a example of the difficulties in choosing a hero, Lucarelli and Livorno have since parted company, while he was on less than harmonious terms with some sections of supporters. In happier days, and while the rest of football was rushing to get their share of the riches, Lucarelli turned down half a million euros in order to play for his home town club for the first time in his career.
Before that Lucarelli had to leave his home to become a footballer, and he talks of the first day of his professional career as being the saddest one of his life. As the train taking him from Livorno to Cuoiopelli pulled out of the station, he could not hold back the tears. Lucarelli the boy may have needed Livorno, but in this formative stage of his career Lucarelli the player needed to leave home to make the most of his raw talent. After spells at Perugia, Atalanta, Valencia, Lecce, Torino and elsewhere, scoring 80 goals along the way ,Lucarelli became a fully-formed and formidable striker.
John Foot writes that Italian forwards can be loosely classified into two distinct categories. The wily, technical players such as Giuseppe Meazza or the strikers di sfondamento typified by Silvio Piola, who use their strength and a sense of timing to convert chances. Lucarelli was a member of the latter group, at 6 foot 2, strong in the air and with a powerful shot, he was what is often called (at least in England) an English-style centre forward. His physique aside, Lucarelli has little in common with the typical English striker. Imagine, if after showing his support for the striking dock workers of Liverpool, Robbie Fowler then formed a local newspaper and gave a talk at University College London instead of becoming a real estate magnate and waving his backside at Graeme Le Saux.
Lucarelli accomplished the first two things (and has yet to attempt the second two) and more to cement his reputation as an atypical footballer. While he was playing in Serie A with Torino, Livorno won promotion to Serie B. The final game that clinched their promotion was due to be played at the same time as Torino were also scheduled to play. Lucarelli was desperate to see this game and, although the official excuse was that he was ‘slightly injured’, he was nevertheless in the terraces for Livorno’s game against Treviso, joining in with the celebratory pitch invasion at the final whistle. After Livorno’s promotion Lucarelli agitated for a move back home. This is where Lucarelli, like the KLF, showed his contempt for the money his talent had made available for him by saying goodbye to a billion lira (or 500,000 euros). By agreeing to take a 50% pay cut in order to make his dream move happen, Lucarelli did something almost unheard of in modern professional football. Later he said that, ‘Some players buy themselves a Ferrari, or a yacht, for a billion lira. I bought myself a Livorno shirt.’ (quoted in Foot:422). Livorno shirts are currently available for £8.99 on eBay.
Livorno is a port-town with a tradition for revolutionary, left-wing politics. The fans of the club celebrate Stalin’s birthday and have often been fined for displaying offensive banners and singing anti-Berlusconi songs. The ultra group Brigate Autonome Livornese was formed in 1999, and live by the credo that ‘the struggle of our lives is that of the working class, of anti-fascism and of anti-capitalism, and so it will be in eternity, wherever we go,’ (quoted in Foot:420).
On his return to his hometown Lucarelli chose the number ’99’ for his shirt, in homage to the ultra group. Like Ippig he would greet the fans by raising a clenched fist, or celebrate a goal by lifting his billion-lira Livorno shirt to reveal a cheaper one bearing a picture of Che Guevara. He is even reported to have the ‘Red Flag’ as his mobile phone ring-tone. Despite the seeming disconnect between a wealthy footballer and left-wing iconography, Lucarelli says, ‘The fact is that when I was a kid, I didn’t know I’d become a wealthy footballer, and I grew up in an environment inspired by Che Guevara. Now I’m a wealthy and famous footballer, it’s a merit not a defect that I’m still faithful to my roots and my ideals.’ (Brennan:2007)
Livorno stormed through Serie B that season and were promoted to the top flight with 2 games remaining. The following year in Serie A Lucarelli finished as top scorer with 24 goals and was called up the national team. During his next year with Livorno he had problems with the club president and with some supporters who accused him of not trying hard enough. He made a decision to leave home once again.
This time despite offers from other Serie A teams and potentially more lucrative offers in Western Europe, Lucarelli decided to move to the miners club of Shakhtar Donetsk, becoming the first Italian to play in the Ukraine in the process. He wasn’t finished in Livorno though and founded a daily newspaper called the Corriere di Livorno in order to ‘contribute to the diversity of opinions and the freedom of expression’ in his home town (quoted in Niva:2010). After a year with Donetsk and another with Parma, Lucarelli returned again to Livorno for a season, scoring 10 goals. He is currently playing with Serie A title challengers and Champions League contenders Napoli.
In 2007 Lucarelli was invited to speak at a seminar at UCL by John Foot. The subject of the seminar was ‘Money, Politics and Violence: Is there any more space for passion in Italian football?’. During the lecture Lucarelli stated amongst other things that Italian football is lacking in an understanding of how to lose graciously. The will to win is so ingrained in football that the notion of the heroic loser is anathema to the modern player.
Looking for a hero in the modern era seems a little old fashioned. In this age of self-realisation looking to others as role models cannot really help us to find ourselves. There are undoubtedly good characteristics we can recognise in others though, Cristiano Lucarelli embodies many of these. Integrity, passion and curiosity. If other footballers wonder why they are not looked up to and respected in the same way as those from the 70s and 80s they could do worse than trying to follow the example of Lucarelli.
To read the other articles in this series go here: Political Footballers XI
Brennan, Dan (2007) ‘Ukraine? Lucarelli explains why he made odd move’ http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2007/writers/world_soccer/11/13/lucarelli/1.html
Foot, John (2007) ‘Calcio: A History of Italian Football’. Harper Perennial, London, UK.
Niva, Erik (2010) ‘Cristiano Lucarelli’. In Liven längs lijnen, translated by Gabriel Kuhn and featured in Kuhn, Gabriel (2011) ‘Soccer and the State: Tackling Football and Radical Politics‘. PM Press.
99 Amaranto – Lucarelli Documentary – in Italian
Lucarelli speaking at UCL