DEBUTS: Cristiano Lucarelli

Written by: @SerieAJim

For Cristiano Lucarelli, there is no place like home. Born and raised in an historic block of social housing nicknamed “Chiccaia” in the Shanghai quarter of Livorno, Lucarelli personified the radical nature of the port city he called home with scant regard for the consequences. His debut for the Italian under 21 side in 1997 will forever be remembered as the birth of a legend that toyed with convention and remained planted to the city that made him.

Just under six years after AS Livorno’s formation in 1915, the city of Livorno hosted the congress of the Italian Socialist Party. The congress was set against a backdrop of workers’ defeat as a series of factory occupations failed to prompt revolution, and an identity crisis took hold. On the one hand, reformists looked to adapt to management of a capitalist landscape. On the other, those of a more traditional Marxist bent sought revolution in the face of rising fascism.

The clear ideological divide between the two groups led to the formation of Partito Comunista Italiano (PCI) as political heavyweights Antonio Gramsci and Amadeo Bordiga seceded from the Partito Socialista Italiano. With Livorno parent to the birth of one of the key resistance movements in 20th Century Italian society, it’s only natural that the political ideals of the PCI became woven into the very fabric of Livornesi existence.

With a typically atmospheric Stadio Armando Picchi cloaked in late March darkness as the backdrop, a young azzurrini side littered with tomorrow’s stars set about overcoming a modest Moldova under 21 side content to sit deep. From the off, Rossano Giampaglia’s men were in the ascendancy with the 20 year old Francesco Totti finding pockets of space to create from. Behind Totti’s toying stood players such as Alessandro Pistone, Francesco Coco, Roberto Baronio, and most notably, Gianluigi Buffon (a figure not adverse to political controversy in his early career).

After 11 minutes, Italy U21s led. On 28 minutes, the lead doubled.

Amidst Francesco Totti’s playful probing stood a man taking everything in. Playing as the more traditional of the two forwards, Cristiano Lucarelli had long dreamt of appearing on, what he felt, was hallowed turf. For the opening half an hour, it was clear that Lucarelli was determined to impress upon the watching masses yet he did so with a feral urgency that threatened to boil over. Off the ball he hurried to close down the opposition and found himself in somewhat unconventional attacking positions. Buoyed by the Livornese in Armando Picchi pushing him on, Lucarelli could be accused of neglecting the more nuanced aspects of his game that had brought him to this moment and with Italy leading by two goals at half time, a period of introspection confronted the young man.

Following spells with Cuoio Pelli and Perugia, Lucarelli first began to attract admiring glances in the 1995/96 season when he scored 15 goals in 32 matches for Cosenza Calcio 1914. Although Cosenza were in Serie B at the time, a goal return of almost one in two and his natural ability to appear in the right place at the right time had caught the attention of those in the national team setup.

After a summer transfer to Padova, the 1996/97 season saw Lucarelli further fine tune his goal scoring ability in Serie B with an impressive 18 goals in 34 appearances for a side languishing in midtable. Come March of that season, Giampaglia had finally seen enough to call up the 20 year old as, in addition to his mastery of the six yard box, Lucarelli had grown ever more confident in dropping deeper to contribute to the overall game.

Yet, as the second half began back in Livorno, it was clear that the Lucarelli of Padova was yet to fully perform against Moldova. In a bid to improve both his own performance and the attacking performance of the team, Lucarelli became more positionally disciplined. No longer did he stray too far from the central areas in search of lost possession. When his teammates looked up, his 6ft2 frame acted as a focal point of attack; allowing Totti to potter at will without the side losing its shape as the Moldovan defence began paying greater attention to Lucarelli.

First the defender Pistone, and then the playmaker Totti scored within minutes of the restart. At 4-0 against a tiring side, Lucarelli sensed that his chances of a debut goal were rocketing and keen not to be overwhelmed by adrenaline, he began taking greater risks with his off the ball movement.

35 yards from from the Moldovan net, Francesco Totti collected the ball in acres of space. Ahead of him, Cristiano Lucarelli feigned a move to the front post before peeling off his marker in the other direction. With a subtle flick of his right boot, Totti calmly placed the ball into the path of his strike partner and the big number 9 willingly obliged with a calm side footed half-volley into the goal.

Few could say that Lucarelli was the standout performer on the night, or even that his goal was the best of an eventual six, yet what happened next reverberated around the halls of the Italian Football Federation in Rome.

Jumping atop an advertising hoarding to face the curva, Lucarelli lifted his shirt to reveal a picture of the Marxist revolutionary, Ernesto “Che” Guevara in Livorno’s colours on a white background. Stadio Armando Picchi erupted as if the very idea of counterculture had scored itself and Lucarelli bathed in pure adoration. The footage would be replayed again and again over the following days by political talk shows as much as calcio shows, and Lucarelli had announced himself to the nation.

At the full time whistle, Cristiano went straight to the curva and led a stadium wide bounce with his undershirt now on full display. As television cameras followed the Padova forward and his choir of disciples, the bond with which Lucarelli had held to Livorno was now fully reciprocated.

The backlash was severe and the young striker faced heavy criticism from the Italian press in the aftermath. Despite going on to score an unrivalled 10 goals in 11 appearances for the under 21 side, Lucarelli was blacklisted from the national side until, at 30 years old, Marcello Lippi gave him his first full international cap. If anything, the blacklisting adds a poignancy to his career and goes some way to further enhancing the man’s legend as rather than crumbling like brigidini with weight applied, Lucarelli accepted the notoriety.

Following a first season in Serie A with Atalanta, and further stints as club top scorer with Lecce and a newly promoted Torino, Lucarelli turned away the riches of bigger sides to complete a lifelong dream. During his spells at the aforementioned sides, Lucarelli would often travel to watch Livorno both home and away, sitting among the fans of his beloved simply as one of them. In 2003, the man with the Livorno club crest emblazoned on his forearm now had the privilege of wearing amaranto.

Due to the financial situation at the club, Lucarelli took a colossal paycut to return home and, as if that was not enough, further endeared himself to the fans that had seen him make his under 21 debut five years earlier by opting to wear 99 on the back of his shirt. The number referenced the year in which the Brigate Autonome Livornese ultra group formed and, combined with his impressive goals return alongside club great Igor Protti, the tribute won both hearts and minds.

Where many ultras groups in Italian football have blossomed out of regionalistic identity and pay homage to politics of the far right, stereotypical Livorno fan groups are still strongly linked to the revolutionary aims of the party founded in their city. Brigate Autonome Livornese are seen as the most militant of these subsects and it is not uncommon for fans to unfurl banners depicting a hammer and sickle on matchdays. Yet outside of football, a series of damaging communist mayoral leaders have failed to contend with an ever changing Italian society where far right tendencies are never far from the surface, and Livorno, like many other Italian cities, has settled into an apathetic disillusionment with the power of the ballot box.

In June 2014 and for the first time since 1944, Livorno elected a mayor outside of what is routinely described as a ‘leftist’ party. With Filippo Nogarin of the Five Star Movement now the sitting incumbent, Livorno as a football club has a much greater battle on its hands. Sitting in the lower echelons of Serie B, fans can only dream of the days when an outspoken local lad represented their vision of Italy on a national stage alongside future Azzuri greats. Lucarelli’s Italian under 21 debut goes down as the first defining moment in the career of a Livorno great that would celebrate 101 goals (161 matches) for the place he called home with an infamous clenched fist salute. Although he picked up the capponcaniere in 2004/05, few of those strikes will be as enjoyable or memorable as the one from 1997.

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