I couldn’t move my left arm.
It was paralysed.
I never lost consciousness and even while they were putting me on the stretcher and taking me off the pitch, my mind was still working, despite the terrible blow. There were so many people around me: teammates, doctors, nurses, a whole stadium was watching me. I had one first, pressing thought: for my wife, daughter and family. And I only had one way of communicating to them as they watched on TV: I raised my other arm.
It was my attempt to tell them, “I’m alright, everything will be ok.”
However, inside me there was an overpowering sense of anxiety: would I be able to become a normal person again? I wasn’t thinking about football, returning to the pitch or any matches. They started to talk me through the various stages in the ambulance: the operation, the recovery, what would happen to me.
But all I wanted was the certainty that I would go back to being a man, a father, a normal husband.
When I woke up, I was in the intensive care unit of the hospital in Verona. I won’t deny it, I asked how Chievo vs. Inter had ended. I was a bit confused; I couldn’t remember if Balotelli or Pandev had scored the goal. And I immediately understood one thing lying in bed: that it would take a long time. Although, what I didn’t expect was that once I had left Verona, I would have to spend another three weeks in hospital in Milan. Checks, inspections, and lots, lots of patience. And, above all, a surgical procedure which was required for me to regain fitness. This was the most important step, one which would allow me to become a footballer again.
I didn’t think the scar would be this big, but I never think about it too much, it’s just the sign of a journey that brought me back to being myself. You look at it in the mirror and tell yourself that in the end you were a lucky man, you have to be optimistic. It’s almost comforting.
Almost. I had learned how to handle my body a long time ago: I arrived at Inter with a dislocated shoulder, there was no time to operate and I ended up playing a season with a shoulder that could just pop out at the slightest touch. I had to cope with playing without the support of one arm. Overall, I ended my career with a total of 13 operations, and I never gave up.
The fact is that the protocol for the head surgery was rigorous, and you needed match fitness to get back on the pitch. From that clash of heads with Pellissier on 6 January 2010, I had imagined my comeback many times. But it was complicated. My first times running were among the hardest moments.
I didn’t have my bearings, I couldn’t go straight and I kept falling over. Everything had to be reconstructed.
“It’s time to dispel doubts and fears: you’re grownup and mature.” Mourinho: a tough guy, but full of kindness. I certainly didn’t expect to return to the starting eleven 77 days after Verona. But José had already been tempting me for some time. He asked me if I wanted to go to London for Chelsea vs. Inter for example. It was a way to stimulate me, to get me back on track.
In the ninth minute of Inter vs. Livorno, there was a high ball: I jumped and headed it…with a headguard on. San Siro erupted. I was more emotional then than for my national team debut; in no stadium had there ever been a greater ovation for a meaningless header in our own half.
I trained without my headguard, but in game I decided to wear it.
It’s hard to chase away those nightmares.
Wearing it gave me calmness and assurance, it was my form of protection. Then of course, ready to go, I realized that the strap was too tight and I immediately undid it, I wouldn’t have been able to breathe. And I can assure you that with the heat, it wasn’t pleasant at all. But I never took it off.
In fact, I did take it off at one stage: I threw it into the Champions League trophy. Along with my headguard, I put everything in that trophy: the fears, the doubts, the sacrifices I had faced. It all ended with the greatest dream coming true. And my tears in that moment were of joy, but also liberation. It was the achievement of a deserved moment of rest, both physically and mentally.
It was no joke making it all the way there, to Madrid. It took all the pieces of a lifetime: the way my parents raised me, leaving Romania, the experience at Ajax, the injuries, the defeats. The fears and the struggles.
My dad was a footballer before being my coach. But you don’t think: I was just a person with good connections. I trained with people older than me, I had to do my best to keep up with them. And dad never let me off. In the morning I went to school, then in the afternoon, even if we had the same journey, he made me take public transport while he drove to the pitch. It was one of his ways of teaching me self-management, sacrifice and ambition.
My bond with him was strong, unbreakable in fact. My hands start to shake when I think about how I said goodbye to him. He spent his final days at home. I remember my last conversation with him down to the final word: he reproached me because we’d conceded a goal in the league due to a mistake I’d made. This was how my dad was.
I was 17 years old and away from home because we had a midweek match coming up. Then I received a call: “Come back quickly, dad hasn’t got long left.” I rushed back and made it on time: he was still alive, although he was no longer conscious. “Dad,” I said to him. “I promise that I’ll do everything to become a better person, I’ll take care of our family. And don’t worry: I’ll become a good footballer too.” He passed away a few moments later.
I took to the pitch the next day with sadness in my heart but with the desire to put in the best possible performance for my dad.
In that game, one which meant so much to me, I scored my first goal in the Romanian top flight.
I was already good technically. In fact, I started out as a striker and then as a no.10. Then, you know how it goes: you need a midfielder, then the left-back is missing and then I ended up being a central defender, my role. It’s a progression that has helped me play more roles in my career and within the same game, even at Inter. After all, it’s more stimulating this way: it’s a way to constantly keep you thinking and set new targets.
I used to train every move, the ten-thousand-hour rule isn’t a science, but there’s some truth in it: I trained my left foot and my brain. The Ajax academy was incredible from this point of view: there, they make you grow up playing, giving you freedom, encouraging you in decision-making and technical moves. I knew how to read the game, I was just over 20 years old, but Koeman understood what I could give him, and he gave me the captain’s armband. I’d come a long way since I was carrying bags for the older guys.
Hard work pays off.
One of the treble-winning team’s secrets is right there: in what we did in training, every day. For a long time, I thought the sessions at Appiano Gentile were more complicated than the matches themselves. They were battles against incredible champions, training sessions that moulded our attitude and made Sunday’s matches a little easier.
The rapport of that group was fantastic. When I scored against Atalanta, with a great strike from distance, I managed to pull out another painful thorn. I was happy, and that situation calmed me down and paid back my belief. It wasn’t a trivial match either, it fell between the two legs against Barça, but the goal wasn’t celebrated with hysteria: everyone came to me, with pure joy. “You’re the one who deserves it most,” they told me. I had earned their respect, over time. I won’t forget that.
I know that if you’ve read this far, it’s because you want to know about the Treble. We weren’t obsessed with winning or losing everything: it was one step at a time, with humility and awareness. Without Kiev, nothing could’ve happened. Nor without Sampdoria vs. Roma, of course. I watched the first half: the Giallorossi completely dominated. Then I turned off the TV. I found out about Pazzini’s brace from texts on my phone.
When I think of the Camp Nou match, I laugh. I wasn’t expecting to go onto the pitch, I was quietly sat on a bench in the changing room. Someone came running in: “Pandev’s hurt, hurry up, warm up, you’re playing!” I went out alone, with over 90,000 people booing me for the whole warm-up. A nice way to settle in… Mourinho then told me I’d be playing up field in a 4-2-3-1. “No problem, I’ll play in goal if I have to.” And then, nowadays we can whisper it quietly, I practically played as a fifth defender on the left having to take care of Dani Alves. And talking of versatility: after Motta’s red card, I even played in a defensive midfield role. What a feat: for me, that Barcelona side is still one of the greatest teams ever.
It wasn’t just any old challenge, nor was the one with Robben in Madrid: they say that final gave me a headache. Obviously, I knew I’d have to deal with a champion: quick, skilful, imaginative. But, go and see the stats: has Arjen Robben scored a goal playing against Cristian Chivu? No. Great management, we had prepared it well, and we won.
I really gave it my all for Inter, so much so that I wear marks on my body. It was an unforgettable experience, both inside and out. Maybe the Nerazzurri fans have never seen me under the curva kissing the badge, but they’ve seen my sacrifices, my efforts to recover from injuries, to always make myself useful for the team and my teammates.
That’s what I’m trying to teach the Nerazzurri youngsters nowadays: you yourself have to choose your aims, and that striving for excellence has to come from within.
Time waits for no one. You have to make yourself ready, as best you can.
I did it, armed with a rubber headguard.