What hurts more: a defeat or tearing your cruciate ligament?
I’ve got a personal record of undergoing surgery on nine occasions. My knees and legs bear the scars of the injuries that dictated my career, that changed my characteristics as a player. They made me lose power, speed and explosivity. They made me worse.
But let me tell you. The wounds to my heart are the most painful of all. That excruciating pain of tearing a ligament passes, even though it may leave behind irreparable damage. But the regret of certain occasions never fades, it always comes back, it’s a pin that pricks you deep inside and makes you say: we came so close.
My mother’s a philosophy professor. It was her hammer that forged me: things can happen to hurt you, but you have to focus on the future. It’s not easy, however, when you lose your dad aged 20. But in those dark days, once again, I cemented the foundations and structure of my life and career, and vowed to be stronger than injuries and defeats.
Never lose heart, because when faced with infinite adversity there's only one weapon that counts: positivity.
Everyone has an innate ability. In my house, everyone managed to graduate – and I went on to do so too, at my own pace – but when my brother took me to a football pitch for the first time, I fell in love with the ball right away. Then the stadium: first the Stadio della Vittoria, then the Stadio San Nicola. I took on my family’s passion as a Bari fan and a young footballer for their youth teams.
1994 was an incredible year. 16 years old, and in the final of the Allievi Nazionali. Bari vs. Brescia, we were facing one of the best teams with boys who everyone was talking about at the time: Roberto Baronio, Emiliano Bonazzoli, Andrea Pirlo. I scored a header in the seventh minute, then we put every man behind the ball and won the title as champions of Italy with an all-out defence. Our team was truly a strong one, and two years later we would go on to win the Torneo di Viareggio.
I was already training with the first team. On 6 November 1994, Beppe Materazzi, Marco’s father and Bari coach at the time, took me to Florence and put me on the bench. We lost 2-0 but he sent me on towards the 90th minute: a Serie A debut at the age of 16. I was being marked by a Brazilian defender: Marcio Santos. I had spent the summer cheering on Italy at the USA ’94 World Cup, I knew full well who Santos was. A world champion with Brazil, the only taker whose penalty was saved by Pagliuca in Pasadena. I came on and he immediately gave me a welcome kick. Well, I told my friends about that kick for weeks. I would go up to them and say: “Boys, Marcio Santos kicked me!” It was pure happiness.
It was the most beautiful period, a time in which I was providing and living the dream of every young boy: I was playing for the team I had grown up with, the team I loved. I went down in Bari’s history with the goal to get us promoted, the goal to take us back up to Serie A. My career was taking off, then I hit my first hurdle against Empoli after a challenge with Baldini.
Suddenly all that enthusiasm disappeared, and it was fear that replaced it. We didn’t have the technology we have today, I had no idea what my future held.
“What if the dream is over?”, I asked myself.
The dream was not over, instead a path to recovery began that I would go on to walk so many times. The same one that saw me complete so many long isokinetic sessions at Casteldebole. One day I couldn’t take it anymore, I wanted to know where I was: I went and bought a beach ball and began to just dribble. I missed the pitch.
It was the 1997/98 season and I came back just in time to... score against Inter, a vital goal to help us stay up, but one that didn’t matter for the Nerazzurri’s title charge. A significant goal: I was back to being a footballer and I’d made my mark against Inter.
Ronaldo, Baggio, Recoba, Zamorano, Kanu, Pirlo, Kallon. When they told me I was going to Inter I thought: “Am I going to be their eighth choice striker?” I tiptoed in, asked for the number 78 and the Club offered me the number 11 shirt. Then I understood: Ronaldo 9, Baggio 10, Ventola 11. They were really putting their faith in me!
I made my debut against Skonto Riga in Pisa: goal. We then faced Cagliari away in the league and we were down 2-0: myself and Pirlo came on to replace Baggio and Djorkaeff. I scored an unforgettable brace, I’ll honestly never forget that game. 2-2.
I got off to a great start at Inter. And it was fun training with Ronaldo. He used to outpace everyone. And then he’d laugh and joke about it, he didn’t take himself too seriously. He’d often tease Colonnese and West: “Close your legs, I’ll nutmeg you.” He warned them, but he’d slot it through their legs anyway.
At the end of one session he got it in his head that I should take free kicks. I told him: “Ronnie, we’ve got you, Baggio, Djorkaeff, I’ve never taken a free kick in my life.” He insisted, he wanted to try a routine, or rather just a joke. He would run up, fake with his right and backheel it to me with his left. It was funny.
I was 20 years old, I was at San Siro and it was a Champions League game: Inter vs. Spartak Moscow. Free kick, Ronnie came up to me and said: “Nick, shall we do it?”. “Are you mad?” I replied. “No, no, let’s do it. Get ready.” Spare a thought for Filimonov, Spartak’s goalkeeper, who was getting ready to face a free kick from Ronaldo. He took his run-up, faked a shot, touched it to me, I struck it with my right and it flew straight into the top corner.
Can you believe it? I couldn't at the time, and I couldn't help letting out a little laugh.
Philosophy has always served me well and it continues to do so today. I was about to fulfil my deepest desire, wearing the shirt of my National Team. Zoff had already called me up for Italy vs. Switzerland in Udine, the game where Totti made his debut. I remained on the bench, and for our final change the Coach brought on Bachini to play in front of his fans from Udine. Then he approached me and said: “Nicola, you’ll start against Spain in Salerno.” Inter vs. Sampdoria, 15 November 1998. I flopped like a fish, I don’t want to think back to it: an injury to my ligaments, the end to my season, my chance with the National Team gone.
You’re strong the first time you get hurt, you want to race through recovery. The second time everything becomes even harder.
I went out on loan to Bologna, but it was a bad period. My father was sick, and my thoughts always turned back to him. I got injured three more times, twice to the meniscus and once with my ankle.
Don’t give in. Get up. Go again.
Two years away from Milan, then I returned, back at a hundred miles an hour on the most incredible of adventures, one with Cuper, with Ronaldo, Vieri, Recoba and Kallon. The Coach asked the forwards to work hard for the team: Mimmo and I were perfect, we complemented each other, we felt important in a group that was waiting for its star players to return.
I’ll never forget the spirit, soul and heart that I put into that period, and I don’t think that Inter’s fans will forget that either.
At 24 years old, having missed out on the Scudetto, I found myself at my lowest point. I had a problem with the cartilage in my knee. No one in Italy wanted to operate on me. I saw the end approaching fast. Then the enlightenment. Professor Steadman was going to Monte Carlo for a conference. I had arthroscopic surgery in Italy with the sole aim of recording a videotape of my knee. I went to Monte Carlo with the tape in my hand, waiting for Steadman to finish his conference. I showed it to him, he looked at it and said: “70%.”
I had a 70% chance of returning to football. Inter were always by my side, they were exceptional. The operation in the United States got me back on my feet, but I wasn’t the same player anymore. I had lost flexibility and speed. But I hadn’t lost my bad fortune: a teammate’s challenge in training for Crystal Palace fractured my fibula.
Over the years, I learned to manage my body, to never complain, to always look forward with a smile on my face. And joy is what myself, Vieri and other former Nerazzurri teammates are trying to bring to those staying at home during this current period. It costs us nothing, we have fun and entertain others in the process.
When we think back to Valencia 0-1 Inter and my goal, the siege we were under, Toldo’s sending-off and Farinos putting on goalkeeper gloves that were miles too big for him, all we can do is laugh. Later on, I experienced the same difficulties as poor Francisco when I ended up in goal for Torino against Lazio. It’s best if you don’t watch my attempt to save Zarate’s penalty.