“Life belongs to the living, and he who lives must be prepared for changes” – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
How does a quote from an 18th century German writer and statesman correlate with a lower league Italian football player you ask? Well, this is the story of Francesco Bertolotti and his fight to live, adapt and cope with the changes that affected his life.
Bertolotti was born in 1967 in Blackburn (England) before moving to Italy at a young age. His parent’s choice of residence was Parma, a city in Italy’s northern region of Emilia-Romagna. As a youngster, Bertolotti signed for local club Parma, where he made his first team debut during the 1984-85 season in Serie B, playing three games for the Crociati. The season ultimately ended in relegation and for Bertolotti, that was as high as his career would take him, as life in the lower echelons of Italian football beckoned.
A series of loan moves to clubs in Serie C1 and C2 (Italy’s third and fourth tiers) followed, as well as a job installing heating boilers to supplement his earnings. In June 1990, Bertolotti earned a permanent move to Serie D side, Unione Sportiva Brescello. Bortolotti became a cult hero at Brescello, winning promotion to Serie C2 in his first season at the club. His combative, all-action style made him a fans favourite, which was cemented further in the 1995-96 season when Bortolotti and Brescello made it to the heady heights of Serie C1. A season later, Bortolotti was paired in the centre of midfield with 23 year old Massimiliano Ferrigno, a player he was to meet again with devastating consequences a few years later.
After a decade at Brescello – which included 316 appearances and 48 goals – Bertolotti made the move to Modena in a bid to help the club reach Serie B after a three-year absence. The move was to have a profound effect on Bertolotti, Brescello and Modena.
The 2000-01 Serie C1 campaign got off to a good start and the 33 year old Bertolotti was an ever present in the heart of the Modena midfield. On 19 November 2000, the Gialloblu made the trip to picturesque city of Como and the Stadio Giuseppe Sinigaglia. It was a top of the table clash and with so much at stake, a typically feisty affair.
Bertolotti was in the thick of this heated action and after a tackle by Como captain and former team-mate Massimiliano Ferrigno left Bertolotti in a heap, Ferrigno accused Bertolotti of over-reacting. A scuffle broke out which culminated in Ferrigno striking Bertolotti and rightly receiving a red card. Despite having a man advantage, Modena lost the game 1-0.
After the game, events took a tragic turn for the worse and the life of Francesco Bertolotti would never be the same again. After the usual media obligations were fulfilled, Bertolotti returned to the Modena changing room to collect his bags before heading to the bus for the journey home.
But this journey would never happen as Bertolotti was confronted by Ferrigno once again, still incensed by his sending off. A heated argument took place and Ferrigno resorted to violence, hitting Bertolotti with an uppercut that sent the Modena midfielder crashing to the floor, striking his head on the way down. Ferrigno turned and walked away leaving Bertolotti unconscious on the floor, whilst two of his Modena team-mates desperately called for help. An ambulance took the still unconscious Bertolotti to a local hospital but the situation rapidly deteriorated and the man from Blackburn was quickly transferred to Lecco hospital as he battled for his life.
A three-hour emergency operation began; Bertolotti had two hematomas on his brain and had suffered a brief heart attack too. Francesco spent the next week in a medically induced coma as they battled to save his life. After seven days, he was brought back to consciousness and after extensive tests, it was confirmed Francesco had suffered no permanent damage to his brain.
Bertolotti’s career, however, was finished. After such an injury – and the lasting effects of the medical procedures that were needed to save his life – playing a contact sport was out of the question. Bertolotti had a metal plate inserted into his skull, so heading a ball or even a simple knock could have catastrophic results. As Francesco explained himself “The doctor who operated on me said, if you take a hit on the head, you will be back here in the same conditions as before.”
Ironically – and somewhat cruelly – both Modena and Como were promoted to Serie B. Francesco’s chance to return to the division where it all began some 16 years previous had been robbed from him by a deplorable moment of violence. To rub salt into the wound, Bertolotti’s former club Brescello were relegated to Serie C2.
As for Como captain Massimilano Ferrigno, he was banned from football for three years. Only some last-minute plea bargaining saved him from serving ten months in prison. He returned for one season with Como and then moved to Perugia where he terminated his contract and retired. In 2011, he founded the group HS Marketing, which specialises in sports marketing.
A compensation package for Bertolotti was finally agreed in 2008, although the player himself admits it was not worth as much as if he had continued playing. “If I had played the following year in Modena,” he said, “I would have earned more than what the lawyers agreed.”
A return to working life awaited Francesco. Unlike the top players of Serie A, his wages were minimal and unable to retire, he returned to his previous career of mending and servicing boilers. Bertolotti may not have read Goethe, but subconsciously he certainly seemed to heed the German’s words, reflecting on the tumultuous events of his career by saying: “Now I am alive to tell this crazy story. And it is important to continue to live and to change to the situation.”
After all, as Mr.Goethe wrote, “Life belongs to the living, and he who lives must be prepared for changes”
Words by Mark Neale: @neale_mark
Mark is an Italian and Dutch football enthusiast. He writes for @GentlemanUltra and created @sempre_bari, the account for all thing FC Bari in English.