Making your debut is never easy. But as Cristiano Lucarelli started his first game for the Azzurrini, Italy’s under-21 side, he was in familiar surroundings.
Livorno was Lucarelli’s home. It is where he grew up and where his footballing and political identity was forged. As he capped an impressive debut with a goal, he wheeled away and lifted his shirt to reveal an image. One that perfectly reflected Lucarelli’s upbringing in Livorno. It was an image of Che Guevara.
The Shanghai area of Livorno (yes Livorno not China) is a working-class neigbourhood that was built during the fascist regime. It also serves as a gathering point for Livorno ultras and epitomises Livornese culture. It is also where Lucarelli grew up – a football mad suburb rooted in socialism. This socialism has been central to the identity of the city for centuries.
In the 16th century, the Medici family, who ruled the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, oversaw plans that ensured Livorno became the principal port in the region. This transformation, combined with the introduction of a set of laws known as the Leggi Livornine — which welcomed merchants from across the world — made Livorno a cultural melting pot. This multicultural and eclectic influence gave the city its motto ‘Of many peoples one’.
Given its history it was no surprise that in 1921, when Italy was moving away from distrusted centre parties towards extremes on both ends of the political scale, the Italian Communist Part was formed in Livorno. It cemented Livorno as a bastion of the far-left, a status which has endured to this day. It was during this period that Livorno’s stadium was built. Initially named the Stadio Edda Ciano Mussolini, after Benito Mussolini’s daughter, the stadium was one of multiple examples of the Fascist regime putting their stamp on an area that had been so opposed to the Fascist movement in the 1920s. It was eventually renamed the Stadio Armando Picchi after their former player who made his name as part of the Grande Inter side of the 1960s.
Lucarelli’s father, a trade unionist, passed down the city’s ideology to Cristian and his brother Alessandro. The brothers spent their childhood playing football in the streets of Shanghai, with worn out clothes and shoes, in keeping with their tough upbringing.
By a young age, Cristiano was not only a talented footballer, he was entrenched in the left-wing views of the city and understood the Livornese psyche. But despite his love of the city and AS Livorno, in 1992, aged just 17, he moved away to pursue a professional career.
Playing for the likes of Atalanta and Valencia, Lucarelli emerged as a promising young forward. But while you can take the boy out of Livorno, you can’t take Livorno out of the boy. His views became more extreme during his time away from Tuscany. He started to forge links with the newly founded ultra group, Brigate Autonome Livornesi (BAL), formed out of the banned left-wing ultra group Armata Stalinista, and several other left leaning fan groups which united the Curva Nord at the Stadio Armando Picchi. During a mixed spell at Torino, Lucarelli would travel back to Livorno to watch games in the Curva with the fans. However, a move back to his beloved team seemed unlikely.
While Lucarelli established himself as a Serie A striker, his home town were languishing in Serie B. But the lure proved too strong and in the summer of 2003, he returned home. He took a reported 50% pay cut and declared his passion for Livorno in words that have gone down in the club’s history.
Some players buy themselves a Ferrari or yacht with a billion lire; I just bought myself a Livorno shirt.
Wearing the number 99 shirt, a tribute to BAL, formed in 1999, Lucarelli enjoyed a dream first season for the Amaranto. Playing as a powerful forward, he led his boyhood side to Serie for the first time in 55 years.
Formed in 1915, AS Livorno had struggled throughout their history apart from a seven-year period in the 1940s when they maintained their top flight status and even finished second (in 1943) behind the legendary Il Grande Torino. Livorno had been the typical provincial club.
Now back in the top flight, the city partied and Lucarelli was the face of Livorno’s rise. The Amaranto’s captain was perfect for the role. He had previously been a member of BAL. He strongly believed in the left-wing ideology which dominated in the Curva. And with a Livorno badge tattooed on his left arm, he fought for the cause of the ultras.
Communist symbols such as the red star and the hammer and sickle have been a used by Livorno’s ultras for decades. Famously, a banner was unveiled on the Curva Nord to celebrate the birthday of former Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin.
Fashion has also been important in building the identity of Livorno’s ultras. Green, guerrilla-styled military jackets and army-style caps are often worn on the Curva, denoting their militaristic style and outlook. Communist anthems such as Bella Ciao, a popular Partisan song during the Second World War, are often sung, as well as jibes aimed towards the current day politicians in Rome. It was these beliefs and values that Lucarelli sought to defend, especially now that they were exposed to the mainstream spotlight of Serie A.
Controversy came in many forms during Lucarelli’s time at Livorno. Once, he allegedly paid the bail and transport fees for some Livorno ultras arrested on an away day for rioting. And he received a €30,000 fine for celebrating a goal in front of the Curva Nord with the left fist raised – the communist salute.
On another occasion, he was forced to retract a statement about officials in Serie A in which he suggested Livorno were victims of poor refereeing decisions because they are communists. And he famously had the left-wing anthem, Bandiera Rossa, as his ringtone.
Lucarelli was ridiculed for his actions and views. He maintains had he kept his views to himself, he would have played more for Italy. But this mattered little to the Livornesi. He was one of their own. He was openly political, a Livornese trait, and revelled in the city’s underdog status. This was clear to see during Livorno’s first match back in Serie A.
When the fixtures were drawn for the 2004/05 Serie A season, one game stood out in Round One: minnows Livorno would travel to giants AC Milan. This was more than an underdog story.
Milan were backed by media tycoon and national president, Silvio Berlusconi. A symbol of populist politics, he was the antithesis of everthing Livorno and Lucarelli believed in. Around 10,000 Livorno fans arrived at the San Siro to see their side pull off a shock 2-2 draw. But the day was about more than the result – the ultras had planned a stunt that would go done in Livorno folklore.
In the summer leading up to the new Serie A season, Berlusconi had been embarrassed when photos of him wearing a bandana while entertaining British Prime Minister Tony Blair went viral. He was hiding a hair transplant. In response, 4,000 custom made bandanas were made by Livorno’s ultras for the game which had the inscription “Silvio, we are coming.”
Aside from the teasing and taunting, Livorno continued to shock the big boys. In the following two seasons, with the help of Lucarelli, they finished in the top half of Serie A. And in 2004/05, Lucarelli finished as Serie A’s Capocannoniere. It was an extraordinary feat for a striker playing for a newly promoted side. Following the events of Calciopoli in the summer of 2006, Livorno were promoted to the UEFA Cup and the ultras were going to make sure they were heard.
Drawn in a group with Rangers, Auxerre, FK Partizan, and Maccabi Haifa, the ultras highlighted the home match against Maccabi Haifa of Israel for action. Before the game, an open letter was sent to all fans requesting they all bring Palestinian flags to the ground. The Picchi was a sea of anti-Israel banners and it was fitting that their heroic captain Lucarelli scored on the night. Previously, Livorno’s ultras had supported the IRA and Irish nationalism, another example of their strong left-wing ideology. Although it was rooted in their local history, Livorno’s ultras were fully aware of the global left-wing movement and wanted to demonstrate their solidarity with like-minded groups.
A season in Europe should have been the crowning achievement of Lucarelli’s time at his hometown side. But it would prove to be the catalyst for a dramatic breakup.
Livorno were forced to play their UEFA Cup knockout tie against Espanyol behind closed-doors due to security fears. It led to a row between Lucarelli, who was once again backing the ultras, and the club hierarchy. Incredibly, just weeks later, Lucarelli would find himself in hot water once again, this time with the people who he shared so much with, the fans.
A 0-0 draw against Reggina in April pulled Livorno into the tightest Serie A relegation battle in the modern era. Amazingly, the ultras accused Lucarelli of match fixing. It was especially shocking given the ramifications of Calciopoli were still being felt.
The breakdown in relationship between icon, fans and club became untenable. In the summer of 2007, Lucarelli moved on. He had rejected many advances during his time in Livorno from teams across Europe who had offered vast amounts of money. His love for Livorno had been too strong but now it was not enough. His next destination was both surprising and fitting.
In Ukraine, Shakhtar Donetsk emerged as a major football power. In 2002, they had won their first top-flight title under Italian Nevio Scala. And now, with the backing of rich owner, Rinat Akhmetov, and with former Inter coach Mircea Lucescu at the helm, the club could offer Lucarelli €12 million a year, a huge increase on his Livorno wage. The player became part of a €60 million summer spending spree designed to knock Dynamo Kiev off their perch.
Livorno’s ultras were in grief. Messages appeared across the city expressing their anger. How could their talisman leave the club he loved to join a club backed by a capitalist oligarch?
Yet the Donbass region was still deeply rooted in its communist past and still a predominately working-class area. Lucarelli also just wanted to be normal. It appeared the relationship between himself and the ultras had taken a heavy psychological toll. So when his short and unsuccessful spell in Ukraine ended, it was no surprise he did not return to Livorno but instead joined his brother at Parma.
A relegation from Serie A followed before the chance of a dream return home materialsed. Back on loan, Lucarelli was welcomed back with open arms by the ultras. The prodigal son had returned. His task, to save Livorno from the drop.
Even though he played regularly and scored 10 goals, Lucarelli could not achieve the impossible and Livorno were relegated. It hit him hard. He took it personally. He was in his mid-30s and knew it was likely to be his last chance to play at the top level for his club. With the club in financial trouble, a repeat of 2003 where he moved down a division and took a significant pay cut was out of the question. Instead, his last two years as a professional were spent at Napoli. It felt like a flat ending to a local hero’s career. But the love affair with his city and club did not end there.
I am very happy to be back but forget Lucarelli the player.
In typically dramatic fashion, Lucarelli sealed his return to Livorno at midnight. In the summer of 2018, after spells coaching in the Italian lower leagues at the likes of Messina and Catania, he became the new head coach of the club. He was still a fan, but aimed to be more emotionally detached in his new role. However, some things never change.
He is still out-spoken. His ideology is still clear. When asked if there are any negatives to Juventus buying Cristiano Ronaldo, he stated that the Bianconeri were at risk of become “bourgeois”.
Statements like these perhaps overshadow how good a footballer Lucarelli was. He is Livorno’s all-time top scorer in Serie A with 75 goals. And his outstanding 2004/05 campaign marked the pinnacle of his career, leading a provincial side into Europe, albeit with a bit of luck.
In Italy, he won a Lega Pro title with Perugia and a Coppa Italia with Napoli, while abroad he bagged a Copa Del Rey and Intertoto Cup with Valencia, plus a domestic double with Shakhtar.
A typically strong No. 9, he was a team player, providing a reference point for his comrades. He bullied defenders and was deceptively quick over 10 yards. Most importantly, he knew where the ball would arrive in the box and was a clinical finisher.
But Lucarelli was more than just a footballer. A leader on and off the pitch, he is a true Livornese – a symbol of the club, the city and its ideology. A working-class hero, Cristiano Lucarelli will forever be the bearer of Livorno’s Bandiera Rossa.
Words by Richard Hinman: @RichardHinman