The TGU Interview: Igor Protti – Livorno’s Footballing God

In a game where money speaks louder than loyalty, those whose names are inextricably linked to a club’s badge are treasured more than most. In Italian football, Diego Maradona at Napoli, Alessandro Del Piero at Juventus, Javier Zanetti at Internazionale, Francesco Totti at Roma and Paolo Maldini at AC Milan, all hold that honour.

The Gentleman Ultra’s Ramez Nathan spoke to another. One less known to the rest of the world but who remains a God on the west coast of Tuscany after guiding Livorno back to Serie A after 55 years in the wilderness.

Born and raised in the city of Rimini, Igor Protti’s obsession with the game started early. “I’ve been in love with football since I was a little kid, I actually used to take the ball with me to bed as a child.”

Young and brimming with hope, Protti made his professional debut for home club Rimini in 1983 at the age of 16 and soon attracted interest from a number of clubs including AC Milan. Yet, the youngster chose another path. “I had the opportunity to join Milan’s Primavera,” he admitted. “But I preferred to move to Livorno as I believed I would break into the first team quickly and that was a very important step in my career.”

He hit the ground running in the Primavera, scoring the winning goal in the last minute of the derby against Pisa. “I remember that goal really well, it’s how I fell in love with Livorno and its fans.” He added,  “It came in the 90th minute and we celebrated it as if we’ve won the Champions League, I’ll just never forget that moment.”

Protti soon joined the first team, but in 1988, off-field issues brought his spell to an end. “Unfortunately I had to leave Livorno, the club was going through financial crisis, they needed to sell me so I moved to Virescit Bergamo, it wasn’t what I wanted but I understood that the club had to let go of me.”

After a season at Virescit Bergamo he moved to Serie B club Messina where he bagged more than 30 goals over three seasons. In 1992, his next move saw him reunited with a familiar face: “After three years at Messina I moved to Bari in Serie B. There I reunited with Beppe Materazzi (father of Inter legend Marco). He was the man that gave me my first shot back at Rimini… he played a crucial role in my career.”

After two seasons, interrupted by a ruptured cruciate ligament, the 27-year-old helped Bari reach the top flight. But despite a solid debut campaign in Serie A, the directors made it clear he could leave the club. “We finished second in Serie B and managed to earn promotion. I scored seven goals in the first season and after that the club didn’t hold on to me that tight, they gave me a blank contract to sign.”

Determined to prove himself, Protti signed the contract. Incredibly, he scored 24 goals, topping the 1995/96 Capocannoniere chart alongside Beppe Signori, but Bari were still relegated. “The fact that we were relegated was enough to overshadow the achievement that I am the only player to win the Capocannoniere and get relegated.” He continued: “I had mixed feelings back then… it felt weird. However… when I scored those two goals on the final day against Juventus we received massive applause from all the fans in the stadium.”

lucarelli protti livorno

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The brace versus the Old Lady wasn’t his only shining moment. He fired long range screamers, bicycle kicks and was always a big match player. He netted another against Juventus earlier in the season, five against Lazio and a brace against Inter. “My game against Inter was my favorite because we ended up winning 4-1, the rest of those special moments… none of them resulted in a huge win.”

The following season, Protti joined Lazio to play alongside Signori under the attack-minded Coach Zdenek Zeman, but something didn’t click. “It took me a while to get into Lazio’s lineup, their style was different what I was used to playing, yet things changed after Dino Zoff took charge, I scored seven goals that season… one of them a crucial equalizer in the 90th minute of the Derby della Capitale while we were down to 10 men.”

Loan spells at Napoli and Reggiana (where he was relegated to Serie C1) followed but despite feeling wounded, Protti found enough inspiration to begin the most important chapter of his career. “Napoli and Reggiana were beautiful cities but It was a very tough period of my life. I believe what got me through it was the time I spent with my children and the memory of my father who passed away back in 1993, he never got the chance to see me play in Serie A, but I always remembered him, he was the man that taught me everything about life.”

That’s when Livorno boss Aldo Spinell gave him an offer he could not refuse. “I had much better offers in Italy and abroad, but in my first spell there I’ve promised the Livorno fans that I would get them to Serie B and I just had to fulfill that promise.”

In 2001/02, Livorno achieved that milestone after three tough seasons in which their talisman scored 11, 22 and 27 goals, twice becoming Capocannoniere. “After three years we finally made it back to Serie B and I remember scoring a late winner against Treviso, it was the goal that earned us promotion, it was a dream come true for me, the club and the fans.”

Protti took Serie B by storm, netting 23 goals to become one of only two players in history to win the Cappocannoniere in all top three divisions of Italian football. “It’s a great privilege! Being the Cappocannoniere twice in Serie C1, once in Serie B and once in Serie A, yet sometimes I ask myself – do top players play in Serie B and Serie C1?” He laughed. “Well as a young kid, I used to hear that there are strikers who only score in certain leagues under certain conditions, yet I managed to do it on all levels so I am proud of that.”

He had planned to retire at the end of the 2002/03 campaign but there was another twist. “After winning the Capocannoniere in Serie B but failing to get promoted I decided to retire, but thousands of fans protested that I should continue. The club signed Cristiano Lucarelli and a young promising coach, Walter Mazzarri, so I said why not give it another try?”

Incredibly, Protti and Lucarelli netted 20+ goals each and Livorno completed the miracle. “I was really lucky I decided to give it another shot, we took the club back to Serie A for the first time in 55 years,” he enthused. “Returning to Serie A was a dream I never even thought of, an unforgettable feeling, this club and these fans deserved to live that special moment and I was honored I helped them reach it.”

On his relationship with fellow striker Lucarelli, he explained: “I have a very strong relationship with Lucarelli, it’s bigger than football; we share a love for Livorno and the club badge. That love pushed us to the absolute limit on the pitch and in our season in Serie B we scored 53 goals – he netted 29, while I ended up with 24. This special bond between us is still there till this day and it’s even more than friendship.”

Protti played one more top flight season before he waved goodbye to Serie A, scoring on home soil against Scudetto winners Juventus. “It was exceptional, it was my last game, I received a special farewell by both Livorno and Juve fans – and I scored which made it even more beautiful. I was emotionally overwhelmed but I believe I made the right decision, at 38 it was the right time for me to retire.”  

The 51-year-old ended by sharing a few words on what Livorno, the club and city, means to him. “I have so much love for Livorno, they carry a very special place in my heart. Rimini is where I grew up, I consider the city like my mother, yet when I think about Livorno, it’s the city that I feel passion towards – it’s my true love.”

He concluded: “I did my very best for all the teams that I played for, but I played for nine years in Livorno, that’s what made them the most important club in my career and I have no words to describe the love that I have for that city.”

Words by Ramez Nathan: @RamezYNathan

Image: Livornocalcio.it