The A-Z of forgotten football heroes: L - Cristiano Lucarelli

For the first ten years of his career, Cristiano Lucarelli was the ultimate journeyman striker.

Eight clubs in eleven years, a respectable goal record at most of his clubs and at youth international level, and a single ill-fated expedition outside of Italy with Valencia left him with the Wikipedia page of every powerful centre-forward who just never quite found that one club where he clicked.

Lecce had looked to be that club, with Lucarelli joining at the age of 24 and scoring 27 goals in two years as the minnows beat off the threat of relegation in back-to-back seasons.

Instead, he took a step up to Torino and found himself out-of-sorts. Nine goals in his first season were followed by just one in his second, and by the time second-division Livorno came knocking for his services the following summer, it seemed his chance at the big time had passed him by.

Or at least, to the outside observer it might have seemed that way. Rather, this step down to Serie B was the moment Lucarelli had been waiting for his whole career, and the beginning of one of the most evocative love stories in Italian football history.

He had been sneaking away to Livorno games for years, wherever he had been playing. He was born in the city, and had the club crest tattooed on his left arm. His top flight wages weren't a problem - he slashed them in half, and returned home to play for the club in his heart.

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Asterix returns to the village

When a player 'gets' a club, beautiful things happen. Fans identify with that sort of player more than any other, and it's hard to think of any player who has symbolised the ethos of a club quite as well as Lucarelli.

Likened to the small Gaulish village holding out against Roman occupation in the Asterix comics, Livorno are a proudly Communist club in the traditionally right-wing arena of Italian football.

Cuban and Soviet flags flutter in the Tuscan breeze at the Stadio Armando Picchi, with fans deifying Guevara and Castro as much as any player in their distinctive maroon kit.

Lucarelli was as in tune with this as any player, born in the famously working-class area of Livorno known as 'Shanghai', and becoming one of the most notorious Communist footballers in recent memory.

Allegedly having the Socialist tune 'Red Flag' as his mobile phone ringtone, Lucarelli had attracted the ire of the media as a youngster playing for the Italian under-21 side. 

Playing and scoring at Livorno, he lifted his blue shirt to the heavens to reveal a Che Guevara undershirt, to the utter delight of the fans in the stadium. Elsewhere, it was not a popular move - ten goals in ten games for the under-21s didn't translate into a senior Italy appearance until he was 30 years old, by which time his form had made him impossible to ignore.

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A Livorno goal machine

That form came at Livorno. 29 goals in his first season at the club helped his new side finish third in Serie B and win promotion to the top flight, and 24 goals the following campaign helped them stay there.

More of a great goalscorer than a scorer of great goals, Lucarelli's dead-ball prowess nevertheless meant that his highlight reel is varied and impressive.

Tap-ins, looping free kicks, headers, long-range efforts; what stands out most about his goals is the bombastic nature of his finishing, Lucarelli a card-carrying member of the 'kick the ball really hard at the goal and see what the keeper does about it' school of goalscoring. 

His left-wing views came to the fore at the end of the 2004/05 season as he met with Guevara's daughter Aleida Guevara with a view to organising a Livorno charity game in Cuba, but the match never came together. 

A further two seasons brought a further 39 league goals, taking his tally to 92 in four years at the club. He loved the place, he loved the fans, and the fans loved him back - but then he ruined it all.

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Shakhtar move sours relations

For a man who chose a shirt number representing his hometown club's left-wing ultra's group, the newly oil-rich Shakhtar Donetsk seemed an unlikely destination. But in 2007, that's where Lucarelli went, earning €3.5 million a season for the pleasure.

Livorno's fans were outraged, and there were few tears shed when he returned to Italy with his tail between his legs, just one year and four goals later.

After two years with Parma, Lucarelli did pull on the Livorno shirt again, but the magic was largely gone and ten goals from their returning striker weren't enough to prevent the Amaranto from finishing bottom of Serie A

He spent the last two years of his career failing to make an impact at Napoli, before hanging up his boots at the age of 37. His 120 domestic strikes means he currently props up the top 50 all-time top goalscorers in the Italian top flight.

His long-term political blacklisting from the national team means that Lucarelli's name is never likely to be mentioned among the greats of the Italian game, but he was a centre forward of great passion and genuine talent. 

In an era where we are so relentlessly told not to mix sport and politics, Lucarelli's connection with his fellow Livorno fans - soured as it may have eventually been - is perhaps evidence for the opposite.


This is part of a regular feature series, 'The A-Z of Forgotten Football Heroes'. Check out last week's entry on Manchester City's favourite Georgian, here.