Wednesday, December 3 rd, 2014
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ALS and football: how Serie A players died before the Ice Bucket Challenge
Many Italian footballers who played in the 70's and 80's suffered of this misterious syndrome. Stefano Borgonovo, who formed an amazing attacking duo with Baggio at Fiorentina, said for the first time that it was not a random occurrence
by Anthony Pepe
Global audiences have recently been witnessing a spate of international media personalities, from NBA superstar LeBron James, to President George W. Bush via Russell Brand having a bucket of ice cold water dunked over their head in ‘support’ of research into Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).

ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease was made notorious by the eponymous New York Yankees baseball player who died in 1941. This disease seems to have an abnormally large effect on professional athletes as not only did baseball Hall of Famer Gehrig suffer, but so did three teammates from the 1964 team of the San Francisco 49ers, all three passed away in the late 80’s diagnosed with ALS. The disorder has been ‘famous’ internationally ever since these high profile cases, however, one of the largest clusters of sufferers of the syndrome in recent times are Italian ex-professional football players who played in Serie A during the 70's and the 80’s.

Controversy over the possibility of doping swirls around the debate as to why such an inordinate number of ex-footballers seem to suffer from the syndrome, controversy which is fed by the fact that such rumours about Italian football existed long before the appearance of this pattern. Medically speaking, the cause of the disease remains unknown.

There have been geographical ‘hot spots’ of the disease before, but what makes the case remarkable in Italy is that there is a known occupational ‘hot spot’ and it’s professional football. The procurator of Turin, Raffaele Guariniello, conducted an inquest between 2004 and 2008 which found that there were 51 cases of ALS from the sample of 30,000 Italian footballers examined. Guariniello hypothesised that the elevated prevalence of the disease within one small occupational sphere shows that there is a definite link between the two.

Gianluca Signorini (1960 - 2002), centre back and Genoa captain and icon, played all over Italy during the 1980’s, for Pisa and Prato, Livorno and Parma, Roma and Genoa. He settled in on the Ligurian coast, playing over 200 games for the oldest club in Italy and becoming a fan favourite. He retired from professional football in 1997 at the same club he started with, Pisa, becoming assistant coach. He was the first high profile ex-footballer to be diagnosed with ALS and he sadly died in 2002. His number 6, which he wore proudly at Genoa, was retired and a stand has been named after him at the Stadio Garibaldi of Pisa. For reasons which shall remain ever private, Signorini neither publically campaigned nor deliberately raised awareness about ALS, this coinciding with the relatively short period of illness before he died meant that ALS had not yet become a cause célèbre in Italy.

This changed with Stefano Borgonovo (1964 - 2013). A more famous player than Signorini, Borgonovo played during the exact same time frame, for clubs such as Como, Fiorentina, Milan and Udinese. Borgonovo scored in a European Cup semi-final, winning the trophy as part of the legendary Milan managed by Arrigo Sacchi; he also represented Italy on a few occasions. He is best remembered for his first spell at Fiorentina, where he was Roberto Baggio’s strike partner; the duo was nicknamed B2, after the WWII bomber.

In 2008 Borgonovo revealed that he, like many other footballers, was suffering from ALS and he helped to bring into focus the fact that this was not a random occurrence. In the time that Signorini announced his illness to Borgonovo’s announcement, several other players of similar ages had passed away due to ALS, such as Lauro Minghelli (who died tragically young, aged 31), Adriano Lombardi (who both played and managed in the 1980’s) and Albano Canazza (who also died very young, aged 38). One of the first Italian footballers (but not the first) to fatally suffer from ALS was Serie A champion Giorgio Rognoni, he too played in the 1980’s, and sadly died three years after he retired, aged 39; a pattern had not yet been recognised at this time.

The mediatisation of the illness in Italy is thanks to the work put in by Borgonovo himself, his best friend in football Roberto Baggio and ex-clubs such as Fiorentina and Milan. It has been frequently speculated in Italy that this illness has been encouraged by the use of performance enhancing drugs taken by many Italian footballers during the 70's and 80’s. As previously mentioned, the fact that doping has been a problem in all sports since the day competition was invented and is known to have taken place in the arena of football in Italy in the 1980’s and 1990’s (and before and likely after, it is a global issue that has seemingly been successfully hushed up) has led many to see it as the direct cause of the disease. This, Borgonovo refutes in the strongest possible terms. In his autobiography ‘Attaccante nato’ (Born striker), which he wrote by controlling a computer with his eyes, he stated: “My carcass is clean and always has been. The Bitch (note: La Stronza, the name he gave his illness) may have moved in, but it’s not tainted with rust and it’s never been doped. There’s a shadow hanging over my photograph, but it was invented by others, ruthless hypocrites. They used to weigh up the symptoms and then kept on whispering: Borgonovo’s on drugs, you know.”

To return to the investigation led by Torino procurator Guariniello. As no causal link was ever established between doping and ALS (nor has it been proven that any of the sufferers were ever doped), another avenue of exploration was the possibility that the chemical pesticides used by some clubs in the grass on the pitch may have been a trigger. This, combined with a genetic predisposition for the illness, may have been the cause of the far higher prevalence of the disease within the circle of Italian footballers. In any case, certain more recent Italian players such as Fabio Cannavaro and Gianluigi Buffon had commented that it was a very worrying thought for them, how many more may be affected in the coming years. The only fact we know about ALS is that “where no family history of the disease is present – i.e., in around 90% of cases – there is no known cause for ALS.”

Stefano Borgonovo can at least say that he contributed to the fight, he started a research foundation, raised awareness of the disease not only in Italy but throughout European football, raised significant amounts of money through charity matches and told his story to the world. One of his final acts was to make a stand against doping in football, before finally succumbing to the illness in June 2013, another young man, aged 49.

Thursday, September 11 th, 2014
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