Tumour-free Mondonico makes emotional Serie A return

It feels good to see Emiliano Mondonico back in Serie A. It really does. Hearing on Monday afternoon that he is to replace Attilio Tesser at Novara brought a smile to many faces.

Not because there was any ill feeling toward his predecessor – not at all. Tesser had masterminded Novara’s historic return to Serie A after 55 years in the lower leagues, and for that the fans are forever grateful. But with the team seven points adrift from safety, it’s time now to fight for survival, and Mondonico is nothing if not a survivor.

A year ago this week, he reluctantly stepped down from his position at second division Albinoleffe. It was temporary, he insisted: “I hope to be back within two games, maybe even before.” Mondonico, to everyone’s surprise, was to undergo surgery.

The 64-year-old wasn’t checking into hospital for a routine hip, knee or ankle operation to ease the pain caused by an old injury from his playing days with Cremonese, Torino, Monza and Atalanta. He had a tumour in his stomach, and not just any tumour. It was huge. When Professor Novellino removed it at the Seriate hospital near Bergamo, the tumour weighed 5kg.

Anxious for updates on his boss’s condition, Daniele Fortunato, a member of Mondonico’s backroom staff then acting as Albinoleffe’s caretaker manager, paid a visit to his mentor’s bedside. He found Mondonico in high spirits, watching Inter play on TV. Apparently the tumour wasn’t aggressive. It wasn’t attached to any major organs. It wasn’t cancer, he said. “There’s a subtle but fundamental difference,” noted Mondonico before explaining his medical predicament as if he were distinguishing zonal from man-marking to one of his players.

“Beating it, eradicating it, was possible. We did it,” he told Il Corriere della Sera. Marco Bernardini, the journalist sent to interview Mondonico, noted that he used the plural. “Life’s a team game,” he quipped. “My life, that is. There’s me, naturally, and the surgeons who operated on me.

“After opening me up, they had the courage not to close me up again without having taken away that sick mass of fat and dead flesh. It seemed like there was nothing they could do; that it would be all be useless. Instead, they dared to do the impossible.”

To general amazement, Mondonico resumed his place on the bench 30 days later for Albinoleffe’s match against Modena. As he walked out of the tunnel, everyone in the Stadio Atleti Azzurri d’Italia stood up and applauded. He looked gaunt after losing so much weight, but the pointed black eyebrows and grey moustache were still there twitching mischievously. Football was his therapy. “By going into training every day, every kick that I gave the ball was the equivalent of kicking that beast in the face. I’m not saying that in this case it substituted medicine,” Mondonico claimed, “but I still like to think that inside.”

The road to recovery, though, was a long one, and there were many twists and turns still to come. Albinoleffe struggled and were required to win a relegation play-off match against Piacenza to stay in Serie B. Mondonico saved them, of course.

But as the full time whistle blew and the supporters rejoiced, a tear streamed down his face. Mondonico needed to save himself again. The tumour had returned. He had put off another operation for 15 days until Albinoleffe were safe. “For me, a new season starts,” he said. Visibly emotional, Mondonico had to leave the press conference for a moment to pull himself together. On returning, he let it be known: “I don’t feel defeated.” This was not the end of the world – the fine del Mondo.

For the sake of his health, he finally left Albinoleffe. This was to be the toughest game of Mondonico’s life. The second surgery, to everyone’s relief, was hailed a success. “Cancer,” he told Il Corriere della Sera, “is like the monster in Alien which has by now completed its awful work of devastation. The sarcoma I had in my belly was certainly a foul beast but not yet a winner.”

Talking shop with then Fiorentina manager Giovanni Trapattoni in 1999

At his age and faced with his situation, many of us would have retired. There are more important things in life than football like friends and family. Except that’s exactly what it represents to Mondonico. “Football is my best friend,” he told La Stampa. 

It wasn’t too long before he was pacing up and down the sidelines, ball under one arm, whistle between his pursed lips. He was offered the chance to take an Italian XI to the University Games in China, but it was too early. Instead, once a week during his convalescence at his home in Rivolta d’Adda, Mondonico went to a psychiatric institute where he benevolently coached groups of men and women with addictive disorders, from drugs and alcohol to gambling. Football had helped him recover, so why not others?

“When there’s a desperate team, they’ll still call Mondonico and I’ll be there,” he told La Gazzetta dello Sport. On Monday 30 January, 2012, Novara president Massimo De Salvo duly picked up the phone.

NEWS, Jan 31: Mondonico replaces Tesser as Novara boss

“I’ve come full circle,” Mondonico said. “On January 31, 2011 I went into the operating theatre for the first time. Exactly a year later I return to do what I’ve always done in life. I’m sorry for Tesser, who throughout these difficult times was always close to me. But football, and life, are made up of these things.”

What Novara will get from Mondonico is pane e salame [bread and salami]: good, honest, wholesome football, the genuine kind with a dashing of experience too. Mondonico has taken charge of 915 games as a coach. He guided Atalanta to a Cup Winners’ Cup semi-final in 1988, and inspired Torino to the 1992 UEFA Cup Final.

Then came the proudest of his five promotions to Serie A, achieved with Fiorentina in 2004. That had a special taste. Why? Because he is a fan of the Viola. Check the records of the 7 Bello ultras of the Curva Fiesole and they’ll tell you that member No.72, registered in 1987, is Emiliano Mondonico.

Above all else, though, he is famous for what he did in that 1992 UEFA Cup final. Playing Louis van Gaal’s Ajax, Torino hit the woodwork three times, and when the referee denied Roberto Cravero a penalty, Mondonico rose from his chair and held it aloft. It became a provocative symbol of protest against the injustice of it all. When Torino fans heard Mondonico had fallen ill a year ago, they arranged a meeting at the Stadio Olimpico and each had a photo taken of them holding up chairs. It was a sign of solidarity and gave their hero the courage to win the game of his life.

In Novara on Thursday, Mondonico will make his first appearance in Serie A for seven and a half years, against Chievo. It promises to be emotional.

As he drives to the Stadio Piola, one wonders what song this great music lover will play in his car. As a player at Cremonese, he once deliberately got himself sent off so he could miss an away trip in order to see the Rolling Stones in concert.

Wild Horses would perhaps be a good choice now, as not even they, it seems, could drag Mondonico away from football.