Some 25 years after making his professional debut, Francesco Antonioli is still going strong. Now 41, the goalkeeper's experience has been central to Cesena's surprise start to the Serie A campaign.
Top of the table after taking seven points from their opening three games, the newly-promoted outfit have yet to concede a goal, thanks in no small part to Antonioli’s reflexes. Aside from his inspirational efforts on the pitch, the veteran is something of a figurehead off it, symbolising the drive and determination of a squad comprising 18 foreigners from 14 different countries.
Although now in the twilight of a lengthy career, Antonioli is unaccustomed to big headlines. “I’m no expert in public relations and there’s no doubt that’s affected my media profile,” he explained, unconcerned by the fact that he has just started to win some praise that is long overdue. “All the same, I don’t regret anything because I never wanted to force myself to do that stuff.”
Over the last quarter of a century, Antonioli has turned out for nine different Italian clubs, serving as an understudy in the great AC Milan side of the late 1980s and early 1990s, before going on to win the Scudetto with Fabio Capello’s Roma in 2001. As fate would have it, Antonioli faced I Giallorossi and then the Milan giants in Cesena’s first two games back in the top flight, keeping two clean sheets as the new boys kicked off with a goalless draw and a shock 2-0 win respectively.
On the international front, he made 23 appearances for Italy’s U-21 side but never earned a cap for La Nazionale, despite being named third-choice goalkeeper in Italy’s UEFA EURO 2000 squad.
I really don’t feel my age. I’ve always had lots of get-up-and-go and passion. I’ve been able to extend my career because of the way I work and my lifestyle.
As far as his chequered career is concerned, however, the Monza-born custodian has no regrets, not even about the shoulder and cruciate knee ligament injuries that prevented him holding down a first-team place with the likes of Franco Baresi, Ruud Gullit and Marco van Basten at Milan. “I have positive memories of my experiences at big clubs,” he said, taking stock of it all. “They helped me grow as a man and as an athlete.”
Not even the subject of his 2003 departure from Roma, for whom he made 102 Serie A appearances, elicits anything in the way of bitterness. “Rome is city that can go from loving you to destroying you just like that,” Antonioli said. “Time puts everything in perspective, though. And after all, I’m not the only player who’s been through something like that.
“I’ve always had to prove I’ve been worth my place. I’ve deserved everything I’ve achieved in the game and I’ve only ever demanded one thing during my career: that people treat me right and are honest with me. As long as that’s the case, I’m not at all worried about having to compete with another goalkeeper.”
Talk of his veteran status brings a smile to Antonioli’s face. “I really don’t feel my age,” he revealed. “I’ve always had lots of get-up-and-go and passion. I’ve been able to extend my career because of the way I work and my lifestyle, and the experience I’ve acquired is also a tremendous asset.”
As the Cesena No1 knows only too well, the Serie A leaders still have many challenges ahead of them this season: “Everything depends on our mental approach. We need to summon up as much enthusiasm as we can every time we face a new adventure out on the pitch.”
Whatever happens, Antonioli is not contemplating hanging up his gloves just yet. “I’m not giving it any thought at the moment," he said. "We’ll see at the end of the season.”
When you consider that Dino Zoff, perhaps the greatest of Italian goalkeepers, collected a FIFA World Cup™ winner’s medal at the age of 40, Antonioli has every reason for wanting to delay his departure from the big stage.