It was summer 2014, and social media was going wild with people tipping buckets of ice over their heads in the name of charity. The viral internet sensation – pounced upon by celebrities – was perceived by some to be a self-congratulatory exercise, but there is no doubting the impact it had for the ALS Association.
The fuss surrounding the Ice Bucket Challenge inevitably died down, but Cristiano Ronaldo – one of the celebrities who took part – had obviously not forgotten about the disease. When Portugal made it to the Euro 2016 final, the Real Madrid star decided to invite the widow of ex-Fiorentina and Milan attacker Stefano Borgonovo.
“I could not believe my ears when Jorge Mendes called me the other day and told me that Ronaldo wanted me to come to Paris,” Chantal Borgonovo replied when asked about the gesture. “Cristiano and Jorge have always been very close to my family and I am happy and grateful that they continue to remember my husband and support us in our fight against ALS.”
Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also called motor neurone disease or Lou Gehrig’s disease, causes the death of neurons that control voluntary muscles, resulting in loss of speech, the ability to swallow, and eventually to breathe. There is no known cause or cure for the illness, but from 29 July to 28 August 2014, the American ALS association received $98.2m – compared with $2.7m donated during the same period the previous year.
Chantal has worked tirelessly to raise funds and awareness of the disease that struck down her husband, assisting in essential research for a cure and providing funding for speech generating devices for those who continue to struggle on, now that the furore generated by the challenge has dissipated.
On their way to the Scudetto in 1988-89, Inter only lost two matches in the entire campaign but in February ‘89 they came up against Sven-Göran Eriksson’s Fiorentina who boasted a deadly strike force of Roberto Baggio and Stefano Borgonovo. Giovanni Trapattoni’s men fell foul of that duo in Florence that day, succumbing 4-3, Borgonovo hitting the match-winning strike and adding his second goal in the 85th minute.
Along with a 2-1 home victory over bitter rivals Juventus, the game ensured that season will be forever etched in the memories of Fiorentina fans, thanks largely to that devastating frontline. After scoring a goal apiece against the Bianconeri, they became affectionately known as “B2.” Baggio, the ‘divine ponytail,’ finished the season with a tally of 15 goals while also assisting on many of the 14 scored by teammate Borgonovo.
Baggio famously moved on to the Bianconeri the following season, enraging the Fiorentina supporters and breaking up the prolific strike partnership that had been so effective the previous year. Without his other half, Borgonovo returned just four goals in 37 matches over the following two years but – just like Cristiano Ronaldo – Roberto Baggio never forgot about his team-mate.
“Dear Stefano,” he wrote in a letter shortly after the death of his friend in June 2013. “When we were in Viola, we both went to play for the national team. Young, carefree, with a whole career ahead of us. And do you know what was my greatest joy? Maybe I never told you. Putting you in on goal with an assist and seeing infinite happiness in your eyes. It is the memory of those happy moments that today, dear Stefano, helps with the pain of the news of your death, together with the fact that you have finally freed yourself from “The Bitch,” the name you have always given to your illness.”
The images of the carefree and free-scoring pair are hard to reconcile with the image of Baggio pushing his friend in a wheelchair onto the pitch at the Stadio Artemio Franchi in 2008. To raise funds to help fight that disease, a match had been organised between the former Fiorentina and Milan team-mates of ‘Borgogol.’ “Thank you Florence,” Stefano communicated to the 30,000 crowd via his computer, his illness already robbing him of his speech. “I think that together we have created something that can destroy The Bitch.”
His ex-teammates, including Alessandro Costacurta, Franco Baresi and Paolo Maldini, lined up to greet Borgonovo before the match but Fiorentina fans remember one player in particular who was hugely affected by the occasion.
“I remember Ruud Gullit in tears and during the match Baggio took a penalty against the ‘keeper Gianmatteo Mareggini,” recounts life-long Viola supporter Fabio. “This triggered a memory throughout the stadium of when in 1991, he refused to take a penalty for Juventus in Florence.”
Along with this support for Borgonovo, that incident has helped to erase the memories of Baggio’s transfer to The Old Lady and has healed the wounds in a city that rarely forgets.
But, while it is not an isolated case, the image of a once powerful athlete needing to be pushed in a wheelchair just to get onto the field where he once played has helped raised awareness of a disease that was once little-known on the peninsula.
A study conducted between 2004 and 2008 found 51 cases of ALS in 30,000 Italian footballers, 39 of which have proven to be fatal. There is still no explanation as to why this might be happening but prominent footballers such as Gianluigi Buffon and Fabio Cannavaro have expressed their concern over the disease to the press.
“The fact that so many footballers are affected makes us prick up our ears,” Buffon said as he raised the issue before the 2010 World Cup, since lending his assistance in helping the fight against the disease. Donating signed shirts to sufferers, and assisting with the campaign named ConSLAncio – which utilises a clever word play with ‘lancio’ which describes the act of throwing an object such as a javelin or discus as far as possible – the Italy goalkeeper has taken practical steps to aid the cause.
Stefano Borgonovo, like so many others with ALS, suffered a premature death. The Ice Bucket Challenge is long gone, but Ronaldo didn’t forget. Baggio didn’t forget. Buffon didn’t forget.
Neither should you.