ROME: It began relatively harmlessly, but the deterioration was rapid. At first he was unable to pronounce certain letters. Then he lost command of his arms and hands. Soon he was struggling to swallow and even breathe. With each day he lost further control of his body until, one day, he was completely numb. Mentally, however, he remained fully alert and experienced the degeneration of his body in full.
Nowadays former Italian international and European Cup winner Stefano Borgonovo, 47, is confined to his bed. His body is completely paralysed. The only thing he can still move are his eyes, which he uses to control a computer. It serves as his last means of communication to the outside world. He has been robbed of all other possible interactions by “the monster”, a personal term for his terrible illness.
Borgonovo suffers from ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis), a rare disease which kills nerve cells in the spinal cord and brain. ALS is incurable and relatively little research exists on the topic, yet statistically three in every 100,000 people suffer from ALS. Once diagnosed, a patient’s life expectancy is just two to five years.
After losing control of his muscles in 2006, Borgonovo went public with his illness in 2008 and at the same time founded the Stefano Borgonovo Foundation, which raises money for ALS research. The husband and father of four has always been a fighter.
He enjoyed his greatest successes with Fiorentina. Together with Roberto Baggio he formed the famous ‘B2’ strike partnership which became a household name in the late 1980s. A move to AC Milan followed and in 1990 he won a European Cup winner’s medal, not to mention a place in the Italian national squad. After his hanging up his boots, Borgonovo coached hometown club Como Calcio and founded his own football school which he ran until doctors informed him of his fate.
But Borgonovo was never a quitter – not on the pitch and certainly not today. From his sickbed, the former striker has penned his autobiography, Attacante nato (Born striker) and writes a column for Italian sports paper La Gazzetta dello Sport, through which he is able to raise awareness of his debilitating illness. In doing so, Borgonovo has inadvertently become the face of the fight against ALS, as well as an international figure of hope.
Carlo Ancelotti, Borgonovo’s closest friend, dedicated his own book, The Beautiful Games of an Ordinary Genius, to his former team-mate. “I urge everyone to help, but we need to act fast because Stefano is in a very bad way,” wrote the current Paris Saint-German coach.
FIFA president Joseph S. Blatter has been aware of Borgonovo’s extraordinary battle against the illness for some time. “I have met Chantal and Alessandra Borgonovo, the wife and daughter of Stefano, ex-striker of Milan and Fiorentina, at the FIFA Ballon d’Or 2011 Gala. Stefano suffers from ALS, a very severe nervous condition which has left him paralysed. Despite his illness he continues to love football and looks after his football academy. Stefano has all my sympathy and my support,” said Blatter.
However the battle eventually concludes, Borgonovo will undoubtedly go down as the overall winner. In spite of the brutal severity of his illness, he has never lost his intelligence, his wonderful sense of humour or his eternal courage.
“I love to laugh,” he writes in his autobiography, “even now, when many would think there isn’t much to laugh about. I’m still the same old me. I’m happy that I’m happy. I’ve learned to appreciate the things I still have: happiness, positive feelings, a bit of excitement here and there. I see the good things in life and feel privileged – in spite of everything. I know there are people who have less than me, so what’s not to smile about?”