April 25 is a public holiday in Italy as the country celebrates the end of the Second World War and the end of Nazi occupation. However, April 25 is also a sad day for Juventus as it marks the anniversary of the death of their young defender Andrea Fortunato.
The left-back lost his life to leukaemia at the age of 23 at a time when he should have been at the peak of his promising career.
The Italian was born into a well-off family in the southern town of Salerno and he had a career in accountancy lined up if he didn’t make it in the competitive world of football.
Yet, at the age of 14 an offer came from the northern side Como who were impressed by Fortunato’s versatility and his running ability at a time when he still played in midfield.
It didn’t take him long to break into the first team and at the age of just 17 he was starting for the Lariani in Serie B. Although Como were relegated, Fortunato managed to catch the eye of some bigger teams and he earned a move to Genoa for four billion lire.
Upon arrival in Liguria, Fortunato found himself behind the experienced Brazilian Branco and was forced out on loan to Pisa after a heated argument with coach Osvaldo Bagnoli’s assistant Sergio Madde. Fortunato realised he had earned himself a reputation as a young, arrogant hothead but insisted that he was right to stand up to Madde’s perceived rudeness.
After a season with Pisa, Fortunato returned to a more welcoming environment in Genoa after Bagnoli and Madde left for Inter. The new Rossoblu coach Bruno Giorgi gave Fortunato the starting left-back spot and he became an important part of a Genoa side that avoided relegation by one point.
Fortunato’s late goal in a 2-2 draw with AC Milan was vital in preserving Genoa’s Serie A status and his career trajectory kept moving up as he earned a move to Giovanni Trapattoni’s Juve side for 10 billion lire.
Fortunato was part of an exciting new generation of young players at the Old Lady which included Sergio Porrini and Alessandro Del Piero.
In Turin, Fortunato was burdened with the label of being the new Antonio Cabrini. While he didn’t appreciate the comparison, Fortunato immediately became a regular in the Starting XI of the side he had supported as a boy and he made 27 appearances and scored one goal during the 1993-94 Serie A season.
In September 1993, Fortunato made his Italy debut against Estonia and Azzurri coach Arrigo Sacchi was very excited about the youngster’s future on the international stage as his first season in Turin got off to a dream start.
Yet, what had been an extremely positive first season at Juve started to go bad as the first symptoms of his illness arose. The newspapers began to note that his energy of old had gone and one Ultras group blamed the young defender for the club’s elimination from the UEFA Cup at the hands of Cagliari.
Fortunato’s problems became evident on May 20, 1994 when he had to leave the pitch during a friendly due to exhaustion and the subsequent trip to hospital revealed that he had a form of leukaemia. The news shocked the club and the fans who rallied around Fortunato and apologised for the criticism they had made when they were unaware of his health problems.
Fortunato underwent chemotherapy in Perugia due to the lack of a suitable bone marrow donor. Team-mates Fabrizio Ravanelli and Gianluca Vialli supported the young defender and made sacrifices of their own to aid him.
Whilst the early prognosis did not seem good, hopes of a full recovery grew after Fortunato underwent a successful operation where he received cells from his father. The future seemed positive and he left hospital to celebrate his sister’s graduation before going on to Genoa to greet his team-mates after their game with Sampdoria.
But cruelly, just as life seemed to be returning to normal for Andrea Fortunato, a bout of pneumonia took the life of the footballer on April 25 1995.
His funeral was held in the city of his birth and more than 5,000 people turned up to celebrate his short life. Juventus, Salernitana and various figures from the Italian game were all there to pay their respects. The 1994-95 Scudetto was posthumously awarded to Fortunato as was the Coppa Italia.
Gianluca Vialli had the poignant job of saying farewell to his friend at the funeral after his untimely passing and the forward was brought to tears.
“Let’s hope that in heaven there is a football team,” said Vialli.
“Let’s hope that in heaven there’s a football team, that way you can continue to be happy running behind a football.
“Honour to you, brother Andrea Fortunato.”