The color white looks a little different in Carrara, Italy.
The city of marble.
That’s how most people know it. That’s where I’m from. It’s a famous area because of its quarries of beautiful, white Carrara marble. Most of the white we used to see was from up in the hills, dug out and shaped by the men of our town. My dad, like many, worked for a marble firm. Long hours. Really long hours. He’d be up at 5 a.m., home at 6 p.m. That’s all he knew, so it’s all my family knew.
There was so much marble around us, so much white, that it would leak into my dreams. I had this image in my head when I was around six years old. I’m not sure if I should call it an image actually, it was more like a short video. I would see it sometimes when I slept, or if I just closed my eyes for long enough and thought about it.
I would see this long, dark tunnel. At first there would be no light at the end. I could just tell I was in a tunnel. Then I would see a white line. Maybe it was marble, maybe not, but it didn’t matter. The point of the line was that, eventually, it would lead me out of the tunnel. It would take me where I wanted to go.
When I was young, I didn’t know the point of this dream — it didn’t make any sense. I didn’t need to go anywhere.
I loved my life. I had my family. And I had my football. That was all I needed from the time when I was three years old and my dad took me to this massive toy store in the city center. I took two steps inside, ran straight to a football, picked it up and told him we needed to leave. He wanted me to look at the other toys, but I knew.
And because I knew what I wanted, I didn’t let anything get in my way. That’s my character. Or I should say, that’s our character. If you’re from Carrara, you’re as hard as marble — just ask Gigi Buffon. Marble.
That’s the way my family was. My mum worked as a nurse at a hospital not far from our home. She was tough but so loving. She could flip the switch between serious, professional nurse and sweet mama just like that. Between her and my dad, there was a good balance. Dad always pushed me to do better, to do more. And when you’re a kid, sometimes you feel that as too much, or like he’s angry at you. But as I got a little older, I began to understand he wanted more from me because he believed in me — he knew that the kid who refused to play with any toys other than a football, well, he was pretty good.
And I was. But my town was small, and there wasn’t much in terms of good youth teams around. So, as a family, we made a choice: At eight years old, I would go play football in Ponzano, one of Empoli’s junior clubs, about 70 miles away. Mum would pick me up from school early every day, at 3:15 — 45 minutes before class normally ended. Then she’d hand me a tupperware of heated up pasta. It was the best. And then we’d drive south along the Ligurian Sea in our grey Opel Vectra. After 40 minutes or so, we’d get to Pisa and head east toward Empoli. It would be another half-hour before we arrived. I’d usually be a little late. I’d tie my boots in the car, Mum would barely stop, and I sprint out to the pitch to get to my training session. Two hours later training would end, and we’d head back the way we came. I wouldn’t be in bed until 10:30 or 11. Then I was up at eight to do it all again.
We did that four days a week for years.
It was hard. But it was worth it. Because after I left Empoli, I signed with Fiorentina — a club in Florence, just a bit further east of Empoli on the same highway my mum and I used to drive. And she stayed with me on every step of my journey.
Especially at it’s most difficult point.
When I was 16, I was closing in on making the senior team with Fiorentina. I was playing some of the best football of my life. But during a routine physical checkup the medical team found something was wrong. So, a few days later, I went to see the doctor with my mum. There were some tests. Some Xrays. And a few minutes later the doctor briefed us.
“Federico, it looks like there’s an issue.”
I thought, I’m 16. I’m in the best shape of my life. There’s no issue.
“You have an enlarged heart. We’re not sure how bad it is. It’s possible you won’t be able to continue your football career.”
Possible? No … that’s impossible.
I couldn’t believe it. I refused to hear it. My mother kept me calm.
“We need to monitor it closely these next few weeks,” the doctor said. “And in the meantime, you won’t be able to play football for six months.”
I knew I was at a critical stage of development for my career. I couldn’t afford to miss time like that. My mum knew, too. It was a terrible, terrible day.
I was living alone in Florence, 16 years old, and I had nothing to do. My parents had to work in Carrara, so they visited when they could … but still. I tried to keep myself busy, but it was the most difficult six months of my life.
Time passed. Countless check-ups, specialist visits and meetings happened, and, eventually, with some dietary changes and a medicine, I overcame the issue.
And for some reason, when I was given the all-clear, I thought of the image I used to see. You know, the one with the tunnel. I realized that the light, the white line, the marble — whatever it was — was me, on my path, my journey. The tunnel was the unknown, the hurdles to come, the battles to fight. I had seen that image for so many years, but it took me this long to figure out what it really meant and why I saw it in my dreams.
When you go through something like that, I think in a way, it’s impossible not to have it change you. I became more aware of the fragility of my journey — how fortunate I was to be in the position I was in.
So when I achieved milestones, like my Serie A debut in 2014 and my call up to the Azzurri in 2016, I felt like I could appreciate them more than the bigger moments when I was younger. Those things all happened because of my family and through the help of the people around me.
Among the things that marked my time with Fiorentina, there are two that really stand out. First, Paulo Sousa, our manager at the time, sat me down and gave me a bit of advice. He told me that I was an incredible talent and that my character surpassed my ability. But, he said, to become a champion, you have to invest in yourself. Everything you do, on or off the pitch, has to be aimed at winning — that’s how the truly great players get to where they are.
I will never forget that.
And the second thing was how close I became with our captain, Davide Astori.
He was one of those guys who was just born to be a leader, you know? Every day at training, he showed us the way. As I got older, he would pull me aside before training sessions, we would pass the ball to warm up, and he’d give me a few pointers here and there. On road trips, we’d spend nights together watching other games or old movies. He was such a warm spirit, so loving and kind. When I became a consistent figure in the starting 11, I would turn to him when I’d get down on myself during a bad run of form. Whenever I would score, I would get an email from the team photographer with a picture of my goal celebration to post on social media. And in every photo you could see that the first person to come hug me was Davide.
My friend, our captain.
As many people know, he passed in his sleep in March 2018.
He was 30 years old. Thirty.
He was a man, but still, very much so, he was just someone’s boy.
Davide died of cardiac arrest. And as often as I try not to think about my own heart issues, Davide’s death is a stark reminder: Time is short, and we who are alive are lucky, always.
I thought about Davide many times during my transfer to Juventus in summer 2017. I would look at old videos of my goals, and I’d see Davide running from the center circle with his arms in the air. I spoke to him before I left. He understood. But it was not easy.
A few weeks after his passing, I got his number tattooed beside the Ave Maria prayer I have on my right arm.
Now, wherever I go, he is with me, protected forever.
I am a believer. I always have been. And one of the things I follow is the idea that this life we are living, we are only passing through on our way to something greater. I believe that. I do. There is a better place, a more holy place, that we are destined for. And whenever I get there, the first person I ask to see will be Davide.
My friend, our captain.
All of these things I’ve told you, they’re part of who I am and who I want to become.
I’m incredibly proud to be at Juventus now. This club and the city of Turin are unlike any I have ever been part of before. Every cliché that each new Juve player throws out there about the winning and the culture — it’s all true! From the coach to the physio to the kitchen staff … they all just want to win. That’s it. It’s an obsession. And it is with me now, too.
When I see the I Bianconeri kits now, I think of the tunnel. I think of the marble. The black … the white … it’s all there. It’s taken me this far.
And whatever is next, I’ve got what I need.