If there were any doubts about Francesco Acerbi's credentials as one of the nicest men in Italian football, they were dispelled during the Italy national team's visit to a children's hospital in Rome in mid-October.
Members of Roberto Mancini's squad chatted to patients and their parents during the visit and handed out gifts that included tickets for the team's Euro 2020 qualifier against Greece. But when the time came for the squad to leave the Bambino Gesu Paediatric Hospital and return to the team hotel, Acerbi stayed behind.
The hospital's press officer, Alessandro Iapino, revealed on Twitter that when Acerbi was told the team bus was getting ready to leave, the Lazio defender replied: "I don't care, they can go. I'll take a taxi. But until I finish the tour, I'm not leaving."
As a two-time survivor of testicular cancer, Acerbi is more at home on a hospital ward than most people.
He was first diagnosed with the illness while undergoing a medical examination after signing for Sassuolo in the summer of 2013, aged 25. After undergoing surgery to have a tumour removed, he returned to action with his new team, only for a drugs test failure in December 2013 to reveal irregular hormone levels that turned out to be symptoms of the cancer's return.
The centre-back underwent chemotherapy between January and March 2014 before returning to first-team action with Sassuolo at the end of October that same year, having continued to train with his team-mates throughout his treatment. The determination and good humour that he exhibited during his convalescence turned him into an icon for Sassuolo's supporters and won him admirers across the country.
"He was very brave and an example for people who have the same disease. He was a 'lion', as he likes to call himself," says Luca Bizzarri, a sports photographer and Sassuolo fan who got to know Acerbi during the defender's five-year spell at the club.
"It was sudden news. No one expected it. The disease kept him far from the squad for a long time, but when he returned he got a great welcome from the fans."
When Bologna coach Sinisa Mihajlovic revealed that he had been diagnosed with an acute form of leukaemia in July, Acerbi responded with an Instagram post in which he urged the former Lazio centre-back to "be brave" and fight the illness "head on."
Acerbi has spoken candidly about the psychological consequences of his own illness, saying in a recent interview with La Reppublica (h/t Football Italia) that although he is no longer "scared" by the thought of the cancer returning, it is a world that "you never leave." He remains attentive to his mental health and holds weekly video calls with a psychoanalyst based in Modena, continuing a routine that began during his time at Sassuolo.
In his interview with La Repubblica, Acerbi also opened up about his difficult six-month spell at AC Milan in 2012, during which he fell into depression over the death of his father and turned to alcohol to numb the pain.
"After my father died, when I was playing for Milan, I hit rock bottom," he said. "It was as if I'd forgotten how to play, or why I was playing. I started drinking and, believe me, I'd drink anything. It might seem like a terrible paradox, but the cancer saved me. I had something new to fight against, a limit to overcome. It was as if I got to start life all over again and saw the world in a way I'd completely forgotten."
Even accounting for the rigidly stratified loyalties of Italian club football, Acerbi's openness has earned him universal admiration.
"It's quite unusual to get players of that elite level opening up and talking about their issues while they're still playing," says Alasdair Mackenzie, a Rome-based sports journalist.
"It's even more unusual in Italy, and for a Lazio player, because of the control the clubs like to have around their players on what they're saying in public. I don't think he really cares about that stuff anymore. I think he wants to get his story out there to try and inspire people."
Despite the grave nature of his previous health problems, Acerbi is renowned for being a joker, using his Instagram account to document the pranks he pulls on his Lazio team-mates and to make jokes at his own expense. Bizzarri describes him as a "sunny," "open" and "very popular" person who always found time to speak to supporters.
If Acerbi's return to top-level football after his cancer diagnoses was a remarkable achievement, what followed stretched the bounds of credulity even further. Between October 2015 and January 2019, he made 149 consecutive appearances in all competitions (remaining on the pitch for every minute of every game) and would have broken Javier Zanetti's all-time Italian record of 162 successive matches had it not been for a contentious red card that he received during Lazio's 2-1 defeat at Napoli at the start of this year. In 2017, he played more minutes in Serie A than any other outfield player.
Of course, Acerbi would not have been selected with such regularity by a succession of coaches at two different clubs if he was not a very talented footballer. He was signed by Lazio in July 2018 to plug the hole created by Stefan de Vrij's departure to Inter Milan, and it says everything about Acerbi's impact that, as vital a cog as De Vrij was during his four seasons in Rome, the Biancocelesti have actually become a more defensively robust side since the Dutch international left.
A tall, physically imposing centre-back, Acerbi built his reputation upon a solid defensive approach on the ground and in the air, but as the central defender in Lazio coach Simone Inzaghi's preferred 3-5-2 formation, his leadership qualities and ball-playing ability have also come to the fore. Typically aligned alongside Romanian veteran Stefan Radu and Brazilian youngster Luiz Felipe, Acerbi has started every league game this season and has marshalled a back line that has been breached on only 16 occasions—a statistic bettered only by leaders Inter (14).
National team coach Mancini turned to Acerbi for September's games against Armenia and Finland when Giorgio Chiellini succumbed to a serious knee injury, and the 31-year-old played his part in helping Italy rubber-stamp qualification for Euro 2020, notably scoring his first international goal—a striker's turn and finish with his weaker right foot—in a 3-0 win away to Bosnia-Herzegovina in November.
With characteristic self-deprecation, Acerbi played down the importance of his role in Italy's success, emphasising his position as a mere understudy to the absent Chiellini and declaring that the squad were waiting "with open arms" for the Juventus stalwart to return. But for all the romance that inevitably clings to his story, it is the cold, hard currencies of form and consistency that have earned him his place at the heart of the Azzurri defence.
"The narrative around him is dominated by the two-time cancer survivor story, because it's a very good one and very emotive, but he's doing what he's doing on merit," says Mackenzie.
"He's stepping in for Chiellini because he is the best Italian defender at the moment. And he's been absolutely integral to Lazio challenging at the top of Serie A ever since he arrived. He gets a lot of support for his backstory, but he backs it up on the pitch as well."
Lazio's 2-1 win away to Cagliari on Monday extended their winning run to eight Serie A games and left them only three points behind leaders Inter and second-place Juventus. With an unexpected title challenge and a potential first major tournament experience with Italy on the horizon in 2020, Acerbi has plenty to look forward to.