In early 2007 Francesco Flachi was well on his way to becoming a club legend with Serie A side Sampdoria. Captain, scorer of more than 100 goals and called up by Italy for the first time.
But his life changed in the hours after a game against Inter Milan, on 28 January 2007, when he tested positive for cocaine.
He was immediately suspended from any football activity and eventually banned for two years.
“I lost it all in that exact moment,” Flachi tells BBC Sport. “I was an idol in Genoa. I had started the year with two goals and I had recently been called up by the national team too.”
But in some ways that was just the beginning. Two years later his whole career was over. Or so it seemed.
Stain on his reputation
Flachi was no stranger to controversy.
A year earlier, in 2006, based on telephone tappings of third parties, Flachi was accused of attempted match fixing and suspended for two months. “I had nothing to do with it,” he says. “I never accepted that ban.”
He had overcome that stain on his reputation and was busy cementing his place as one of the most gifted Italian number 10s of his generation. Flachi’s 110 goals for Sampdoria put him third on the club’s all-time scoring list, behind only Roberto Mancini and Gianluca Vialli.
His tally would almost certainly have been higher had he not failed that drugs test in 2007.
After the enforced two-year absence, Flachi was offered a shot at redemption with Serie B sides Brescia and Empoli. But the events of the previous years had taken their toll. “Mentally I wasn’t the same person any more and I couldn’t avoid falling back into it,” he reflects.
And so in December 2009, Flachi tested positive for cocaine again. He was a repeat offender and given a 12-year ban, ending his top-level career.
It seemed certain he would not play again. But now, 12 years on, Flachi is preparing for an unlikely comeback.
‘I want to pass on what I have thrown away’
While he could not play, Flachi unofficially coached local team Bagno a Ripoli, winning league and cup titles. He has also coached Signa 1914’s youth sides and, since the pandemic outbreak, gives individual lessons on footballing technique to 50 children.
It is at fifth-tier Signa 1914 where he will make his return as a player, aged 46, when his ban ends in January, having been teased by his friend – and the club’s president – Andrea Ballerini.
“I am very excited because the date is approaching,” Flachi says. “It all started as a joke, but then we got more serious about it. I was already helping out at Signa 1914, lending a hand in the youth sector.
“Andrea started to provoke me: ‘You can’t play any more, you’re too old’. I hadn’t entered a proper 11-a-side football pitch for 12 years, but I am a man of football and I live for the emotions, which I had missed so much.
“I am training now and the sensations are similar to those I felt as a real player. Exposure and pressure are different, but some football dynamics, like life in the dressing room, are the same at all levels.
“I know I made a mistake and I got punished for it. I also know I am not as fast as I used to be, but I can do my part and help these guys believe in themselves. I also want them to understand how beautiful football is. They can’t afford to lose what I threw away.”
‘At first, watching football would make me sick’
The return to training and the prospect of playing again has been a chance for Flachi to reflect on the choices he made – and how his journey has unfolded.
“After such a disgrace you think of everything,” he adds. “Of a career thrown in the bin, your public image, the pain you caused your family. People didn’t react well at first, but with time I proved I understood my mistakes and could rebuild most relations.
“At first, watching football would make me sick, but then I rolled up my sleeves and slowly moved on again. I have opened two restaurants in Florence and I spent my time serving food. Since it’s been known I am going to play I have been receiving so many calls and messages. This proves a lot of people still love me.
“I am not a victim – I made a mistake and I don’t want others to go down the same path. I receive a lot of positive feedback from my coaching and this is an important proof that my dedication is appreciated and parents trust me.
“It’s too easy to judge from the outside. Those who know me also know the way I am. I am the same person I was 20, 30 years ago, with my values.
“I know one can make mistakes and fall, but one can also get back to his feet. Life is full of unexpected events. What I want is to do my part and show I can play a role in football.”