Nenad Krstičić wept. After scoring his first-ever Serie A goal on Sunday, the Sampdoria midfielder reacted at first as any young man would: careering off towards his nearest team-mate with a grin on his face and a fist in the air. And then the tears began to flow, just as they had two-and-a-half years previously, when Krstičić struck against Milan to put Sampdoria through to the semi-final of the youth team championship.
Just as the tears had flowed for his friends and family back in December 2008 when news reached them that Krstičić had less than 48 hours to live.
They had known he was unwell. Even before Krstičić, then just 18-years-old, returned to his parents’ home in Belgrade for a Christmas break, he had been experiencing stomach pains and loss of appetite. Such symptoms had developed shortly after he underwent surgery to repair damaged meniscus in his knee. Sampdoria’s medical staff were sufficiently concerned that they insisted on taking him back to hospital for a check-up before he flew to Serbia.
When Amadeo Baldari, the head of Sampdoria’s medical team, telephoned a few days later to check up on Krsticic, he was troubled to hear that the player’s condition was showing no signs of improvement. Blood tests taken during Krstičić’s hospital visit had shown some abnormalities. The hospital had taken a tissue sample for a biopsy but did not yet have those results. “Get back to Genoa now,” Baldari advised.
No sooner had Krstičić touched down back in Italy than the test results were returned. The hospital had found evidence of an extremely aggressive form of Burkitt’s Lymphoma. That was the point at which doctors made their dire prognosis. Without immediate and intensive treatment, Krstičić might not live to see in the New Year. Even with it, there could be no guarantees.
The player’s family were immediately flown over by the club, and the doctors at Genoa’s San Martino hospital instructed to press ahead. “It was a tough and risky treatment, but they couldn’t do any different,” Baldari would later reflect. “That was where [Krstičić’s] character came out. He never got demoralized. He was sustained by his great desire to get back to being a footballer.”
There could be no quick recovery from such a serious condition. Krstičić remained in hospital for four months, his body weight dropping at one stage by almost a third. Even after he was discharged there was still a long road ahead. More than a year had passed by the time he had regained sufficient strength and fitness to resume training with Sampdoria.
But return he did, driven by the same hunger that had led him to leave his family behind at 17, giving up a first-team role with top-flight Serbian side OFK Belgrade to see if he could make it on a grander stage. A midfielder whose technical ability and vision had drawn comparisons with the former Croatian great Zvonimir Boban, Krstičić had been identified by Samp’s then head of scouting Fabio Paratici as a must-have talent.
He had been with the club for just two months before suffering the knee injury which preceded his
lymphoma. Although he had not represented the senior team in that time, he had made it onto the bench for the eventual 3-0 defeat to Milan at San Siro.
Now, though, he had to rebuild his career from the ground up. In April of 2010, he made his first competitive appearance for the youth team since his ordeal. His first goal for that side arrived in the aforementioned win over Milan in June.
“When I saw the ball in the net I could not hold back the tears,” he would recount afterwards. “The last year and a half passed before my eyes. Just getting back to training and playing in little patches had already created some strong emotions. But this goal was like being born again for a second time.”
He made his senior team debut the next season, in a Europa League defeat to Debrecen, though it would be another year before he played in a league fixture. In total he would make 13 appearances for Samp in 2011-12, playing a small but nevertheless significant role in their promotion from Serie B.
By now Krstičić had recaptured his form and fitness but found himself in the awkward position of sharing a preferred role with one of his best friends from the youth team. Despite being more than a year younger than the Serbian, Pedro Obiang had also shown significant potential as a regista. Under first Gianluca Atzori, then Beppe Iachini, it was he who came to be seen as the preferred prospect.
Not that there was any bitterness on Krstičić’s part. The pair had long since become inseparable, room-mates for away games and regularly to be found having dinner together on their nights off. “He arrived in the Samp youth team three months after me and immediately tried to pinch my spot,” said Obiang recently. “But I didn’t speak Italian yet and he knew a little English, and we hit it off immediately.”
In the summer, though, both players would be knocked down the pecking order at that position by the arrival of Enzo Maresca from Malaga. But that was not to say that Ciro Ferrara, did not have room for such young talents. The manager has shuffled through various formations since taking charge in the summer but almost always found room for Obiang in central midfield. Krstičić has been deployed there too, but increasingly it appears his immediate future might be as a winger.
After obtaining positive performances from Krstičić as a right-sided midfielder in a 4-3-3, Ferrara has more recently moved the player forwards into a more advanced role in a 4-1-4-1. So far, the results have been encouraging. In October he earned his first call-up for Serbia, and it was from this new position position that Krstičić cut in on Sunday, seizing on a downward header from team-mate Mauro Icardi and sweeping the ball past Fiorentina’s Emiliano Viviano.
“I dedicate this goal to Sampdoria and their medical team,” said Krstičić at full-time. “They stayed close to me during the most difficult period of my life. My first thought is for them.”
In the summer he signed a new contract with Samp—extending his deal through to 2016—but already he has expressed a desire to stay “forever”. It is the best way he can think of to repay a club and a staff who helped ensure that word meant more than just the next 48 hours.