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Caputo, the voice of optimism in Italian football

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Rome (AFP)

"Everything will be fine. Stay at home."

Sassuolo striker Francesco Caputo understood before everyone else.

The Italian's reassuring message came hours before the government halted all sport in the country amid the devastating coronavirus pandemic.

Italy was already worried, the disease had done a lot of damage, and movement restrictions were about to be implemented.

It was March 9 and Europe was still playing football despite the escalating health crisis.

That night in Emilia-Romagna, a region hard hit by the virus, home side Sassuolo beat Brescia 3-0 in what would be the last match in an Italian championship since suspended.

After the first of his two goals, Caputo turned to a camera and held up a hand-written message on a sheet of paper. "Andra tutto bene. Restate a casa": everything will be fine, stay home.

A few hours later, the head of the Italian government Giuseppe Conte used the same words - "Stay at home" - to explain to Italians the new draconian provisions put in place to fight against the pandemic.

Since then, the concrete and reassuring message of "Ciccio" Caputo has made its way even beyond the world of football.

It is found in all information and awareness-raising campaigns and even on banners hanging from windows all over the country.

"It was my idea. I hadn't told anyone. I wanted to get this message across. It is a difficult period for the whole nation," said the 32-year-old.

"We want to protect our families. For example, at home I have my wife with three children, not letting them leave home is very difficult but we are very attentive to the rules."

But the player, currently the second top Italian scorer in Serie A with 13 goals, behind the untouchable Ciro Immobile (27), did not stop there.

- 'Maturity of a man' -

Like many other footballers, now deprived of playing time, he has become involved in helping raise funds for those in the medical world, on the front line facing the crisis which has killed nearly 3,000 and infected over 13,000 in Italy.

He participated along with other Serie A players in a juggling competition as part of a fundraiser for hospitals.

He also auctioned his No.9 jersey worn during the final match this month, signed with the now famous motto "Andra tutto Bene".

The 2,500 euros ($2,600) raised were donated to health authorities in Italy's southern Puglia region, from where he hails.

It was in this region, in the heel of Italy, where Caputo started his career in his native Bari under coach Antonio Conte.

"I will be forever grateful to him. He launched me in Serie B, with Bari (in 2008) and that day I scored a hat-trick," explained Caputo.

"Then he wanted me in Siena (2010-11). He taught me the importance of sacrifice. With him, when you return home, you're totally exhausted."

His year in Siena under Conte was the first of nine seasons for Caputo in Serie B.

After two seasons with Empoli, helping them to top-flight promotion in 2018, his form has exploded this term since joining Sassuolo last July.

"He's a master in the art of in-depth attacking and marking," said Sassuolo coach Roberto De Zerbi.

"He arrived late in Serie A. His strength is that he takes advantage of all this with the maturity of a man."

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