In the tenth part of our 18 for 18 compilation looking back at football in 2018, MATTHEW MATHER remembers the untimely passing of Fiorentina captain Davide Astori, and looks at how grief turned to rejuvenation for the players and fans of the Viola.

Udine, 4th March 2018 – It was just like any other pre-match preparation for Fiorentina. The players and staff made their way down for their pre-match breakfast, exchanging jokes and preparing themselves for the game ahead.

Only one thing was very different. Their captain, Davide Astori, always first to the breakfast table, was absent. As the team masseur went up to see what was going on, the mumbles sharpened in the hotel lobby. Then, the unimaginable news.

Italy came to a standstill that Sunday. Matches were abandoned. Friends, players and fans alike poured out their grief into television cameras and on social media. Perhaps most heart-wrenching of all was Riccardo Saponara’s beautifully poetic lament, in which he begged his friend and captain to “get out of that damn room” and captured the mood of all his friends and loved ones; “there are people you’ve known forever but have never bonded with, and then there are the ‘Davides’, who warm to you immediately with a simple ‘Welcome to Florence, Ricky’”.

Coach Stefano Pioli had the hardest job of all that day, having to break the news to Davide’s teammates. Then, having to pluck up the courage to re-group Astori’s teammates to continue to go out and fight for ninety minutes; to honour their captain. 

“Lo spirito di Davide scenderà in campo con noi” – “Davide’s spirit will walk out onto the pitch with us”, Pioli told Radio Anch’io sport before Fiorentina’s emotional first home game without their captain against Benevento.

Spirit is a big word in football, even more so in Italian football. While in England its meaning can often get blurred amongst the clichés reeled off by managers and players, in Italy ‘lo Spirito’ holds deeper significance.

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For in Italy, there’s something deeply spiritual about football, verging on the quasi-religious. Here, la scaramanzia – or superstitions – pervade the sport. Chants with words like ‘Tutta la settimana, io penso solo a te’ – ‘all week I only think about you’ are commonly heard on the terraces, while the bars and dinner tables pulsate to conversations about the games, near and far. 

When the news was received by the fans, it wasn’t just the manager who was evoking the message of Astori’s ‘spirit’ surviving within this group of players. Players, journalists and supporters spoke of Astori as though he hadn’t truly left.

“He’s with us at home games, away games, in the dressing room, in the crowd”, a Florentine fan told television reporters in the days after ‘their’ captain’s death; the language of ‘captain’ and ‘leader’ had opened itself up to encapsulate the whole city, no longer just the squad.

The whole city mourned for weeks. Fans, steadily in their numbers, gathered outside the stadium in the proceeding days and weeks; laying wreaths, scarves, children’s drawings, lilies – the emblem of Florence; meanwhile all sharing in the suffering of a city. For the funeral, the city congregated in their tens of thousands outside the Basilica of Santa Croce, the place which held the funerals of Galileo and Machiavelli during Florence’s golden age. The sounds of tears, followed by chants of ‘C’è solo un capitano’ – ‘There’s only one captain’ and ‘Davide Astori.. Uno di noi’ – ‘Davide Astori… one of us’ echoed around the piazza outside. Rarely are songs dedicated to players in these parts. The feeling is that no player is bigger than the squad, and while ardent fans lost their voices singing their late hero’s name, that sentiment still applied. The city, the team, were all as one.

Given Astori had only been at the club a little less than three years, it may seem strange the deeply sentimental reaction of Fiorentina’s fans. Though the death of a sportsman in his prime is such a rarity and brings with it a torrent of emotion, the reaction throughout Italy, but especially in Florence, seemed unprecedented. While the former Italy international had only worn the captain’s armband for seven months, since the arrival of Pioli just the previous summer, he was an example to a fledgling team. Softly spoken, but a natural leader for players in the young, new-look Fiorentina of 2017-18, he was in the words of Pioli “a point of reference”.

“Whenever a new player arrived, after being added to the team’s WhatsApp group, Davide would always be the first person to pop up with a simple, “Ciao, benvenuto”, Federico Chiesa, the player who perhaps best sums up the new look Fiorentina under Astori’s leadership, told Corriere della Sera in October.

With Astori flourishing in his new role as captain, Fiorentina were discovering a new identity following an almighty clear-out the summer before. As Giuseppe Rossi and fan favourites Matías Fernandez and Borja Valero departed, the old guard was being replaced by the new. 

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Pioli looked to youth. And while results weren’t always easy to come by, there was a positivity around the club which hadn’t been there for some years. The turgid, disjointed Viola of the previous two seasons were beginning to look impressive on the eye, revitalised by the enterprising but increasingly consistent Chiesa and Cholito Simeone in attack and the guile and goal threat of another sensation, Marco Benassi.

“He (Astori) always had a long-term vision and he was one of the first to believe in our new path” Pioli told RAI’s Radio Anch’io Sport. “He put in a lot of effort to help his teammates develop,”. It appeared that the experienced journeyman, who’d spent his years marauding his way up and down Italy’s top flight at Milan, Roma and Cagliari had finally found in Florence his true calling, his home.

When disaster struck, Fiorentina were in tenth spot on round twenty-six of fixtures. It would have been understandable for the players to have been shattered and distraught, but they, like the worshipping Florentines who packed the stadium, saw it otherwise.

The game against Benevento was the chance for both the city and the team to honour their captain; to show that they weren’t going to down tools. As the world plugged in, the Stadio Artemio Franchi came alive. Fans lifted banners and shirts with the retired number 13 on the back, while purple and white balloons were let off into the Tuscan skies. Even if his name wouldn’t be on the team sheet, the stadium announcer still read out his name in the starting line-up, to thunderous applause. It was a beautiful tribute, but an even better tribute was the performance the players put in.

There was something especially touching about the sole goalscorer that day. Brazilian defender Vitor Hugo had been handed the mantle of replacing of Astori in the centre of the defence, and as he audaciously rose for a first half header, it was as if his predecessor had given him a helping boost. Commentators also made reference to his number 31 being the mirror image of Astori’s number. Scaramanzia had struck again.

To celebrate, he ran over to the bench and lifted a t-shirt, featuring the face of their former skipper, to the sky; a gesture which would become emblematic of Astori’s continuing presence in the side, repeated after every goal the Viola scored throughout the rest of the campaign.

The game was a real turning point, both for the club’s season but also in the collective grieving process of the group of players, now more united and stronger than ever.

“At the funeral I finished my tears”, Saponara told Premium Sport. “I accepted the pain and my own fragility like never before for fear of appearing weak. Instead, showing myself for how I am has made me stronger. It’s Davide’s final gift”.

The language of celebration and honour replaced the shock and sadness throughout Italy. Friends, former teammates, even players who’d only ever had the privilege of sharing a football pitch with him for ninety minutes rushed to dedicate goals and performances to Astori.

Football may, as they say, take a backseat during horrific events of these sorts, but football becomes a welcome distraction for fans and players, as well as an outlet to express the gratitude and love in the context that brought each of them together.

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For Fiorentina this was certainly the case. There was a palpable energy behind the squad following the Benevento game. Despite it taking a lot out of the emotionally drained players, who collapsed to the floor at the final whistle, the squad were hungrier than ever in the run-in to the season.

After dispatching both Torino and Crotone in the following two games with consummate ease, the Viola put in their best display of their season to shock soon-to-be Champions League semi-finalists Roma 2-0. An emotional win away at Udinese, a month to day since Astori passed away in the same city, followed to make it six consecutive wins.

Chiesa, Simeone, Saponara, Benassi were putting in the performances of their lives, while steadily growing from precocious talents into fine, mature footballers. Pioli and Astori’s vision for this young squad was manifesting itself before everyone’s eyes. Few fans in Italy could look upon this group of players and not delight in what they were achieving in the face of trauma. The club had been lifted and a new identity ignited, characterised by a burning intensity and desire to carry out the task their former captain had set out upon. Often blamed for laziness in the previous seasons, these Fiorentina players were now running themselves into the ground for each other.

While they narrowly missed out on European football – despite Milan’s financial imbalances almost awarding them their place – Fiorentina have gone on to impress and dazzle throughout 2018. Boasting the youngest squad in the league Pioli has built on their conclusion to last season to forge a squad of players united, resilient, and capable of challenging the Serie A heavyweights for a European spot come May.

Months on from the tragedy and still the name of Davide Astori lingers on the lips of all involved at the Stadio Artemio Franchi. He’s become not only the symbol of the resurrection of this Fiorentina side, but also a true Florentine hero. ”Il nostro capitano! il nostro capitano!” – “our captain! our captain!’ fans continue to chant, almost religious in their vigour.

One gets the impression as they sing these words that they’re singing about someone who’s more than just the captain of a group of players, but an exemplary leader of those in the stands too.  His memory in the eyes of Florentines is not so much of what he did on the pitch, but what he did off it. How he helped develop this fledgling team as players, but also as men.

More importantly, however, his legacy is that of someone who lived his life as a man and as a captain with honesty, altruism and respect. As the tears dry throughout Florence, those players and fans are creating something special to honour and repay those values.

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