On the eve of a socially divisive General Election, one nation’s infatuation continued without hindrance. Football, as ever, would entertain and capture the masses; the Derby della Madonnina, pitting Internazionale against eternal rivals and flatmates AC Milan, would be the pick of the matches. The mid-table clash between Tuscany’s Fiorentina and Friuli-Venezia Giulia’s Udinese would feature elsewhere in the array of pivotal late-season ties. Yet the death of the former’s captain, decorated with international recognition while serving an extensive and loyal previous tenure at Sardinia’s Cagliari, brought an avid footballing population to a halt, and overshadowed a political vote that ultimately returned the lowest official turnout in the post-Fascist national era.
Davide Astori’s death, at the age of just 31 and at perhaps the peak of his playing powers, induced a sharp and sudden gasp from fans across the globe; not just those in Florence, or teammates from previous tenures at Cagliari, Roma, Lombardy’s Cremonese and Pizzighettone, or Milan. A figure so pivotal to each dressing room he entered, and to each fanbase he so dutifully served, would be ripped from the sport he loved. Tributes poured in from far and wide, and from those who had never before met him to those whose lives have been irreversible altered, and the images of his funeral, as the glittering cast of Italian football gathered and tens of thousands lined the ancient streets of the Tuscan capital, forming a sorrowful purple swarm over the city square in honour of his local poignance in not even three years of service to the club, cemented his position in the framework of the modern state of the sport.
The sentimental value of Astori’s memory, currently under investigation by Udine police due to the sheer implausibility involved in such a physically commanding individual’s reportedly peaceful passing, only renders the acute tremor of Italian football’s recent tribulations further metaphorical, not to mention grieving. In a rare, culturally individual nation where football is once and only truly akin to religion, and religion is mirrored across the entirety of existence, this disaster only strengthens the ties of indigenous dwellers. Although the ordeal may run deep, Italy will heal from this.
A testament to his dependability and professionalism, three separate Azzurri helmsmen – Cesare Prandelli, Antonio Conte and Gian Piero Ventura – selected Astori for international honours as a supporting feature of the nation’s post-2010 reinvention. Both those who were members of the established guard and newly-introduced generation of Italian representatives have publicly revealed their need to console, chief among them elder, and increasingly diplomatic, statesman Gianluigi Buffon; returning, alongside Giorgio Chiellini and manager Massimiliano Allegri, from an evocative victory at Wembley on Wednesday night to represent the national team’s mourning – conspicuously in Allegri’s case, while linked to inheriting the squad’s reins come the end of the domestic season.
Alongside the failure of the fallen Ventura’s regime to reach this summer’s World Cup – in calamitous circumstance through what will surely become an infamous play-off against Sweden, no less – the past twelve months may, upon retrospect, prove the most unexpectedly challenging in recent Azzurri history, and the rhetorically aligning career of Buffon. Adversity, certainly this provocatively, has rarely touched either establishment; the 2006 corruption scandal perhaps the only era of instability that truly compares, or arguably surpasses, this present emotional upheaval. As the long-overdue revelations of sporting consultancy agency GEA World and the furore of Italian media issued an irrevocable cultural shift in the national footballing structure and administrative hierarchy, and diverted the financial focus of the constituent institutions – as far as we are aware – into ethical competition after a turbulent five-year hangover from the original reports, an establishment would no longer be founded on distrust and suspicion, but on integrity and merit.
While it may have been unfortunate for those in positions of influence, and the consumer, that La Vecchia Signora – the Old Lady – of Juventus and earlier Internazionale and in one case Milan, by virtue of the Turin side’s legal impudence, have held aloft each Serie A title since, not to mention the former a further three most recent Coppa Italia trophies, one cannot deny that, the now near-invincible outfit’s financial dominance under the long-gilded modern Medici’s – the Agnelli family – aside, they have earned each piece of silverware by encapsulating the aforementioned principles. An uninterrupted figurehead of the cause both prior to and post-Calciopoli, Buffon personified this more than most, and only transferred this moral stature when flying il Tricolore both far and wide on the international scene in each of his 175 caps.
Although they can – often justifiably – be derided as the enemies of a financially polarised modern society, footballers largely and recurrently prove that public empathy does extend beyond this cynical hegemony, no less so than in Italy, where they are, at least in general opinion, more often lauded as disciples than denounced as heathens. While, also, domestically notable of course – offered exalted respect for advancing their mastery of the sport to the professional ranks and to the prestige of a specific local community’s club, particularly if prolific in delivering success – no player becomes truly exonerated of prior fault until they grace the international scene for the cumulative, conjoined audience of over 60 million frothing individuals; a population birthed on the sport.
Depleted, in the fallout of their Swedish degradation, by the retirements of former World Cup victors Buffon and Daniele De Rossi, and their fellow prior European Championship runners-up Chiellini and Andrea Barzagli, the loss of Astori does little to aid the cause of the future Italian helmsman, presumed at this stage to be the successor of caretaker Luigi Di Biagio. Far more so in an emotional wound to the wider squad than what, in relativity, is such a trivial factor as his place in the starting XI or not, Astori’s passing sees a sentimental value cloak the events of the side for many future years, and hopefully decades, now, given his status amongst former teammates and staff.
Inevitably, whatever loss is the Azzurri’s is, in practicality, more widely that of the domestic stage; the presence of the international side far less noticeable, in terms of present employees and players, at the public mourning of Astori in Florence than that of what are usually referred to as Serie A rivals, united in such an inconceivable and irreconcilable event. Although this rhetoric fails to align with the tribulations of the squad linked, albeit dubiously, to the return of Conte or instalment of Roberto Mancini as manager, it is where the sentiment of Astori’s passing is most likely to prove pertinent in the long term; just as Kazimierz Deyna, as aforementioned in last week’s blog, remains more evidently interwoven with the heritage of Legia Warsaw than with his unsurpassed achievements for the Polish national team, and even more so the victims of Chapecoense’s disastrous plane crash en route to the Copa Sudamericana final in November 2016 rallied Brazilian, and even South American or world football, around the Santa Catarina side after the loss of 19 players and all 23 staff members among the flight’s 71 fatalities.
The mourning process, fortunately, is never belittled by events that precede the instant shock induced. As much as each individual case is an example from which public services study and reassess their safeguarding processes, it is a brief moment in which football, and all sport, must learn to put aside its petty strife and prioritise its values, both in administrative and playing respects. Such events can obviously never be fully prevented, but as they do unfortunately occur, the sport must indeed take time to consider its societal prominence. No more so, perhaps, than in the very region where this week’s endless misfortune has unfolded.
Undoubtedly, the event will act as inspiration for whomever opts to recover the fallen gauntlet of the Azzurri’s top job. An apt diplomat they may have to be, but far more pivotal in the position will be an honesty seldom evident if not for such events in the sport and an innate reverence across the highly sentimental nation’s vast and polarised expanse; qualities few potential candidates overtly possess. From Astori’s death and the post-San Siro Swedish defeat’s deficiency of international experience, the chosen individual must cultivate more than just spirit; unwavering ability formulated from the utmost and incomparable depths of emotional despair.
There is, as ever, great natural quality at the disposal of this as-yet undecided helmsman, and currently with Di Biagio in preparation for upcoming friendly meetings with Argentina and England. In Manchester and London, respectively, they will find sympathetic crowds consisting of both locals and opposing fans in the former’s case, and will make the formative few attempts at regaining a nation’s collective metaphorical footing. An arduous process, both within the confines of the dressing room and on the pitch itself, perhaps, but not a test that they will enter, nor persist through, alone; the globe’s moral support will, I’m certain, empower their every act. From the first resumption of domestic action with Roma’s meeting with Torino last Friday (9th March) night, also, competition will be pursued with a spirit that, if temporarily inconsequential earlier, exemplifies the truest values of the sport; players, staff, officials and fans each linking arms and sharing the burden of the shock – evident in each uncontrollably tensed facial expression – on one another’s sunken shoulders.
How, we must imagine, Milan Badelj can even begin to console and mentor the Fiorentina dressing room while inheriting the squad’s captaincy, or manager Stefano Pioli can – aside from employing the wisdom of an extensive, yet consistently interrupted, playing career chiefly at La Viola but otherwise encountering the early peaks of Parma and Juventus alongside the depths of Serie C and a sixth-tier reprisal – return his side realistically to competition, obviously poses questions of the moral framework of the sport. At the club where Astori finally appeared to have found a dependable and cherished home he was struck down, leaving not only an idyllic life with partner Francesca Fioretti and two-year-old daughter Vittoria, but also an entire mourning local and equally widespread sporting community.
Stability unknown, despite having only three permanent employers in his CV at the age of 31, after a transition from AC Milan to Cagliari dogged by questions of a re-purchase given the co-ownership deal that existed between the two from 2008 until 2011, and the inescapable attention of loftier clubs later persisting on the Sardinian coast, in his career, Astori may have finally gained permanent recognition for his talents in the centre of Italian Renaissance culture. Not only that, but Florence represents what was the pinnacle of free-flowing football that would have graced the future centre-back’s childhood; Claudio Ranieri, and later Giovanni Trapattoni’s, squads epitomising the shirking of Catenaccio with Gabriel Batistuta and Rui Costa at the fore, albeit in a manner that, under the romanticised ownership of film producer father-and-son duo Mario and Vittorio Cecchi Gori, bankrupted the outfit by 2002. Even the club’s recovery from this destabilising influence epitomised their reluctant attitude to the established procedures of the industry; under what persists to today as hereditary international leather magnate Diego Della Valle’s chairmanship, returning after a title-winning season in Serie D, in a quirk caused by the Caso Catania, to Serie B and the Fiorentina moniker, having briefly been required to rechristen as Florentia Viola, and by 2004 even Serie A to complete the momentous reprise.
Adversity had underlined Ranieri’s achievements after seeing the side imperiously promoted from Serie B in his first season – 1993-94 – and was scarcely surprising in the Calciopoli revelations when hit first with single-tier relegation, on appeal a 19-point 2006-07 Serie A season deduction and later a court-decreed 15-point imposition and Champions League injunction. At the time of Astori’s release from a Milan academy where he had shared dorms with the likes of fellow non-Milanese natives Ignazio Abate, Alessandro Matri and Luca Antonelli, and would have regularly encountered their prodigious understudies Matteo Darmian and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, few players could have had ambitions, if released from such an eminent schooling institution, higher than ideals of running out in the iconic Viola, and for the anti-establishment cause that regularly pined after rivalries with Juventus, the Milanese twins and Roman vanguard. Certainly not if born and raised in such a picture-postcard Bergamo Province village as Astori’s San Giovanni Bianco; nestled between the Taleggio and Brembana Valleys, with the river Brembo gushing through where several Romanesque bridges adjoin the classic scene of squat, shutter and balcony-bedecked concrete houses in the shadow of the local church and the Bergamasque Alps beyond. From such humble origins, Astori’s was an unlikely tale, and it was only with prodigious ability showcased at local outfit Pontisola (usefully abbreviated from its extended title Associazione Calcio Ponte San Pietro Isola Società Sportiva Dilettantistica) that he was recruited by Lombardy’s dominant outfit; Antonelli, as the Monza-born son of ex-Milan striker Roberto, the urban Sant'Angelo Lodigiano-raised Matri enlisted aged just 12 from Fanfulla and the Aubameyang brothers – the elder Willy in Astori’s year – favoured as the sons of long-term Gabonese international and Ligue 1 journeyman “Yaya” Aubameyang, in comparison granted undemanding paths.
As would be evident as he far exceeded expectations at Cagliari and Fiorentina, asserting his international pedigree with his consistent performances, the inevitable mentality instilled by a modest upbringing, albeit as ever in a sporting environment, aided his senior exploits. The extent of captaincy at any level represents a significant honour, of course, and it was the statement of these leadership qualities that perhaps distinguished him for an eventual revival of international honours – one long overdue, arguably, given he had been cast aside from Azzurri development programme after four appearances at under-18 level while a Milan representative in 2004-05. Under ex-Fiorentina boss Prandelli this recall finally arrived, and although beginning ominously with a second yellow card in the 75th minute of his debut against Ukraine, an elevation to the hostile environment of an international tournament in 2013’s Confederations Cup signified extensive trust from the pragmatic, perhaps overly loyal manager. Only reopening the wounds of roughly twelve months earlier in Spain’s 4-0 Kyiv mauling, the Brazilian-hosted competition saw an Italian defence – notably without the periphery figure of Astori until the third-place play-off, in which the then-Cagliari defender achieved his sole international goal – again creaking until, ironically, they reached the semi-final against their Spanish adversaries; downed in a dramatic penalty shoot-out before repealing these errors by sealing third place ahead of Uruguay.
The presence of only a singular Italian figure in the eventual FIFA ‘Dream Team’ of the traditional pre-World Cup summit, and this individual proving as internationally well-accommodated as Andrea Pirlo, if not for their unconvincing performances in what should have been regulation meetings with Japan and Mexico and aforementioned Kyiv submission, should have alerted the national authorities to forthcoming and further Brazilian trauma. Eliminated at the hands of Costa Rica and Uruguay, in a group where European media would have indeed tipped their talents. and England’s, to escape, although without Astori, in fact only aided the defender who had in the prior season encountered the extremities of Cagliari’s lowest league finish since 2006-07, achieving only 39 points yet still avoiding the drop by seven points.
Reinventing the Azzurri from the defining retirement of Pirlo, Conte fixated on translating club dominance, by both tactical and psychological influences, onto the international scene. As such, cast aside were the robust, arguably unjustly tainted as unfashionable, ilk of Riccardo Montolivo, Alberto Aquilani and Mario Balotelli, while ushered in or recuperated were the dynamic wing-backs Mattia De Sciglio and Alessandro Florenzi, in addition to stylish forwards Simone Zaza, Federico Bernadeschi and Lorenzo Insigne. Centre-back, such a position of strength while remaining equipped with Messrs Chiellini, Barzagli, Bonucci and even Ogbonna in the vaulted Juventus bloc, was not a particular area of concern for the ever-meticulous Conte, yet Astori provided whenever called upon, and only reasserted his importance under the foremost Serie A authority, and unapologetic champion of the undervalued, Ventura.
Tragically, at the same time as the death, those formerly presumed to act as present counterweights for the buoyance of further youth graduates are struggling to stay afloat. The competitive continental outfits of Juventus, Napoli, Roma and Inter are now constructed on imported foundations, while prodigious mid-table risers in Atalanta and the resurgent Lazio fail to yet provide stability. Exportation is hardly a profitable modern industry, either; Darmian and Davide Zappacosta hardly first-choice Premier League defenders, while Zaza and Manolo Gabbiadini have had a large degree of their ruthless striking intent eroded from their character during respective travails at West Ham and Southampton – Marco Verratti, resultantly, the only eminent patron for this cause.
In the clichéd ‘pressure situations’, tellingly, Gli Azzurri have all too often proven hindered after the deep-cutting chastisement of 2010, and Marcello Lippi’s departure. Even more so under Ventura than the perhaps unlikely, if perpetually trophyless, achievements of Prandelli and Conte, this psychological instability defined each entering unto the breach; the lack of an emphatic victory in the early stages of the 68-year-old’s stewardship, aside from routine reverse thrashings of Liechtenstein, condemned this fragility to permeate across a fated regime. Where Gianluigi Donnarumma will have the burden of Buffon’s fame eternally placed upon him, Alessio Romagnoli and Daniele Rugani may be compelled to replicate Chiellini and Barzagli’s services and very few candidates arise to even consider emulating De Rossi’s infamous effervescing vehemence, to reinstall stability to the national side will be a task only aided if instilling the importance of moral dedication, as from personal experience the regular mourning of former bowler Matt Hobden’s sudden death with an entire Sussex Cricket Club career of him has redirected focus at the Hove-based outfit, and across the county’s sporting breadth.
Nor, indeed, have Fiorentina fared much better in the acute atmosphere of modern competition. A club for whom innovation and integration is ingrained within their ethos – 11 of their first 20 managers born overseas, including seven Hungarians, two Austrians and an Argentine before culminating with much-vaulted Aranycsapat talisman (or Mighty Magyar) Nándor Hidegkuti and the club’s eternal victory in the 1961 European Cup Winners’ Cup final – their ability to fully defy the traditional estates of power has been questionable, especially as Juventus reinforced their dominance post-Calciopoli. A widely inexperienced outfit aside from Astori and Badelj’s cumulative international pedigree following their summer transfer exodus and extensive recruitment of prodigious talents from across Europe, La Viola blatantly required a stabilising force and psychological anchor in coming seasons, and to be robbed of that now renders a recovery, at least at this stricken stage, unfathomable.
Had it not been for Astori’s death, certainly, these institutions – club and country – may have threatened to revert to poetic reminiscence. This is a national trend ominously replicated in the evident clamour, or sentimental yearning, for a return to former glories – for others deemed dishonours – in the political maelstrom posed by Silvio Berlusconi’s reprise while administrating the centre-right coalition, and also by the mounting Five Star Movement. Alongside the significant growth of Lega Nord within the aforementioned coalition, populism, in the spirit of regionalism and anti-immigration policy, evidently appealed successfully. Internalisation – cowering away from a globalised world and their responsibilities within it – is not what the national team, in comparison, can afford to attempt in this period of mourning and repair; they must re-enter the international stage, as must domestic clubs through interaction on both the casual fan and professional continental scenes, with a humble optimism, and reach out for moral support. They must not shy away from the landscape around them, and in which they play such a distinguished role of moral seniority – that much is imperative.
As far as we can outline the alignment of these various societal factors, however, human nature dictates that journalistic poeticism sees little sympathy with the subjects of the travesty. Any competitive recovery, primarily for La Viola and Gli Azzurri, but also for the indissoluble fraternity of Italian and hopefully global football, will be a gradual and trying process in which immense maturity will be tested. Perhaps sentimental misfortune is accentuated by the circumstance of Italy’s absence from this summer’s World Cup, and another momentous edition of the generation-defining tournament, yet equally it may have been the catalyst critically required to reassess, and subsequently reinvigorate, the entire structure of the sport in the fertile land of the 2006 World Cup victors. Tradition also runs deep here, and to encounter such an event as this challenges an established order to adapt unlike ever before to the contorting demands of the sport; all while possessing stern morals. The only possible solace of Astori’s tragic death is that the system, through the Federazione Italiana Giuoco Calcio (FIGC) and club structure alike, will grow closer to its basic values, and reform effectively. When viewing this grief in retrospect, it is of paramount importance that it is harnessed, and that it repairs the divides of a nation. If there is a population anyone in football should trust, however, it sits here, in the land of incomparability; dear Italia.
Davide Astori – 7.1.1987-4.3.2018
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!