James Horncastle pays homage to Marco Di Vaio, the veteran striker who is helping Bologna survive on the pitch and off it too
Marco Di Vaio dashed over to the away end, his shirt in one hand and his shorts in the other. The veteran striker naturally couldn't help himself. He wanted to celebrate with his people. The spoils of victory were tossed into the crowd, leaving a few lucky supporters with a souvenir of Bologna's first win in Turin for more than 30 years. It was an historic occasion in a momentous season for an embattled club.
Once again, Di Vaio had quite literally given everything he had for Bologna. His two match-winning goals against former club Juventus meant he had overtaken the great Gianni Rivera and equaled Roberto Bettega in Serie A's all-time scoring charts. But that commendable achievement will perhaps represent nothing more than a proud footnote in the career of a player who has come to signify so much more.
Di Vaio has only been at Bologna for two and a half years. He isn't a local. In fact, he was born in Rome. But now at the age of 34 and with the end of his playing days approaching, Di Vaio is treated by the fans who sit in the Curva at the Renato Dall'Ara as a talisman worthy of Giacomo Bulgarelli, the captain of "the team that made the world tremble" in the 1960s.
Such affection goes beyond the goals he has scored, even if in the last three years Antonio Di Natale is the only Italian player to have found the net more times in Serie A than Di Vaio. And yet still, the media in Bologna are divided when discussing his place among the club's greatest strikers. La Repubblica even likened the choice between Di Vaio and Beppe Signori to that between Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan.
"I vote Signori," wrote Paolo Alberti, recalling how Beppegol hit the winner in the 1998 Intertoto Cup Final against Chorzow. "It's a minor trophy perhaps but a trophy won after 33 years of nothing," he added. The feeling, though, is that, while undoubtedly the star of the team, Signori had help breaking down opposition defences from Kennett Andersson and Julio Cruz.
Di Vaio, instead, has always ploughed a lone furrow under the Two Towers. All 52 of his goals are imbued with an importance that cannot be understated, not least because they account for half of the team's total attack in the 95 League games in which he has played. It's a staggering feat that goes some way to demonstrating how one player has almost been single-handedly responsible for Bologna's fortunes in recent times.
And fortune is very much the operative word in this sense. Indeed, when it became apparent in the autumn that Sergio Porcedda, the then owner of Bologna, would have to put the club up for sale after failing to pay an outstanding tax bill and the players' wages on time, Di Vaio was the only guarantee of survival both on and off the pitch. The goals he scored were his bond. The care he showed for Bologna's future a reassuring if intangible line of credit in an age of austerity.
Di Vaio attended meetings of local businessmen in a desperate effort to find a buyer and reportedly loaned money out of his own pocket to some of the club's youngsters who had been caught short by the crisis. "We made the decision to force the issue and understand who really wants to help Bologna and who just wants their picture in the paper," he said.
Things, however, were beginning to look bleak. Alberto Malesani revealed that ahead of Bologna's last fixture before the winter break against Parma, he had told the players that it could be their final game for the club. The winding up order was by now a real threat. Then on December 23, Massimo Zanetti, the businessman behind the Segafreddo coffee company, a shirt sponsor of Bologna's in the '80s, completed a takeover of the club. It didn't even last a month.
At the next match, the fans made it clear what they wanted to happen next. "Di Vaio for President! Di Vaio for President!" went the chant. By now he had become more than a mere striker. "It's true that here my reputation goes beyond that of a footballer because I have discovered new emotions that push me to devote myself to things off the pitch, but I prefer to stay in my place," Di Vaio told La Gazzetta dello Sport.
"Bologna has ignited in me a feeling of belonging that I had never appreciated before and I am immersed in the cause 24 hours a day. For me work doesn't end after training. I can't rest. I can't limit my job to just playing because this city has made me rediscover the passion for football that I had lost. In truth I am the one who must thank Bologna, and not vice versa."
But the gratitude remains and the chants haven't stopped since the election of Marco Pavignani. "Di Vaio is the most decisive player of the last 15 years," said the new President. Shouldn't that be more like the last 102 years? After all, if it weren't for his efforts, there would be a real possibility that Bologna might no longer have existed, that football under the Two Towers might have disappeared into obscurity.
"Today we are starting to see the light, the dawn," Di Vaio smiled, and why not, Bologna fans ask, the advent of a new phenomenon in football too – that of the player-President.