It is part of the natural order to pay tribute to our football heroes when they leave us. It usually happens long after they have hung up their boots and provides a last nostalgic moment to reminisce about the great moments they gave us during their career. But when we lose them at just 31 years of age, the emotions are very different.
Un fulmine a ciel sereno - they say in Italy - a bolt from the blue, that’s how it felt to hear Fiorentina captain Davide Astori had died. One moment we were preparing for a tricky battle with Udinese for mid-table Serie A points, the next we are coming to terms with a genuine tragedy. All the daft little worries we tie up with football were suddenly shown up for the ridiculously miniscule matters that they actually are.
Sport insulates us against growing up and facing reality, that is one of its charms. We allow ourselves to use dramatic language - a disaster, a catastrophe, a calamity - to describe issues which actually don’t amount to much at all.
It is a harmless escapism, really, but it is all thrown into stark perspective when truly heartbreaking events unfold. Those of us who write about the game - and play along with its everyday hyperbole - find ourselves grasping at thin air for words which will do justice to the scale of what has happened.
Our loss is truly nothing compared with that of his partner, child, family, teammates and friends. They have lost the love of their life, their father, their relative, their colleague or close companion. He went away to play a game of football and did not return. Italian football has rightly been put on hold to pay its respects.
Astori came through the ranks at Milan and played for Cagliari and Roma before carving out a role as skipper at Fiorentina. At a club where the revolving transfer door has been pretty much going non-stop of late, he quickly became one of the most reliable and dependable fixtures in the starting line-up. The fact that Stefano Pioli - a defender of no little quality himself - saw fit to make him captain spoke volumes about his quiet leadership.
His was a reassuring name to see on the team-sheet for the Viola amid all the chopping and changing. Yes, there was the odd error, but those were more than outweighed by the games where he mopped up at the back and started another attack with surprising skill for a big man in defence. Sometimes he exaggerated in that, perhaps, but we loved him for it anyway.
Although not a stalwart of the national team, he was a loyal servant there as well. Willing to bide his time down the pecking order, he always gave his all whenever called upon. He will be missed as the Azzurri start the rebuilding process after failing to qualify for this summer’s World Cup.
It was his ability to sdramatizzare - to defuse the controversies so often whipped up by Italian football - which was most admirable. His post-match interviews always seemed to be accompanied by the same wry little smile whether a game had ended in triumph or disaster - both personally and for his team. It might seem like a small thing but, in the world of Serie A, it is quite a rare ability.
Gianluigi Buffon paid tribute to him as one of the game’s good guys, an example of altruism and respect for others. La Gazzetta dello Sport’s Luca Calamai, who has followed Fiorentina for a lifetime, described him as a sensitive footballer who was a true “fuoriclasse” as a man - ready to help those less fortunate than himself. These are the qualities that his loved ones, teammates and everyone who knew him will miss most.
Florence is a place close to its footballing champions, heroes and leaders. Although Davide Astori had only been there for less than three years, he hoped to play on for many more with the Viola and that kind of loyalty and love is deeply admired in a one-club city.
There are no words, really, that can do justice to what has happened, especially in the lexicon of those who write about sport. We are all the poorer for the passing of a fine footballer and admirable young man. Over time, perhaps, we might learn a lesson from him about keeping the game in its proper perspective in the grand scheme of things. But, for now, we must simply mourn the passing of Fiorentina’s captain, taken from us too soon.
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