Saturday April 7 2018
Saponara: 'Astori's final gift'

Riccardo Saponara described the heart-breaking moments after Davide Astori’s death and how their captain is still giving back to his Fiorentina teammates.

Italian football was profoundly shaken when Viola captain and Italy international Astori died in his sleep ahead in the team hotel ahead of a match with Udinese on March 4.

There were many tributes paid, but probably none more affecting than from teammate Saponara, whose plaintive Instagram message read almost like that of a child begging a dead relative to “hurry up and get out of that damn room, we’re waiting to have breakfast. You have to finish watching La La Land.”

A month on and Saponara confessed his feelings to La Gazzetta dello Sport magazine Sportweek.

“Davide didn’t come down for breakfast. They went to call him, he didn’t respond, they opened the door and found him lying there as if he was asleep.

“From my room, I heard an ambulance arrive, I looked out and heard a voice behind me. It was the kit man. I was stunned. Vincent Laurini popped in and asked what was going on, increasingly alarmed.

“The Coach Stefano Pioli was pale, tears in his eyes, he almost couldn’t say Davide’s name. He hugged us. One by one. Chiesa was still asleep, unaware of what was happening. When he was told, I heard noises as if his room was being turned inside out.

“Some of us were crying, others went back and forth in the hotel corridors, some sat in front of Davide’s room, staring into space.”

The autopsy showed the 31-year-old died of bradycardia, when the heart slows so much that it stops, but more test results are still waiting to come through.

“If it had happened on the pitch, when the heart is under stress, perhaps I’d have even accepted it. But like this, it’s tough,” continued Saponara.

“When writing that Instagram post, I wasn’t trying to do something epic and I didn’t know it would resonate like that with people. It just poured out of me. I wanted to pay homage to Astori by explaining what he unconsciously gave to all of us.

“I told him to his face, only once, how important he was. In January we lost 3-1 to Sampdoria and played very badly. Davide was suspended and I had a bad feeling. There was this enormous hole within the team and we were lacking his charisma. When we got back, I told him: ‘We missed you like the air we breathe.’

“Every now and then we talk about him: ‘What would Davide have done… How would he have behaved… Imagine if he was here… Davide always said that…’ But it’s difficult.

“At times what happened makes even pronouncing his name a taboo. The pain we felt is within us. We decided to go forward and we’re doing it well, but it feels almost as if each of us is afraid of evoking that suffering again.

“He comes to mind most at breakfast in pre-match training retreats. Marco Sportiello and I are always the first to come down, sleepy, with the faces of those who just fell out of bed. Davide always arrived five minutes after us with a radiant smile for no apparent reason. He’d declare ‘Good morning!’ loudly, ask how we were doing, would joke around. It was his way of bringing energy to everyone.

“At the funeral, Milan Badelj remembered his habit of switching on the light when he walked into the physiotherapy room. It described him perfectly. When he walked into the room, he brought the light in.

“He was like a big brother and knew how to put people at ease. I am very anxious and suffer so much in the build-up to a game, my stomach gets in knots. He’d try to shake me out of it and on the bus ride to the stadium would often send me Whatsapp messages of encouragement. Instead of listening to music like everyone else, he was thinking of others. That was Astori. He made you feel safe.

“The cliché is that the best ones always go first: in his case, it’s true. He had no time for arrogance or vanity. He liked football to be made up of men and not ‘characters’ on TV.”

Saponara struggled at first following his move from Empoli to Fiorentina, but has suddenly rediscovered his confidence on the field and can once again thank Astori.

“When he died, I thought that’s it, I’ll never recover from this. Then I was one of the few who saw him before the funeral and something clicked within me. At the funeral I finished all my tears, accepted the pain and my own fragility the way I never had before because I feared seeming weak.

“Instead, showing who I really was made me stronger. It was Davide’s final gift to me.”