As Italian football fans were preparing for a huge day of Serie A action, their plans to watch some entertaining matches and see their favourite players would instantly fade into irrelevance. Late on Sunday morning, news broke that rocked the world of Calcio to the core, as it was revealed that Fiorentina captain Davide Astori had passed away overnight.
Aged just 31, his premature death in an Udine hotel room devastated everyone, and the decision to postpone all games in the top two divisions was quickly taken.
Many of those who had played alongside him for club or country were visibly shaken; Genoa and Italy goalkeeper Mattia Perin left the field in tears, former team-mate Diego López – now the coach of Cagliari – needed medical attention, as did Carlos Sánchez.
On loan at Espanyol from Fiorentina, Colombia international Sánchez was told the news on the touchline following his side's game with Levante and immediately fell to the ground in shock. He was given permission to fly to Italy and be with the Viola, while many around the world began to post messages of condolence on social media.
Juventus and Italy captain Gigi Buffon’s was among the most poignant, his words worth repeating here in full as they laid bare a sentiment echoed by many that followed. “Ciao dear Asto,” he wrote. “I rarely publicly express my thoughts on a person, because I have never wanted the beauty and unique nature of friendships, of reciprocal respect and affection, to be used or misused by those who don’t have the decency to respect certain bonds.
“In your case, I feel the need to make an exception to the rule because you have a young wife and family who are suffering, but above all a little girl, who deserves to know that her father was in every way A GOOD PERSON… a TRULY GOOD PERSON…
“You were the best expression of an old-fashioned world, one that people have left behind, with values like altruism, elegance, politeness and respect towards others. Compliments genuinely, you were one of the best sporting figures I ever came up against.
“Your crazy Gigi.”
Perhaps the most telling point in that touching tribute is that Buffon did not mention Astori’s ability on the pitch. A tall, almost lanky central defender who grew up in the AC Milan youth sector, he was never considered one of Italy’s best players, but during his time with Cagliari, Roma and eventually Fiorentina, he built a reputation as a reliable performer who knew his role and was aware of his limitations.
When a raft of big names – including Borja Valero, Federico Bernardeschi and former skipper Gonzalo Rodríguez – left the Tuscan club last summer, it was Astori who was entrusted with the captain’s armband. That was no token gesture, either, with predecessors like Giancarlo Antognoni and Gabriel Batistuta idolised at the Stadio Artemio Franchi even today, their legends passed down from generation to generation and the love for them never diminishing.
Clearly, Astori was not on their level from a technical standpoint, his ungainly runs forward from the back often resembling a drunken giant trying to maintain his balance on a tiny surfboard. Yet, as Buffon and countless others have noted since the tragic news of his passing, he was their equal as a leader, a friend and as a team-mate.
Only arriving back in August, Germán Pezzella was his new partner at the heart of the Viola defence, and he revealed just how instrumental Astori had been in helping him thrive in a new and foreign environment. “From the first day you were by my side, helping and giving advice,” said the Argentina international. “I learned so much from you and my soul is crying to think I’ll never again see you by my side, doing what we love and enjoying your presence every day.”
Images in televised tributes repeatedly showed Astori’s playful grin, his demeanour never affected by either a poor result or a personal error on the pitch (and, if we’re honest, there were plenty of these over the last few seasons). “That smile that never ended and that made it clear how much goodness there was within you,” said Leonardo Bonucci, as he recalled their time together on international duty. “Now you have gone to play football up there and you’ll do it with the same big smile. The smile you always had.”
His number of international caps, even his appearances for some of Italy’s biggest clubs, will, in time, prove to fade away. But when his passing is commemorated, both in the coming weeks and for years to come, that is what will undoubtedly be recalled. Not a moment in a game, a pass, a goal or a tackle, not that he was set to renew his contract with Fiorentina or that he'd all but eradicated those costly mistakes this season.
Instead it will be the indisputable and unanimous respect Astori had gained from a surprisingly large number of people, because of the team-mate, friend and father he was, rather than his ability on the pitch. Before Sunday’s untimely news he was not that well known outside of Italy, and if there is one scrap of comfort to be taken from his death, it is that that smile, that little laugh and his impact off the field is now known around the world.
The great man Davide Astori strived to be will now never be forgotten. RIP Asto.