Published On: Tue, Mar 6th, 2018

​The people's captain: Astori leaves a legacy far beyond the pitch

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To understand what Davide Astori meant to everyone, you just had to look at the faces. In Genoa, there was shock and dismay: Grifoni goalkeeper Mattia Perin sprinted off the pitch, Simone Padoin was incredulous, and Andrea Bertolacci clasped his hands as if in prayer. In Barcelona, Atletico Madrid manager Diego Simeone tried to hold back tears on the touchline. His son, Giovanni, was Astori’s Fiorentina teammate. And in Manchester, Antonio Conte tried to summon the right words to describe such an indescribable loss.

It was the reaction to the news of Astori’s tragic death at the cruel age of 31 that told the story of his life. The tributes that came in the hours after his passing were more about his eternal smile and his generosity of spirit than his career as a footballer. Because Astori would have touched people in any walk of life; it just so happened he was a defender in one of Europe’s top five leagues. By all accounts, everyone who met him was a better person for it.

Astori wasn’t the biggest name outside Italy, or even within the country itself, but everyone knew him and respected him all the same. There was no way any of Sunday’s Serie A matches could have gone on – not even in the second tier – because in virtually every single fixture there were players who knew Astori well. He could call on former teammates at Juventus, Roma, Inter, Chelsea, Nantes, Universidad de Chile, and so on, and all would have important things to say and memories to share.

Manuel Pasqual, who left Fiorentina for Empoli in 2016, recounted on Twitter a recent dinner with Astori in which they spoke about things other than football. Theirs was a friendship made in the sport, but about much more than that. Gianluigi Buffon, speaking from one captain to another, called him “one of the best sporting figures I’ve come across.” In another emotional message, teammate Riccardo Saponara begged Astori to wake up, to corral the guys, to work on their two-touch plays one more time. And when Mauricio Pinilla scored for Universidad on Sunday night, he pointed to the sky.

Certainly, at the San Siro, where the 168th Derby della Madonnina was supposed to take place, there were friends who mourned. AC Milan defenders Ignazio Abate and Luca Antonelli grew up with Astori in the club’s youth system. Leonardo Bonucci, Alessio Romagnoli, and Andrea Ranocchia were his international teammates. Even before the league decided to postpone the derby, Bonucci and Ranocchia spoke on the phone and agreed both Milan and Inter would abandon the match, according to Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera.

The story wasn’t about how many trophies he won or records he set. His career was just as he was: unassuming and workmanlike. He could have left Italy for more money abroad, but he cared too much about the people around him and the objectives he hadn’t yet achieved.

Astori was always like this. He was always the quiet leader who would assume responsibility, even at a young age. He was the reference point for many. Everything that came his way was earned.

“I’ve had so few kids like this, and I repeated it to his parents when I met them by chance at a tournament two years ago: ‘You have the son that everyone would love to have,'” Roberto Bertuzzo, Astori’s first youth coach at Milan, told La Repubblica. “Too normal, I would say, in a world where normality seems like a flaw.”

Bertuzzo continued: “At that age, it’s impossible to tell whether a player is good enough to play for the national team, but he certainly had a good foot and great deal of attention – important skills for a defender. What was out of the ordinary was his character. He was very serious for his age, responsible, able to handle stress, and very much a part of the group.”

Filippo Galli, who was an assistant with Milan’s academy at the time, added Astori was “very close to his teammates, who were above all friends and ones he never forgot, even when he made his breakthrough in football. They saw each other often.”

Astori matured at Cagliari and earned his first Italy call-up while playing for the Sardinian side. He brought immense pride to the island when he scored against Uruguay in the 2013 Confederations Cup – it had been decades since a Cagliari player celebrated a goal for the Azzurri.

But it was at Fiorentina where he became a symbol. He was a fixture in an ever-changing squad, and when Stefano Pioli named Astori captain at a public event last summer, it was met with universal applause. And, of course, that gentle, bashful smile.

Even at just 31 years old, he had to start making way for the future. It was a role he embraced with Fiorentina and Italy, and in life. He used his notoriety to bring smiles to the faces of kids at a children’s hospitals and schools, once confessing he would have loved to meet someone from Serie A when he was younger.

He established a legacy far beyond his performances in Sardinia, helping to open a theatre in Cagliari while running an ice cream shop in the city centre. He kept himself close to the people in Florence, choosing to live with his wife and two-year-old daughter near the famous Ponte Vecchio, being as much of a captain to his team as a regular citizen.

And what an impression he left. Children left letters on plain paper and Post-it notes in front of Fiorentina’s stadium, which was a place of solace in the hours after tragedy stuck. The gates to the stadium became an impromptu memorial. There may not have been a match on, but there was still traffic with scooters and cars pulling in. Everyone in the area wanted to pay their respects.

One letter read: “It’s thanks to people like you that football is the greatest game in the world.”

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