A brief look at statistics from Fiorentina’s 2-0 away win over Roma last weekend would have anyone thinking that the scoreline should have been the other way round. The Giallorossi fired no less than 25 shots towards goal at the Stadio Olimpico that day, with visiting goalkeeper Marco Sportiello called upon to make eight crucial saves. The home side dominated the play with a 79% possession rate, but the Tuscan visitors scored with both of their only two attempts on target.
If ever there was an indicator of the determination that secured such an unlikely victory it was from Giovanni Simeone, the young striker’s run through the middle of two Roma defenders resembling that of a charging bull. He would find the net through sheer willpower, sealing a sixth-straight victory for Stefano Pioli’s men and putting them back in contention for a European place come the end of the campaign. That effort was ever-present throughout the entire side, but in order to fully understand that camaraderie, it is important to return to the beginning of the story.
Last summer had seen a great deal of upheaval in Florence, the club hierarchy having made the decision to sell off almost the entire playing squad in an attempt to trim the wage bill. This saw the unwanted departure of fan favourites such as Captain Gonzalo Rodriguez and Borja Valero, as sporting director Pantaleo Corvino built a new squad based on younger – and cheaper – alternatives.
Pioli was sourced as the coach who could help these new acquisitions gel into a cohesive unit, his failures at Inter the season before overlooked in favour of previous successes with Lazio and Bologna. Of course these wholesale changes posed the question of who would be chosen to wear the armband, and it was during the Viola pre-season retreat in Moena that defender Davide Astori was revealed as the man to take up that role for the forthcoming campaign.
The 31-year-old had arrived from Roma two seasons earlier and his performances had not always been perfect, yet at the time he seemed like a natural choice as captain. He seemed a little quietly spoken from an outsider’s perspective but – while results were as erratic as you might expect for a team with so many new faces – Astori brought a positive attitude to a situation that was viewed as a negative one by many supporters.
“He was one of the first people to believe in the new path we were taking,” Pioli told Radio Anch’io Sport recently. “He committed himself to making his teammates grow.” By round 26, the Viola were sitting in 10th place in the league after a mixed bag of results, yet this young squad were really bonding together under what they have since revealed to be perfect leadership by their new captain.
Then, the unthinkable happened.
As members of the side were waking up for breakfast in Udine’s Hotel La di Moret ahead of an away match with Udinese on March 4th, Fiorentina staff had made the horrific discovery of Astori lying dead in his room. “The most difficult moment was going around the rest of the rooms to tell the rest of the team what had happened,” confessed Pioli to the Corriere Fiorentino newspaper after the tragedy. “It was something that I would not wish on anyone.”
“He was one of the first people to believe in the new path we were taking. He committed himself to making his teammates grow.” Stefano Pioli, Fiorentina head-coach
After incredibly emotional scenes in Piazza Santo Spirito for Astori’s funeral on the following Thursday, that young side had to lift themselves to play at home versus Benevento just one week after their terrible loss. Inside the Stadio Artemio Franchi that Sunday, there was an atmosphere like nothing the world had ever seen before as fans and players made a moving tribute to their captain. It was a match that would change all those involved forever.
Brazilian central defender Vitor Hugo was handed the unenviable task of replacing Astori in the backline, and it certainly felt like fate when he lept into the air to score the only goal in that match. The 26-year-old ran to the bench and made a salute to a T-shirt held aloft by a member of the technical staff with a picture of the skipper printed on it, and since then the Viola players have greeted supporters with this same gesture after every match.
“When he died, I thought that’s it, I’ll never recover from this,” midfielder Riccardo Saponara told Sportweek magazine. “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.”
Saponara is just one of the players whose performances have drastically improved since this terrible event, the youngsters united in their grief and determined to achieve something together for their late leader.
In his book, Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success, legendary NBA Coach Phil Jackson describes how awareness, selfless team play and the importance of forming a deeper bond between players can bring about amazing results. He talks about the importance of “authenticity” for a team boss, something that those Viola youngsters will have seen from Pioli as a result of the tragedy, especially when he had the unenviable job of breaking such devastating news to them.
“What moves me is watching young men bond together and tap into the magic that arises when they focus with their whole heart and soul on something greater than themselves,” writes Jackson in his book. If that doesn’t describe what has happened to Fiorentina since that tragedy, then nothing ever will.
Captains are often described as being inspirational, but the attitude displayed following the death of Davide Astori is something else, a phenomenon seemingly at odds with a group of people dealing with such a tragic loss. Fiorentina’s Esprit de Corps has almost become a superpower in the six games played since that fateful morning and a lesson to all in the potency of positivity even in the very worst of circumstances.