Flags flew at half-mast in Italy yesterday: At the Italian football federation in Rome, and at other buildings and grounds, including the national coaching centre in Florence that overlooks the stadium where Davide Astori used to play. Professional football in Italy came to a halt on Sunday and teams will be wearing black armbands this week.
The sudden death of the Fiorentina captain on Sunday morning did not quite stop the country in its tracks. But as Italy voted, at the end of the most bitterly fought election campaign for years, Astori’s tragic and mysterious fate at least brought the football community together, clubs, players, and supporters alike.
The initial reaction was just a sense of numbing shock, and grief for Astori’s partner Francesca Fioretti and their two-year old daughter Vittoria.
Now questions are being asked about whether this was a freak event, or whether people — doctors, coaching staff, anyone — may have missed something.
Astori’s body was discovered by teammates in his room at the hotel Là di Moret in Udine, a four-star Best Western establishment where Fiorentina were preparing for their Serie A game against Udinese. There was nothing untoward about the preparations. The extreme weather of the previous few days had passed and the team had travelled to the north-east by coach as usual.
On Sunday afternoon the first reaction of Udine chief prosecutor Antonio De Nicolo was that Astori had simply died of cardiac arrest while he was asleep.
“It is strange that a professional player can be struck down by an illness like this without warning signs,” he said. “But anything is possible. The unthinkable can always happen.” Yesterday, however, he decided to proceed with a formal investigation, starting with an autopsy, with possible charges of “culpable homicide against person or persons unknown”.
“It’s our duty to establish if Astori’s death happened as a tragic fatality or whether someone should have noticed something,” said De Nicolo.
The investigation “will enable us to ascertain responsibilities, if there are any, among the people who followed him on a day-to-day basis, in training and on the pitch”.
The investigation may be less dramatic than it sounds. Sudden deaths of apparently fit young men — it does seem mostly to be young men — are not unknown, even in their sleep, and football has produced periodic tragedies of this sort.
Only last December, Dublin youngster Izzy Dezu died after collapsing while playing for Shelbourne U16s. Just a year ago Derry City captain Ryan McBride died in his sleep, 24 hours after leading his side to victory in a game against Drogheda United.
Italian football was last shaken in this way five years ago, when Piermario Morosini collapsed and died while playing for Livorno against Pescara. Morosini was on loan from Udinese at the time, and it was an incident which shocked the city as well as the club, which may partly explain the extra concern to investigate this latest tragedy.
Italian football does have a murky past, in that footballers were sometimes given medication which was inadequately supervised, or even downright dangerous, and subsequently suffered and died from the side-effects. That was a long time ago, however, and medical practice and care at the top level are as good as any in Europe.
It would be wrong to speculate about possible reasons for Astori’s death — a tragic accident remains the most likely explanation — especially at a time when fellow professionals, and managers such as Carlo Ancelotti, Antonio Conte, and Max Allegri, have focused on his qualities as a person as well as a good player.
Tributes to the Fiorentina captain from Juventus players have been particularly touching because of the traditional animosity between the two clubs.
Juve captain Gigi Buffon led the way with heartfelt words: “I rarely publicly express my thoughts on a person because I always allowed the beauty and unique nature of relationships, of reciprocal respect and affection, to avoid being 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… you were one of the best sporting figures I ever came up against.” Paulo Dybala, who starred for Juve with a stunning last-minute goal against Lazio on Saturday, said: “The world of football will tell what a fine person was Davide Astori.” Fiorentina’s captain will be in many people’s thoughts when Juventus walk out at Wembley tomorrow night.
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