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Remembering Fiorentina's first game without Davide Astori

Tomorrow marks three years since Fiorentina Captain Davide Astori tragically passed away in a hotel room in Udine. As the team prepared for an away game, back on March 4, 2018, the alarm was raised after the Italy international failed to appear at breakfast time.

On that strangest of Sundays, the match versus Udinese was of course postponed, as were the rest of the Serie A fixtures that day. The following week, the Fiorentina squad – immersed in their individual and collective grief – attended his funeral on Thursday, left their tributes outside the stadium, and trained for a home fixture with Benevento without their Captain.

How that group coped with such an intense week with the world’s eyes upon them, yet still managed to pick themselves up to be ready for another match the following Sunday, was beyond comprehension.

“We had to get back to playing and break the ice, so it was right to return in front of our fans,” said Viola boss Stefano Pioli at the time. “To say it was an emotional day would be an understatement. We can’t pretend that everything will go back to being the way it was, because it can’t. If I had a united group before, and Davide deserved a lot of credit for that, then today they are even closer.

“I wasn’t sure that it was the best idea to play today, but the players wanted to get on the field. They are experiencing a situation bigger than themselves, Astori was a central figure in everything we did. These lads are young and wanted to give their soul for Davide today.”

For those who were watching that day, the match began like no other. While matches in Italy usually begin with the roar of the crowd and the colour of the Ultras, this game began with sombre, eerie silence.

It was the 13th minute when, as planned, the ball was kicked into touch and both teams stood still as supporters in the Curva Fiesole unveiled a magnificent choreography that simply read “Davide 13.” 

What followed was pure synchronicity, events that were almost too clear to be written off as pure coincidence. 

It was a clear, sunny day in Florence, but just as the play stopped and the tribute in the Curva was revealed, the rain began to fall in Florence. Midfielder Milan Badelj – who had taken on the responsibility of wearing the armband that had belonged to Davide in the most heartbreaking of circumstances – pointed to the sky as if he knew it was a sign from his former team-mate.

Badelj had made an emotional speech at his Captain’s funeral just two days before. He had mentioned that Astori would always turn on the light in the physiotherapy room for the rest of the players. “Now you are the light for us,” he concluded.

If the start of the rain could have been dismissed as a mere coincidence, what was to happen next could challenge even the most cynical of observers as Davide Astori’s shirt number 13 began to appear in multiple different ways.

Vitor Hugo – the centre-back who had the unfortunate task of replacing Astori in the side – made a superhuman leap to an impossible height, heading home from a corner. 

The time when the ball hit the back of the net was 13:00. 

Hugo was wearing the number 31 shirt, the reverse of Astori’s number, and having fired in on his 13th appearance for Fiorentina, the Brazilian ran across to the bench and saluted a t-shirt bearing the image of his Captain, a perfect tribute from his replacement in the heart of central defence. That was to be the only goal of the game.

It was heartbreaking to see the players collapse on the pitch at the end of the match, broken from the sheer emotional exhaustion of the last seven days. As Milan Badelj was held up by the referee, there was the faintest hint of a rainbow appearing in the sky. 

“You have to believe in something in life,” continued Pioli in response to what had certainly seemed like a message from the divine. “It was right that it should go this way. [Astori] was always positive and thought we were on the right track.” 

Nothing will ever be the same at Fiorentina following the tragic loss of their Captain. Yet on that day, Davide Astori reminded everyone at the club that his presence will always be felt in Florence.