'Our captain forever': Fiorentina says goodbye to Davide Astori

FLORENCE, Italy -- Thousands of mourners tied their purple Fiorentina scarves tight against the chill and crowded together in the piazza outside the Basilica of Santa Croce. Workers started building the church in 1294, and for more than 700 years now, this is where Florence says farewell to someone who has earned a place in the city's parochial heart. Santa Croce is where secular saints are canonized. The funerals of Michelangelo, Galileo and Machiavelli were held here, and at 10 a.m. on Thursday, a white Maserati hearse carrying the body of the Fiorentina football captain Davide Astori stopped at the foot of its marble stairs.

Fans and citizens pressed against the police barricades. They removed their scarves and raised them high above their heads. People on the front row wiped tears from their eyes. They remained silent except for polite, restrained applause -- a show of appreciation -- for famous footballers who arrived to pay their respects. A towering statue of Dante stood watch on the crowd, and huge funeral flower arrangements surrounded the base, many from other Serie A clubs. Even Fiorentina's most hated rival, Juventus, sent a tasteful spray of white roses and white lilies. Mourners leaned out of the open windows towering on all sides of the piazza, hanging banners in memory of capitano.

It was quiet in the crowded square when a group of men emerged from a street that runs between the Arno River and the piazza. Everyone recognized them.

The Juventus football team had come to Florence.

They played in London the previous night in the Champions League, but a surprising number walked into the square together, headed up the steps into the sanctuary. As the mourners realized what the enemy players had done and how far and fast they'd traveled to do it, the applause started. Quickly it spread. The clapping grew louder and louder until even the priests inside Santa Croce could hear it.

Gigi Buffon, the Juventus goalie, looked out and saluted the crowd.

The Italian football world stopped on Thursday to bury Davide Astori, who died of natural causes in his sleep. He left behind a family with Francesca and a toddler daughter Vittoria. Only 31 years old, his sudden death shocked fans and his fellow players, who were forced to consider the chaos that might overtake them at any moment.

Astori was so young and the city he called home is so old -- with traditions and rituals stretching back 800 years -- that these colliding truths gave birth to the scene in the piazza. It was a state funeral. Men and women in traditional local uniforms with feathers and vibrant colors carried drums and banners. His family arrived and mingled near the hearse. His mother kept stealing glances at the coffin a few feet away.

The civic grief in Florence didn't make a lot of sense from the outside; he was a good but not great player who had only been with the team for about three years. But in Florence, where citizens care much more about their city than their country, he approached his captainship with a responsibility that resonated. He made himself visible and touchable and knowable. He didn't grandstand or talk a lot. "A few words but direct," says Paolo Caselli, a local journalist. "No blah, blah, blah."

Sometimes Florentines can feel like strangers in their own town. This is where the world climbed out of the Middle Ages and those relics of history, from museums like the Uffizi to churches like Santa Croce, have brought so many generations of tourists and students to the city that it can feel overrun by outsiders. Ancient but lingering class divides split the city even more, so that the only thing everyone agrees on is Fiorentina. Centuries ago Florence was a city-state and it remains inward looking. As Alessio Francesco cut meat on Thursday at his butcher's stall in the Sant'Ambrogio Market, he quoted a popular saying: "Florence is my capital and Fiorentina is my national team."

Word spread through the city about the ovation Juventus received. For some local citizens, it felt like a little bit of hopeful breeze. The nation just went through a brutal election that saw the same rising populism that's been sweeping so many other countries. "It's a miracle," Caselli said. "In Florence, applause for Juventus? Never, never, never. Today is a miracle."

For a few hours, the Florentines took back the piazza from the usual camera-toting tourists. They plugged into old rituals. The first people to arrive in the piazza found vendors setting up stands to sell Astori jerseys. The fans ran the merchants away, telling them not to make business of today's tragedy.

The service began. Speakers around the church broadcast the service to the crowd.

A cardinal addressed the mourners. He invoked the famous Florentines buried in this basilica where they'd gathered and said that Davide Astori now belonged in that number.

Astori's brother, Marco, tried to give a eulogy.

His breathing turned ragged and he struggled to get the words to come out. He thanked all the players for coming and then thanked the people out on the piazza. They responded with a loud applause that everyone inside Santa Croce heard. The second and final eulogist was a teammate, midfielder Milan Badelj, who finished his tribute with a story. Astori, he said, always got to the training facility first and took responsibility for turning on the lights in the weight room.

"For me," Badelj said, "you are the light."

The priest bid the mourners farewell.

He looked at the coffin at the front of the church.

"Davide," he said, "go in peace."

The ultras carrying long flag poles began moving as they recognized the mass coming to an end, taking up position in a line across the center of the piazza. The speakers broadcast a soprano singing a mournful, soaring funeral aria, her voice carrying off the mustard colored buildings fronting the piazza. The mourners took their scarves off once more and held them above their heads. Bells rang. The ultras started waving the flags and a fan set off a purple flare, the smoke billowing up in the center of the crowd. Even hardened reporters in the press bullpen on the church steps cried.

A fan in the middle held up a homemade sign that said, "Our captain forever."

This is the scene that greeted the family of Davide Astori as they exited the church. The pallbearers shouldered his wood coffin through the towering front doors of Santa Croce. That's when the crowd, basically silent through the entire service, began to sing the Fiorentina anthem. Some call it a hymn.

"The hymn is like a prayer," Caselli said.

The ultras waved the big flags and now purple, pink and white flares popped off all over the crowd until the entire piazza was hidden in acrid smelling smoke. The pallbearers stopped and held the coffin in place, waiting for the song to finish. Only then did they make the slow walk to the hearse.

The mourners chanted, "Capitano! Capitano! Capitano!"

They threw bouquets of flowers at the hearse.

They took off their scarves and threw them, too.

A funeral director scooped everything up and piled it on top of the casket.

His mother blew a kiss to the crowd.

As the hearse began to pull away, the fans chanted, "Stay with us! Stay with us!"

Then one final chant rose up from the crowd, the greatest compliment a Florentine can pay someone from the outside, the rarest of bestowed civic honors.

"Davide Astori ... One of us! Davide Astori ... One of us!"

Thirty minutes later, the piazza was empty again, except for the tourists and the pigeons. It's like it never happened, except the people outside the church won't ever forget it. They'd performed their civic responsibility, as their fathers and mothers taught them to do. The city asked citizens and business owners to shut down for one minute at 1 p.m. -- 13:00 in military time, which was Astori's number -- and that's what happened. A minute or two before, Alessio the butcher was standing in the Sant'Ambrogio Market beneath his Fiorentina banners and posters.

"For me," he said, "a football player is like Dante."

Then the clock hit 1 p.m. He turned away from the counter and switched off the lights in his shop. All around the market, everyone else did the same. A minute later, the market returned to life. At the Trattoria da Rocco, a table of locals who'd been in the piazza poured glasses of wine from a straw-wrapped bottle and sang the Fiorentina hymn.