A year ago, Luca Toni came close to hanging up his boots. Who can blame him? A personal tragedy had made him see football for what it really is: the most important of the least important things in life, a game and nothing more.
He and his longtime partner, Marta, had been expecting their first child together. With the due date nearly upon them, the couple were settling in at the local hospital in Modena to prepare for the birth when an earthquake struck the region. The maternity wing and paediatrics ward had to be evacuated. As you can imagine, there was panic. They had to move hospitals. On arriving at one in Turin, tests and scans yielded the sort of results no parents-to-be ever want to hear. There was no heartbeat. They'd lost the baby. "What should have been the most beautiful day of our lives turned into the worst," a statement read.
Toni soon quit Al-Nasr, the Dubai club with whom he'd spent the six months prior to his family's loss. Marta needed him and he needed Marta. They had planned on getting married that summer. "Then what happened, happened," Toni told Bild. "The most important thing is family, not the wedding." It was "an awful blow" for the pair, the hardest of times. "I even thought about retiring," he revealed, but Marta convinced him not to. "She was stronger than me," Toni admitted. He'd play on.
Betrayed by Dimitar Berbatov and back at square one in their search for a striker with the transfer deadline approaching, Fiorentina's owners, the Della Valle family, got in touch to see if five years after leaving the Artemio Franchi the most prolific striker of their time at the club would be interested in coming back. Some of Toni's happiest memories were in Florence: his 31-goal season, the Golden Boot success. He was loved there, and it was the right place to reconnect with football.
Wearing the purple shirt again, he scored on his comeback in a 2-0 win against Catania. It was his 50th goal for Fiorentina. This one, however, had an ulterior significance, discernible in its dedication to "who's no longer here." It was the first of eight goals Toni would score that season, the last of which would send former club Palermo down to Serie B.
Just like at Bayern Munich, the arrival of Mario Gomez signalled the end of Toni's time at Fiorentina. The Della Valle family were willing to give him a desk job. He could study for his coaching badges nearby at Coverciano. But even at 36, Toni wasn't done yet. In the meantime, there was good news. Marta was pregnant again. A month after the end of the season, she gave birth to a baby girl, Bianca. They were understandably overjoyed.
Toni joined newly promoted Hellas Verona soon after and like his contemporaries Alessandro Del Piero, Francesco Totti and Antonio Di Natale, he still has that hunger and desire to play on late into his 30s, even if it meant taking a 40 percent pay cut. "Fortunately I've earned a lot of money in my life," Toni told La Gazzetta dello Sport. "I am only still playing because I love football. I like to train. I like to work hard. I like to sacrifice myself. And as long as that's the case I'll keep playing."
Heading into this season on 271 career goals, he made the goal of getting to 300 before calling it a day. Asked to whom he'd dedicate his first goals at Hellas, the proud father inevitably replied: "To my baby daughter Bianca. She's two months old. After a difficult period, her birth gave me immense joy."
Toni's intention was to "start" his career at Hellas "with a bang" and oh, how he did exactly that.
Visiting the Bentegodi on Saturday evening were Milan. Playing under the balcony where Juliet asked "Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?" has left them heartbroken too often for their liking over the years. If Juliet is a zoccola (a "b****") to Napoli fans, then to those of Milan, she's a femme fatale.
On May 20, 1973, they watched their team, coached by the great Nereo Rocco, lose 5-3 here and throw away the title. This wasn't just any title either. It would have been Milan's 10th and therefore worth a prestigious commemorative star. Nearly 17 years later on April 22, 1990, it happened again. Days after overcoming Bayern Munich to reach back-to-back European Cup finals, Arrigo Sacchi's Milan succumbed to Hellas, another defeat that did for their hopes of winning the Scudetto. The term "Fatal Verona" was then entered into Rossoneri folklore.
It must be said that for quarter of an hour on Saturday, visiting Milan played as though they were uninhibited by inner demons, to say nothing of the many reminders of those Scudetto-costing stumbles. They had over 60 percent of the ball and were already in the lead. Receiving the ball on the edge of the area, Mario Balotelli waited for a midfield runner to burst past him, a trademark of Massimiliano Allegri's teams, and played Andrea Poli through. The summer signing from Sampdoria opened up his body and side-footed a shot beyond Hellas goalkeeper Rafael to score the first goal of the season in Serie A and his first in a competitive game for Milan.
It looked like plain sailing for the away side. But on the horizon there was T[u]oni e fulmini -- thunder and lightning. It first struck after half an hour.
Alone at the far post, Toni rose unchallenged to meet a corner and head in an equaliser. Milan were undone by a set piece again. When asked whether his former team had reinforced over the summer, Sky Italia pundit and Milan legend Billy Costacurta simply replied: "No." Elaborating upon why he felt that way, he added: "Because they conceded too many headers last season [15 in total] and have done nothing about it."
Milan would let another one in before this game was over. Eight minutes into the second half, Toni towered over Cristian Zapata to nod in a Bosko Jankovic cross and score what would be Hellas' winning goal. The headers were his 40th and 41st in Serie A. Only Oliver Bierhoff (44), Aldo Serena (43) and Alberto Gilardino (42) have seen more fly off their brow and into the net.
As fate would have it, Toni had also scored a brace against Milan while at Fiorentina in 2005. After Parma, they're the team he's had the most joy playing against. And to think Toni was so close to joining Milan six years ago.
"I was a step from Milan [in 2007]," he once told La Gazzetta dello Sport. "It was my last year in Florence. I knew that I'd be leaving. My agent found an agreement with Milan. It was all done. [Milan CEO Adriano] Galliani just needed some time to get the definitive OK to close the deal from [Silvio] Berlusconi. In the meantime, Bayern arrived. They came over to Italy. [Karl-Heinz] Rummenigge won me over with his enthusiasm and I committed myself to them. A few days later Berlusconi gave the OK but it was too late: I'd already said 'yes' to Bayern." What if, eh?
Regrets; Milan have a few. A more likely one than not signing Toni all those years ago, however, is selling Thiago Silva and not persuading Alessandro Nesta to stay on last summer. Their defence, went the joke, held up to scrutiny as well as Berlusconi's did in his latest trial.
After losing to another promoted side, Sampdoria, on the first weekend of last season, this was the first time Milan have suffered back-to-back opening-day defeats since 1939. Hellas coach Andrea Mandorlini, a former Inter player, had only won one of his previous 26 games on a bench in Serie A before Saturday. For him, he'd triumphed in a personal derby.
As you'd expect, the result has provoked understandable concern among Milan supporters ahead of the second leg of their Champions League playoff against PSV on Wednesday. Toni could have had a hat trick had referee Gianpaolo Calvarese awarded a penalty for a clumsy challenge on him by Philippe Mexes in the 73rd minute. He wasn't about to complain, though. "The two goals are for Marta and my daughter Bianca," he said. "I didn't score a third because I wouldn't know who to dedicate it to."
Allegri has nothing but praise for Toni. He hailed "how he fought like a lion," recommending that Milan's "kids" up front, Stephan El Shaarawy, M'Baye Niang and Mario Balotelli, take note.
You can't help admiring Toni after everything he and his loved ones have been through over the last year. It remains to be seen how long he can go on. In 2006, he joked: "Well, I can't possibly get any slower, so I might as well play on forever." Toni won't be able to do that, of course, but provided he keeps turning back time like he did Saturday, there might be another couple of years in him yet.