In tempting Marco Di Vaio away from Bologna, the Montreal Impact have pulled off a feat that not even Juventus, Milan or Inter could achieve. All three of those clubs had made enquiries about the striker within the last 18 months and all were swiftly rebuffed. Even a personal phone call from Alessandro Nesta— an old friend from their time together in the Lazio youth team—could not persuade him to consider abandoning the Rossoblù.
Speaking at a press conference this afternoon, Di Vaio confirmed that he would have turned those clubs down even today. “I could never have accepted a move to another Italian or European club,” he said. “I would sooner have retired.”
Instead he has chosen a different path, that of one last great career adventure. He spoke with some enthusiasm of “new experiences”, though it must be said that the overall mood of the press conference was a sombre one. Di Vaio had imagined finishing his career at Bologna, repeating his desire to do so innumerable times in press conferences just such as these over the last year and more. Now he simply said he did not want to be “a weight on the club”.
The timing of the announcement will allow him to enjoy a proper send-off this Sunday at the Stadio Renato dell’Ara, when Bologna take on Napoli in their final home game of the season. You can be sure there will be tears. Rumours of Di Vaio’s imminent departure had prompted fans to hang banners outside the club’s training ground begging him to stay.
It’s not hard to see why. Di Vaio has scored 65 times in 134 Serie A appearances for Bologna, averaging almost a goal every other game despite the fact that throughout his four-year stay they have regularly been one of the worst teams in the division. In his first two seasons with the club they finished 17th—one spot above the relegation places—and last year they rose only to 16th. Without him they would undoubtedly have gone down.
In fact, they would likely have gone bust. From late 2010 into the beginning of 2011 Di Vaio seemed at times to still be the only thing holding Bologna together, with the club buckling under the weight of financial problems which left them unable to pay their players for months on end. The striker gave younger team-mates money out of his own pocket to help them make rent, whilst also taking it upon himself to organise meetings with local businessmen in a bid to secure investment in the club.
With the team changing hands so frequently at one point that even the fans were struggling to keep up, the newspaper La Repubblica spoke for many in declaring Di Vaio to be “Bologna’s real president”. At least one columnist voiced the opinion that he should stand in elections to become the city’s mayor.
All of which might still not have seemed so remarkable until you consider the player’s past. Far removed from the classic tale of local boy done good, Di Vaio was a journeyman who had only arrived in the city at the age of 31. He arrived as an afterthought, unwanted by Genoa after a season in which he had scored just three in 22 appearances. Bologna were his 10th club in 15 years.
That is not to say his career to that point had been a total bust. Graduating from the Lazio academy at a time when their attack was already fully stocked with the likes of Giuseppe Signori and Pierluigi Casiraghi, Di Vaio had bounced around on loan for a couple of years before landing at Salernitana, whom he helped to promotion in 1998. They would be immediately relegated, but not before his 12 Serie A goals had caught the eye of Parma, whom he joined in 1999.
Forty-one top-flight goals in 83 appearances over the next three seasons prompted Juventus to sign him in a deal that was reported at the time as being worth close to €30m. He had been sought in the same summer by Inter as a replacement for Ronaldo, only for the Nerazzurri to have a late change of heart and sign Hernán Crespo instead.
If initial impressions were positive, with reporters demanding after Di Vaio’s first game whether he and Alessandro Del Piero had been secretly training together for years, he was ultimately unable to live up to the expectations generated by such a fee, scoring just 18 times in two seasons. From there his career appeared to slip into irreversible decline. Underwhelming spells with Valencia and Monaco followed before he arrived at Genoa in January 2007. Nine goals in four months helped them to promotion from Serie B, but he was unable to sustain such figures once back in the top-flight.
Indeed, if Di Vaio is so sad to leave Bologna then it is perhaps for the very reason that it has taken him so long to find a home that truly feels like home. So desperate was he to rediscover that sense of belonging when he left Genoa in 2008 that he called the president of Lazio, Claudio Lotito, and offered to halve his wages if they would just let him return to the team and the city where he grew up. Lotito declined.
Lazio’s loss was to be Bologna’s gain. Di Vaio’s first goal, in a Coppa Italia fixture against Vicenza, arrived within one day of his first training session for the club. They kept coming, his 24 league strikes that season making him the joint-second top scorer in Serie A, level with Diego Milito and just one behind Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Where most players might peak in their mid-20s, Di Vaio was playing his best football as he approached his mid-30s. “Di Vaio is 34, but he has never been this young,” remarked La Repubblica’s Gabriele Romagnoli in late 2010. Beyond being the club’s top scorer, captain and operating president, he also insisted on taking all of their set-pieces.
The goals themselves were rarely spectacular, borne more out of instinctiveness and ruthlessness than trickery and fancy footwork, but one way or another they kept on flowing. “They are to football what the sucker punch is to boxing: they come out of nowhere,” added Romagnoli. “They aren’t the result of a great move, you don’t get to see them developing, but they knock opponents out.”
Among the club’s supporters, they made him a hero to the extent that even his implication, along with a number of team-mates, in a local scandal regarding their use of disabled parking bays could not temper their affection for him. When he signed a new two-year deal with the club in 2011 there was much celebration, with fans looking forward to seeing him retire a Bologna player before presumably going on take up another role at the club.
Since offering that contract, however, the club itself has come to see things differently. The arrival of Alessandro Diamanti and Roberto Acquafresca gave them younger (even if the former is still not exactly young) talents to work around. Despite being the club’s top scorer once again this season, Di Vaio began to feel marginalised. Where Di Vaio’s ability to take the club on his shoulders used to be celebrated, now there was a suggestion that he made them too one-dimensional, his mere presence on the pitch effectively demanding that all play go through him.
The thought of being a burden on a club that he held so dear was too much for Di Vaio to take. Rather than hang around and be the source of problems, he chose instead to embark on a different course, leaving for now so that he might return to the city and the club in a non-playing role once he was ready to call time on his career. Not yet, though. Di Vaio, after all, believes he still has plenty of goals in him. And he’s bringing them to Montreal.