This time there was no tear in his eye. As Luca Toni wheeled away to celebrate scoring against Lazio on Sunday, his face betrayed nothing but that familiar goofy grin, accompanied, of course, by his trademark hand-cupping-ear gesture. After a five-year hiatus, the forward was back doing his thing in front of an adoring crowd at Fiorentina’s Stadio Artemio Franchi. Both he, and they, were revelling in the moment, with the Viola 2-0 up with just seconds left to play.
Toni had already re-opened his account a little over a month previously, in another 2-0 win over Catania. On as a substitute and making his first appearance of this second spell with the club, Toni had required less than a minute-and-a-half to find his way onto a Stevan Jovetic pass and gratefully slot it home from five yards out.
His joy on that occasion, though, was accompanied by so many other emotions that they could scarcely be processed. Less than three months earlier, Toni’s first child had been stillborn. This was his first competitive game of football since. After celebrating initially in his customary fashion before the home fans, he was seen to stop, kiss his hand and point to the sky.
“This goal is for everyone who stayed with me in these difficult months,” said Toni afterwards. “I dedicate it to those that are here and that those that are no longer with us.”
In the dark days that followed his son’s death, Toni had contemplated giving up football altogether. Out of contract following a six-month stint with Al Nasr in Dubai, he began to question his priorities. “I wanted to finish with football and find more time for [my partner] Marta,” he said. “But at times she was stronger than me. Over time I thought about it a lot and decided I wanted to close my career in a positive way.”
There could be few places more fitting for him to do that than in Florence. This might not be where it all began for Toni, but for a player whose nomadic career has taken in stops with 14 different clubs over the past 17 years, this is a city that feels more like home than most. It is the place where, at the age of 28, he was transformed from just another journeyman into a forward of international renown.
Toni had arrived at Fiorentina in 2005 in scintillating form, but it was here that he took his game to the next level. His 20 Serie A goals for Palermo the previous season (he had scored 30 in Serie B the year before) were still viewed by many as a flash in the pan for a player who had spent most of his career in the lower divisions.
He disabused the sceptics of that notion during an incredible first season with the Viola, scoring 31 goals in Serie A to become the first Italian ever to win the European Golden Shoe, awarded to the continent’s top goalscorer. Having paid roughly €10m to acquire the player from Palermo, Fiorentina found themselves turning down reported offers of close to €25m from Inter just a year later.
His goals propelled the club to second place and a Champions League berth, before a 30-point penalty resulting from the Calciopoli scandal deposited them back in mid-table. A year later he would score 16 goals in 29 appearances, though a further deduction would once again keep the team from qualifying from Europe’s top competition. In-between he won the World Cup, a key figure in Marcello Lippi’s side.
These were the best days of Toni’s career, and it was with a heavy heart that he left for Bayern Munich in 2007. By then 30 years old, and anxious to have his shot at the Champions League, Toni could not wait around another season.
His time in Germany would prove mixed – a brilliant first year, in which Toni scored 39 goals across all competitions, followed by a productive second one, but eventually also by a huge falling-out with the club’s hierarchy. By December 2009 he was telling reporters that it would be easier for him to win the lottery than stay in Munich. He returned to Italy with Roma, before bouncing on in quick succession to Genoa and then Juventus.
By the time Toni left the Bianconeri to join Walter Zenga’s Al Nasr, his career appeared to be winding down – yet when his contract ended and he returned to Italy this summer Fiorentina were not the only ones to show an interest. For a time Siena appeared to be the frontrunners, with the Viola distracted by their own pursuit of Dimitar Berbatov.
When that move fell through in bizarre circumstances—Berbatov had his head turned first by Juventus, then Fulham, after Fiorentina had already purchased the player business class tickets to fly out and sign his contract—Toni offered the perfect alternative. Indeed, while the Bulgarian had the advantage of being four years younger, the Italian in many ways seemed a more appropriate signing.
Fiorentina, after all, had been seeking this summer to restore not only competitiveness to a team which dipped perilously close to relegation last year, but also a sense of shared purpose to a dressing room that had lost it. A club which had until recently been renowned for its attractive football and commitment to fair-play initiatives had lately been making headlines for all the wrong reasons.
This was a team whose signature moment of 2011-12 had arrived when their then manager, Delio Rossi, came to blows with one of his players, Adem Ljajic, in the dugout. Whose off-field reputation was tarnished by tales of arrogant misdemeanour encapsulated in a report that Alessio Cerci had at one point informed a traffic warden that he would not move his Maserati from a restricted parking bay until he was done with his dinner.
The club’s owners, the Della Valle family, were accused of being complicit, seeming to lose enthusiasm for the project after their plans for a new stadium failed to come to fruition. Now they sought to change that impression with a complete overhaul, bringing in a young and dynamic manager in the person of Vincenzo Montella, as well as a new sporting director in Daniel Prade.
Impressive signings were made, from Borja Valero and Matias Fernandez to Alberto Aquilani and David Pizarro, but the arrival of Emiliano Viviano on loan (with a right to buy) from Palermo felt especially significant. Here was not only a gifted young player, but one who had grown up in Florence as a huge fan of the club.
“Sometimes he will spontaneously start to sing the chants of the Curva,” said Toni. “And we will all join in. It’s a nice way to help us to become more of a group.”
While not a boyhood fan, Toni fit a similar mould, a player with a genuine affection for the club and its owners. “If I am here it is because of Andrea [Della Valle],” he said. “The thing I would like is to see him be happy again. He has suffered so much in the last few years because he is such a fan.”
There was a hope, also, that Toni’s experience might enable him to offer leadership to the team. If that is not necessarily a natural role for a man who has made a career of being selfish on the pitch, then certainly he seems to have their respect. After the team’s captain, Manuel Pasqual, was substituted in the game against Catania, his deputy Jovetic attempted to give Toni the armband. The gesture was politely declined.
Toni has indeed sought to offer guidance to his team-mates, even if some of it is not always appreciated. There have been reports of the odd heated exchange with Jovetic, whom Toni would like to see take a few less shots from long range when a pass might have served the team better.
To date, though, it would be hard to argue that Toni’s presence has been anything other than a good thing for Fiorentina. His power and ability to hold the ball up are qualities that this squad would otherwise lack, and the quality of his turn and finish for the goal against Lazio demonstrate that his technical ability is undiminished.
It is a safe bet that the fans at the Stadio Artemio Franchi will be witnessing that celebration several more times this season. Hopefully, without the need for any more tears.