Round 37 of Serie A action saw two long-time servants of calcio say their respective goodbyes, with both veterans signing off by converting penalties
On Sunday, iconic World Cup winning striker Luca Toni bade adieu to Hellas Verona, Serie A and football as a whole when he nonchalantly chipped a panenka penalty beyond Juventus’ stand-in goalkeeper, Neto, to send the Mastini on their way to an unexpected win which condemned the Bianconeri to their first loss since October.
As close to perfect as this goodbye was, the only aspect he might have changed were for one-time teammate Gianluigi Buffon to be the man he left hopelessly scrambling to the side, only to see the ball float up an into his net. Though, that said, perhaps Toni wouldn’t have felt quite as comfortable humiliating his fellow World Cup winner.
The ball was still spinning and had barely reached the net when the 38-year-old took off to commence his well-rehearsed trademark celebration.
Toni himself put it best when discussing the somewhat sombre news of his retirement, matched with the possible exits of Antonio Di Natale and Francesco Totti from top-flight football on the peninsula.
“When Francesco, Antonio and I stop, almost a thousand goals will go with us,” he said. “It will be a sad day for Italian football.”
A sad day indeed, in 324 Serie A appearances, the veteran netted an impressive 157, including a nearly unbelievable 22 times in the 2014-15 campaign, which saw him end the season as Italy’s oldest capocannoniere in history and Verona’s first.
Atalanta, too, have only ever had one capocannoniere. Though Gianpaolo Bellini is certainly not that one, rather a certain Filippo Inzaghi in the 1996-97 campaign. The defender has only scored half of Toni’s 2014-15 tally across his 18-year career.
Bellini spent his near two decades a long way from the heights reached by Toni, as he and Atalanta bounced between Italy’s first and second tier, but he too said an emotional goodbye to his home fans this weekend by putting away a first-half penalty.
Since making his debut for the Bergamaschi in 1998 after graduating through the club’s famed youth academy, the one-club defender has donned the Nerazzurri shirt on 435 occasions, with 279 of these coming in Italy’s top-flight.
He represented his country at Under-21 level several times, though he never quite made the breakthrough into the first-team. Fondly viewed in Bergamo, Bellini’s farewell shows exactly just how highly thought of he is by those who frequently occupy the Curva Pisani and its surrounding stands on a Sunday afternoon.
The club planned ‘Bellini Day’ in celebration of the 36-year-old, and the fans turned out in their droves to thank their long-time servant. As they were in January for German Denis’s departure, emotions were running high in the second heartfelt goodbye at the Stadio Atleti Azzurri d’Italia this season, and Bellini was visibly moved by the tribute on the curva as he was reduced to tears on the field after the match.
His ending was something reminiscent of a fairytale, as when the Orobici were awarded a penalty in the 19th minute, the duty of dispatching the kick was awarded to the captain. His conversion from 12-yards represented just his sixth Serie A goal and subsequently sparked scenes of pure jubilation, with even substitutes running onto the pitch to celebrate with their departing leader.
Bellini’s retirement could mark the beginning of the end for a certain type of defender in Italy. La Dea teammate Guglielmo Stendardo is very much made from the same mould but, it could be argued, lacks the same element of elegance as possessed by Atalanta’s now ex-No.6.
With Di Natale also confirming his Udinese exit and possible retirement for the summer, and uncertainty still surrounding the future of Totti at Roma, the goodbyes could be set to continue beyond the season and into the summer as Serie A loses some of its most recognisable faces.
La Gazzetta dello Sport announced Toni’s retirement as being the loss of the “last great Italian centre-forward,” and as football changes, perhaps they are right. Going further, the retirement of Bellini is definitely a loss for advocates of the old-school style of defending.