Luca Toni Bringing Joy Back to Hellas Verona

Anthony LopopoloFeatured ColumnistFebruary 4, 2014

Luca Toni has scored 10 goals in Serie A for Hellas Verona.
Luca Toni has scored 10 goals in Serie A for Hellas Verona.Claudio Villa/Getty Images

For a decade, his hair, wavy as ever, has stayed the same, as if slicked with oil or drenched by a fever of sweat, a few rogue locks dangling down the sides. When he was 26, the hair was prototypically Italian.

As he is now, 36, it is still youthful. That’s the only thing about Luca Toni that hasn’t changed. He has played for 15 clubs, and he has not played for a single team for more than three years at a time. 

He has won along the way—the European Golden Shoe in 2006, the World Cup, the Bundesliga in 2008.

A group of journalists “always tried to paint me as someone who only thinks about money,” he told Italian channel Rete Rete 24 in 2010. It is a rich accusation for a player who is so workmanlike on the field, who was raised in a small town in the province of Modena, who recently took a 40 percent cut in pay.

Toni climbed the rungs of Italian football, scoring in all three professional tiers. As Palermo were promoted to Serie A in 2004, the striker scored 30 goals, and he whacked in 20 more to lift the club to Europe. Either he rose with his clubs or the clubs rose with him. The same happened with Fiorentina: 31 strikes in 2006.

No one had scored that much in Italy at that level since 1959. He achieved in two years in Florence something that Gabriel Batistuta could not.

With Hellas Verona he is doing it again. There are the goals that come inside the penalty area, a total of 43 headers in Serie A—one short of the record set by former Milan striker Oliver Bierhoff.

He can score as he’s drifting away from the net or charging into the box, chipping over the goalkeeper, even while sliding. And he’s more of a playmaker than ever before, already producing a career-high six assists in league action. Luca Toni is a perfect reflection of Hellas Verona, a club back from years of hardship—even if the support was always there.

Felice Calabro'/Associated Press

The Gialloblu won the Italian championship in 1985 with a team largely full of misfits, a team without stars, led by Osvaldo Bagnoli, a coach who played with “balls made of rubber or rags,” as he told Il Corriere della Sera (h/t to James Horncastle of The Blizzard), near the railroads in the outskirts of Milan. Even in the third division, Verona drew more than 15,000 supporters to the stands.

This is one of three smallest clubs from the provinces to win a title in Italy since 1945, forgotten in an era of TV, branding and globalization. Their fans were racist, per Wright Thompson of ESPN FC, and, as academic John Foot detailed in the book Calcio, they sympathized with the separatists that trumpeted the values of northern Italy.

The sentiment was historical: they mocked the south, and Giuseppe Garibaldi was a disgrace for uniting the two as one country. They were raw and incorrect. They were, and perhaps still are, the outcasts, anachronisms of a game now sanitized and pasteurized.

They last played in Europe in 1988. Yet Verona are fifth, and they and Villarreal of La Liga are the only clubs promoted last year to the first division that currently hold a European spot in any of the top five leagues.

There are 16 games to play, and Verona could be big again. Their coach is Andrea Mandorlini, who managed them from Serie C all the way up. This is a journey, and it is more than a coincidence that they hired a journeyman to negotiate the way.

Before this nice story, Toni had to deal with life. He left Juventus for Dubai. He lost a child, stillborn. Retirement was a thought. Marta, his partner, made him think again.

“Fortunately I’ve earned a lot of money in my life,” Toni told La Gazzetta dello Sport via ESPNFC. “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.”

Not since he played with Bayern Munich in 2008-09 has he scored in double digits. He currently has 279 goals in his career, and he would like 300, per La Gazzetta dello Sport (h/t to The Guardian). He has a daughter, too, and he has ambitions again. “If [Cesare] Prandelli calls me,” Toni said of the coach of Italian national team, “I'd surely play.”