The thousands who could not cram into the Cathedral stood outside it. They kept quiet as the funeral service went on. As far as the eyes could see, they held a banner that stretched the horizons.
The reason they were there was to pay their last respects to Piermario Morosini. The Italian midfielder had passed away in a Serie B match between his club Livorno, and Pescara. As he lay on the pitch, medics had struggled to keep him alive, as others were forced to break into a police car and move it as it was blocking the entrance to the stadium with which the ambulance from a nearby hospital was attempting to go through.
Morosini had been everyone’s friend. Widely known among the Italian football family, he had played for Italy at all levels from Under-17 to Under-21. He had, as Marco Andreolli said, ”taught us how to smile every single day in life, even when the latter seemed to have turned its back on him.”
The reason for the second part of that quote was how tragic his life story had been. At the age of 15, his mother passed away, a year later, his severely disabled brother took his own life and then a year later, his father also passed on. With a physically handicapped sister to take care of, it further enhanced the tragedy for Morosini to pass away by collapsing on a football pitch.
That collapse echoed memories of nine years earlier, when in the 2003 Confederations Cup, Marc Vivien Foe had collapsed in the middle of the pitch and lost his life. The Cameroonian’s death would be so emotional, coming in a semi-final between his country and Colombia. The semi-final that would take place later on would also be filled with emotions, as many of the French players taking on Turkey knew Foe personally. When Thierry Henry scored the opener, he pointed to the sky as a sign of respect.
It meant that it looked out of place when Henry would again score the opener in the Final against Cameroon. This time though, his goal would come in the golden goal extra time and would thus win the game and the tournament for France at the expense of Cameroon. Everyone was supporting Cameroon with sympathy even though it was the French who deserved to win.
But the Final would end just how it had started – with a tribute to Foe. At the start, the Captain’s of both teams, Marcel Desailly and Rigobert Song had walked out holding a lifesize photo of Foe. The Final would end the same way – both teams walking around hand in hand, holding the photo as the fans applauded. All the Cameroonian players were wearing Foe’s jersey number 17.
Foe’s then club, Manchester City would retire his number 23. French club sides Lens and Lyon also did the same to the number 17 that he had worn while playing with them earlier on in his career.
And indeed, the sad tales of footballers losing their lives on the pitch does not end there. There is the morbid YouTube video of Benfica’s Mikhlos Feher collapsing on the pitch in 2004. Antonio Puerta, a promising Spanish left winger would also lose his life after collapsing on the pitch in a La Liga game in 2007. In India, Brazilian Cristiano Júnior collided with an opposition goalkeeper as he scored the goal that would win Dempo Sports Club the Federation Cup, also in 2004 . There is also Egypt’s Mohamed AbdelWahab, whom collapsed after training with his club side Al Ahly in 2006.
These deaths, sad and tragic, would however unite communities in their quest to produce the perfect tribute. For Morosini for example, Italian club side Udinese opted to take in his handicapped sister and take care of her. In AbdelWahab’s case, the whole Egyptian national team would travel to his hometown to attend his funeral.
In 2009, Spanish defender Dani Jarque lost his life after a pre-season practice match for his club, Espanyol. Found dead in his hotel room, the recently appointed Espanyol captain would be honoured by having his number 21 jersey retired. The Espanyol fans have since then resorted to a minute’s applause during every home match whenever the clock hits 21 minutes.
It was however in the Final of the World Cup that the greatest tribute came. After scoring the most important goal in Spanish football history, Andres Iniesta wheeled away in celebration. With the whole world watching, Iniesta took off his jersey to unveil his white vest underneath. On it was written, “Dani Jarque siempre con nosotros” which translates to “Dani Jarque, always with us.”
That is the message that aptly applies to all of football’s fallen soldiers.