One of the key narratives sorry for using that word around this year’s Champions League final was the return of some of Italy’s World Cup winning squad to the stadium where, back in 2006, they had claimed Jules Rimet in a penalty shoot-out win against France. Alas, while the return to Berlin was not a happy one for Buffon, Pirlo, Chiellini and Barzagli, another member of that squad from 2006 had much reason to cheer as this season ended.
Turning 38-years-old as the season came to an end, Luca Toni, playing for lowly Hellas Verona, finished as joint top scorer in Serie A. In doing so he became the oldest player to win the Capocannoniere (Serie A Golden Boot). It completed a remarkable resurgence in fortunes for a player who, two years ago, seemed destined for retirement after a season in the United Arab Emirates with Al Nasr, scoring three times in eight appearances.
That Toni should score 22 league goals this past season, as well as 20 the year before, for a team like Verona, who finished the 2014-15 season in 13th in Serie A, is perfectly in keeping with a career in which he appeared to achieve an awful lot in spite of his circumstances.
After scratching around in the lower leagues for much of his early career, Toni enjoyed three seasons in Serie A with two different clubs – Vicenza and Brescisa.
Following a modest 16 goals in 50 games for the latter, Toni made the move which would kick-start his career and thrust him to prominence when he joined Palermo in Serie B. It seems fitting that for Toni to step into the limelight that he had to step away from the highest table, to take what seemed a step backwards to do so.
Toni plundered 30 goals in his season back in Serie B, firing Palermo to Italian football’s top division. In the following season, his exploits did not stop with the step up in class, 20 goals in 35 league appearances helping Palermo to qualify for the UEFA Cup at the end of the 2004-2005 season.
His goals earned Toni a €10m move to Fiorentina in 2005. It was this move that was the making of Toni as a striker of international renown. In his first season in Florence, Toni scored 31 Serie A goals, the most scored in the league for over 50 years and just four shy of the all time record. He was rewarded with the European Golden Shoe.
The end of that season saw Toni take his well-earned place in Italy’s squad for the 2006 World Cup. It was here that he came to main-stream prominence, scoring two goals in a quarter final win against Ukraine and ending up on the team of the tournament. However, it was his performance in the final which perhaps best fits in with the flow of Toni’s career.
A goal in a World Cup Final would not fit alongside his achievements from the margins – it would be far too high profile and centre stage. Toni instead had a goal wrongly disallowed for offside and crashed another header against the bar. The man who was never centre of attention once again left the headlines to others but went home with a medal and a place in the team of the tournament.
A season plagued by injury and a points deduction for implications in a match-fixing scandal meant that it seemed increasingly likely Toni’s second season in Florence would be his last, yet he still clocked up an impressive 16 goals.
When this move did indeed come to pass, it was not to Juventus or either of the Milan clubs, as one may have expected for a World Cup winning striker who had been top scorer in Italy the season previous. Instead, the latest stop on the Luca Toni ‘outside, looking in’ tour was Bayern Munich.
Hard as it may be to imagine today given their recent dominance in Germany, Bayern had only done well enough the season before Toni’s arrival to qualify for the UEFA Cup. It is perhaps the most striking example of Toni never quite bursting out onto centre-stage, finally earning a high profile move but joining Germany’s most successful club team a season after they finished 4th in the league.
His first was another season filled with goals, 24 in the league (to finish as top scorer) and an impressive 39 overall.
In what was becoming somewhat of a pattern, his second season in Bavaria was hampered again by injury yet again he managed to weigh in with 14 goals in 25 games.
His relationship with the club broke down as his injury problems persisted and eventually, in 2010, he was sent out on loan to Roma. Back in Italy, finally having joined a major force in Italian football, Toni may have hoped for a return to form and an arresting of what was becoming an alarming slide. While Roma ended the season in 2nd place, Toni’s highest Serie A finish, he had a forgettable time personally, netting a modest five goals in 15 games. Roma did not move to make the loan permanent.
It seemed like Toni’s career was petering out. A move to Genoa for the 2010/11 season brought only three goals in 16 games. Even his ability to notch goals for underdog teams, once his trademark, had deserted him.
Even a surprise move to Juventus in January 2011, some four years later than it should have come about, could not jolt Toni out of his slump. In an unremarkable season, the only achievement of note was his 100th Serie A goal, scored on his debut for Juventus.
After his spell in the Middle East, Toni made a return to Fiorentina which felt a lot like a long goodbye. In a fitting return to the team, Toni scored one and set up another. Another seven goals followed across the season but La Viola did not extend his contract. Just when it seemed Toni may retire, he agreed the move to Verona which would re-energise his entire career.
The remarkable resurgence in Luca Toni’s career in his two seasons at Verona has been in stark contrast to the seemingly terminal decline of the seasons previous. His career had appeared to be winding down ever since he left Munich. Indeed, since his move to Palermo, in eight transfers only three have involved fees. Toni has always seemed to be a veteran player, perhaps owing to him already being 29 at the 2006 World Cup, when he first became widely known across Europe.
Toni has never enjoyed the cult status bestowed upon other Italian forwards of his generation, such as Pippo Inzaghi or Antonio Di Natale. His journeyman-like hopping around between clubs can perhaps attest to some of that, but it can also be explained by a kind of snobbishness. Toni is and was not the most technically gifted player and is more readily suited to a direct approach to the game.
However, if one looks beyond this, there is much to be admired about Luca Toni. Coming up through the leagues, Toni achieved great feats of goalscoring with unfashionable, underdog teams.
His exploits with Fiorentina won him a place at the World Cup, where he scored two goals and helped Italy lift the Jules Rimet. He undertook a move abroad and found his knack for goals had travelled with him and when injury and a loss of form looked to have winded down his career without his consent, he re-invigorated it the only way he knew how, scoring 20-odd goals a season for an unfashionable and unlikely team in Serie A.
Toni’s playing style may be somewhat of a throwback but so is his career path. In modern football, with an ever increasing race to the centre, to achieve anything of real merit one can only play for a handful of clubs. Toni achieved huge amounts across his career from the margins, never appearing as the centre of attention. While others hogged the headlines, Luca Toni was more likely to be holding the match-ball.