David di Tommaso (6 October 1979 - 29 November 2005). Thomas Archer reflects on a great loss for FC Utrecht & the game as a whole.
On the 29th November it will be 5 years since FC Utrecht and Dutch football lost one of their most promising players. A central defender who could play in the midfield, Frenchman David Di Tommaso, or DiTo as he was affectionately known to team-mates and fans, won the ‘FC Utrecht Supporters Player of the Season Award’ for his performances in his first season at the club, and quickly became a firm fans’ favorite in the Domstad.
DiTo was born in the Grenoble suburb of Echirolles in 1979 and signed his first professional contract for AS Monaco in 1997. Whilst playing for the club he was part of the 1999-2000 Ligue 1 winning team, under now Olympique Lyon coach Claude Puel, as well as winning the Trophee des Champions as Monaco beat Nantes 6-5 on penalties at the Stade Auguste Bonal, in the French-Swiss border town of Montbeliard. Di Tommaso was also part of the Monaco team that played in the Champions League although unfortunately he only ended up playing 14 games for the club and did not manage to get on the scoresheet during his time in the principality.
At the beginning of the 2000-01 season Di Tommaso moved to the slightly less glamorous club of Sedan in the Ardennes in the North of France. Sedan were an up and coming side who gained promotion to Ligue 1 in 1999 as well as reaching the French Cup Final in the same year, losing 1-0 to FC Nantes. They held their own in Ligue 1 qualifying through their 7th place finish for the 2001/02 UEFA Cup, where they were knocked out in the first round against Marila Pribam from the Czech Republic. Sedan had a number of up-and-coming players and their 5th place finish the following season was based around the Senegalese pair Henri Camara and Salif Diao. Both would later play in the English Premier League and be part of a successful Senegal team at the 2002 World Cup, as well as team-mates and Cameroonian internationals Modeste M’Bami and Pius Ndiefi.
Di Tommaso fitted Sedan perfectly; the man who felt like he had a point to prove suited the newcomers who were hoping to crash the Ligue 1 party. A 7th place finish in his first season before a 5th place finish the next showed that Sedan were not an easy team to play against. In 2001-02 Sedan finished a lowly 15th place before being relegated back to Ligue 2 in the 02-03 season, only finishing above Troyes AC some 3 points away from safety. Sedan finished 5th in their first season back in Ligue 2 with Di Tommaso playing 26 games and scoring once before he made the decision to move with his young family to the Netherlands, signing for FC Utrecht.
At the time FC Utrecht were regularly finishing in mid-table and were seen as one of the teams who would flirt neither with relegation nor the championship race, although they were regularly in contention for UEFA Cup football losing to French club Auxerre the year before Di Tommaso signed for the club. On the plus side the re-development of the Nieuw Galgenwaard was nearly finished and the stadium deserved a team fit to play there.
In Di Tommaso’s first season the club had qualified yet again for the UEFA Cup and made it to the club stages with DiTo now a staple of the first team. Unfortunately however, they lost all of their group games to Dnipro, Real Zaragoza, Club Brugge and Rapid Wien. In the league they finished a disappointing 11th place, as PSV waltzed to a ten-point advantage at the top of the Eredivisie, meaning they did not qualify for European competition the following year. DiTo played 31 competitive games for FC Utrecht in the 2004-5 season without scoring but was a vital cog at the back of a steady Utrecht defense, eventually being awarded the Fans’ Player of the Year Award for his sterling performances.
The 05-06 season saw a mediocre start from FC Utrecht who were once again left stranded behind the big boys after the first half dozen games. On 27th November 2005 FC Utrecht won a keenly contested away game against their main rivals Ajax 1-0. The town celebrated a victory over their hated local rivals and the team was on a high. This euphoria was not to last. On the Tuesday morning after the game, reports were coming through that DiTo had suffered a heart attack during his sleep at home in the Utrecht suburb of De Meern and passed away. The whole of Dutch football was shocked, only 24 hours earlier he’d been a key part of the Utrecht team that had beaten Ajax. The crowd favorite at the Galgenwaard had died aged just 26, leaving behind a wife and small child.
As with tragedies of this magnitude the footballing world pulled together. Condolences were sent to the club from around the world and in a touching ceremony at the Utrecht stadium, over 14,000 fans as well as every single junior and senior team player at the club attended a memorial ceremony for DiTo. Captain Jean-Paul de Jong and manager Foeke Booy gave moving speeches and fans, in the Dutch tradition, brought flares which were all lit at the same time, sending a rush of colour into the cold Utrecht air. The club decided to retire his number 4 shirt and Sedan followed suit, immediately retiring DiTo’s number 29. At the first game after his death fans of both FC Utrecht and their opponents FC Groningen wore black clothes as a mark of respect and a minutes silence was held.
18 months after his death FC Utrecht played against his former club AS Monaco in the David di Tommaso Memorial Game with the money raised going to DiTo’s family. AS Monaco player Gael Givet - who played at Monaco when DiTo was there - contributed a collection of signed shirts for fund-raising. At the end of the 05/06 season the David di Tommaso Award for FC Utrecht’s player of the year was given for the first time. Appropriately it went to skipper Jean-Paul de Jong who had spoken so eloquently at DiTo’s funeral. The next four winners were also worthy of the accolade - Michel Vorm, Gregoor van Dijk, Michael Silberbauer and Dries Mertens are all great players with massive futures in the game.
The tremors from DiTo’s death still reverberate around FC Utrecht with banners present at every game with the words, ‘DiTo, Salut et merci’ and the fans of Sedan and FC Utrecht have developed a strong bond. The club holds a memorial ceremony every year around the time of his death and DiTo will never be forgotten by the FC Utrecht faithful.
The problem of players suffering sudden deaths has still not properly been investigated and sadly players such as Mikos Feher and Phil O’Donnell have also suffered the same fate as DiTo. It was appropriate for a man of DiTo’s standing that his final game was a win against the biggest rivals of all in Ajax, further adding to the reverence his name now brings.
Tom can be followed @eredivisielife and writes regularly for IBWM