On 24th April 2015, UEFA pulled a mouth-watering semi-final draw out of the bag when Fiorentina were drawn against La Liga side Sevilla. I decided that a Europa League semi was a once in a life-time and so, in advance of the first-leg, I booked to go and see the game. Of course, when the Viola lost 3-0 in Seville, the chances were that the tie had already been lost before we arrived.
After flying from Manchester to Bologna, we made it to the Stadio Artemio Franchi around three hours before kick-off to meet up with friends and soak up the atmosphere. I was keen to ask some fans whether they thought there was any chance of overturning the result. They seemed fairly philosophical about their chances, citing the defeat to Juventus in the UEFA cup final of 1989-90 and their exit to Rangers on penalties in 2008. “We are here whatever happens” they said, “we are Fiorentina.”
To me, this showed that they were embracing their identity and supporting the team unconditionally. The tone of the conversation turned slightly more heated, though, when I mentioned the first leg. “There was no spirit, no heart in Seville” one fan said. It was clear that whatever the result, they wanted to see some fighting spirit and some pride restored.
Moving away from the bar and over to the car park next to the stadium, we stood where most of the ultras congregate. We were welcomed by our friends and offered wine from plastic cups. When we unveiled our flag, emblazoned with the words “Viola Club Stockport”, there were chants of ‘Stockport! Stockport!’ from the Florentines, which was, to put it mildly, very surreal.
A fan came over to show me his purple t-shirt with pictures of historic Florence, and he was delighted that I could name the landmarks – Ponte Vecchio, the Duomo and the Marzocco Lion – a powerful symbol of Florence that appeared in the Florentine battle cry of ages past. The fact that the city of Florence only has one football team serves as further emphasis of the synonymous relationship between the historical pride in the city and the football team.
Throughout the build-up to the second-leg, the rhetoric coming out of the club was that of belief and togetherness. There were social media releases of stirring videos of the team and hashtags created such as #giochiamolainsieme – meaning “let’s play it together.” To cap it off, an open training session was held at the stadium and attended by over 1,000 passionate Viola fans.
This push from the club seemed to have had the desired effect, as I entered the stadium to a thunderous roar of vocal support, intensified by the release of several flares just before kick-off – a truly stunning sight. The explosion of noise in the stadium continued as the team pushed for the early goal which could have changed the nature of the tie, until, on 22-minutes, Sevilla’s top-scorer Carlos Bacca effectively ended Fiorentina’s Europa League dream.
With the aggregate score at 4-0 and an away goal under their belt, Sevilla had all but secured their place in the final. When the ball hit the back of the net, an eerie silence suddenly fell over the Franchi. The fans knew their fate had been sealed. With a second goal inside 30 minutes for Sevilla and a missed penalty in the second half from Fiorentina’s Josip Iličić – one that can only be likened to Chris Waddle’s miss in Italia ’90 – the mood turned sour. There were ironic cheers and whistles. At the end of the game, although some inside the Curva Fiesole applauded their team, the ferocity of the booing and jeering was like nothing I had ever witnessed before.
The look of sadness, humiliation and even fear on the player’s faces is one that I will not forget in a hurry and I left the stadium feeling quite disappointed with the reaction. Surely, a place in the Europa League semi-final had surpassed expectations for a team like Fiorentina? On reflection, though, I could understand why the reaction from the ultras had been so extreme. Many of the fans that I had spoken to had followed Fiorentina all over Europe this season, including Sevilla the week before. The financial commitment of these travels must have come at a huge personal cost for the ultras, especially when taking into account that, like many countries in the Eurozone, Italy’s economy is less than buoyant.
They had seen their team completely demolished in Seville the week before, but nevertheless, had wholeheartedly taken on board the club’s attempts to build belief ahead of the second leg and had created a lion’s den of an atmosphere at their home stadium. They had dared to dream, and I realised their anger at the end of the game was not malicious but a result of sheer hurt and emotion. They were emotions comparable to those of a child, who having been offered renewed hope to raise their spirit after a disappointment, quickly found that hope to be misplaced. The fans had played their part and done everything that was asked of them, and the feeling was that the club had not kept their end of the bargain. The team had not restored any pride or given them any semblance of hope.
A mediocre season could have almost been more acceptable for the viola tifosi, but this season had already raised their hopes and then taunted them with being so near to success, but yet so far. It was a similar story in the Coppa Italia. They had done the hard part at the Juventus stadium when they pulled off a 2-1 win in the semi-final first-leg. Again the Fiorentina faithful dreamed of something big, only for them to be crushed 3-0 at home in a performance that, not for the first time, showed little fighting spirit. The emergence of Mohammed Salah led to perhaps unforeseen comprehensive victories in the Europa League against Tottenham and AS Roma. The enthusiasm created by these victories saw the fans’ expectations sky-rocket, only for them to be so comprehensively shattered by Sevilla.
The fallout from the game has continued, with coach Vincenzo Montella criticising the crowd’s reaction towards his players. The Curva Fiesole have since issued a statement calling for a greater presence in the city from the team and a request for more open training sessions. This request encapsulates the ultras belief that the team and the city are one entity.
Personally speaking, I was relishing the prospect of watching a European semi-final, but in the end, the match did not have the competitive edge of a normal semi-final encounter. Instead, however, the welcome that we received from the ultras and the atmosphere, both positive and negative, led to yet another unique Italian experience – a football culture that is simply not witnessed in the UK.