Date built: 1931
Derbies: Derby dell’Appennino (Fiorentina vs Bologna); Derby dell’Arno (Fiorentina vs Empoli)
Nearest metro: N/A but the Campo di Marte train station is just a few hundred yards from the stadium.
Best restaurant/bar: If you won’t risk the lampredotto from the street stalls try the more salubrious Undici Leoni – named in tribute to the Fiorentina team that won the 1961 Cup Winner’s Cup.
No matter how many times I visit, it always takes me by surprise. You are walking through relatively humdrum Italian urban sprawl and then you turn a corner and there it is in all its glory. A façade as striking and unique as any in world football – like stumbling on a Federico Fellini film set in the heart of suburbia – the Stadio Artemio Franchi in Florence.
There are a number of ways of getting there – train, bus or taxi – but by far the best is on foot. Take your fill of culture in the city centre, maybe enjoy the stunning views from the Boboli Gardens, and then head out of town towards the stadium. It gives you time to acclimatise to what lies in store.
The buzz on a match day is always intense. The gun-toting Carabinieri are on patrol in case of any trouble while supporters mill about outside before making their way into the ground. If you are feeling brave – and why not? – try a panino with lampredotto, the tripe treat offered by street sellers for the true tifoso. Other snacks, for those with more delicate digestion, are available.
Take time, though, to look at that 1930s frontage designed by Pier Luigi Nervi. It definitely feels like stepping back in time with its echoes of another age. Only when you are good and ready should you head through the gates and make your way to your seat.
If you are looking for the comfortable, cosseted surroundings offered by the plush modern stadium, you should probably turn on your heels and flee. Expectations and design may have changed a lot in the last 90 years but the Artemio Franchi has not. Its concrete structure does not offer a lot of flexibility and it remains resolutely idiosyncratic in a world where the pressure to conform is often overpowering. This is a ground that knows its own mind.
You’ll need to close your eyes, too, to the ageing process going on around you. What was avant-garde nearly a century ago is now showing definite signs of deterioration. The years have not been all that kind to some parts of the structure, with a kind of slow crumble in evidence in many places that is familiar to those of us who are getting more veteran ourselves. But one man’s decline is another man’s character.
The panorama on offer once you get to your spot, however, is timeless. The pitch is almost always pristine – apart from after the odd rugby game or concert – and the view is cracking from the covered main stand or the three other ends left open to the elements. Make sure you take the offer of a brightly coloured poncho, mind you, if you find yourself without a roof above your head on a rainy day.
That view, it has always seemed to me, is the consolation for supporting a team which mixes disaster and disappointment liberally with its victories. Maybe fans of the big sides go to every match in expectation of triumph but that is not the way in Florence. The wonderful vista over the Fiesole hills is often the best thing about an afternoon spent watching the Viola.
But what a place to be when things do, from time to time, go right. If I never see them win again, I will always have memories of a packed Franchi watching Gabriel Omar Batistuta do his stuff and send the fans home in delirium. If I close my eyes, I’m sure I can still hear the cries of “Bati-Bati-Bati-Batigol” echoing in my ears.
This is a ground that does atmosphere in spades, you see. No running track here to keep you distant from the game’s protagonists, the fans can get up close and pretty personal with their own heroes and visiting “enemies” alike. You can ask Antonio Conte about the reception they used to reserve for him in his Juventus days if you want to know how hostile Florence can be. Hair-raising, if you will.
There were times, back in the day, when it definitely overstepped the line. The Viola Ultras – like many hardcore supporters – carried a bad reputation which was not helped by the violent scenes after Roberto Baggio moved from Fiorentina to arch enemies Juventus in 1990. I was living in Italy around the time the deal was done and the atmosphere on the streets of the Renaissance city was intense. The level of security needed for the Divin Codino’s return in black and white was significant. It did not make for a relaxing afternoon.
Things have calmed down a bit since then but the Curva Fiesole is still capable of making a fair old noise. They haven’t had a lot to cheer about for a while but they are not slow in letting the team know when they are not performing well. Equally, they are vociferous supporters of their side if they feel they are giving their all. “Purple shirt, fight with vigour,” says the club anthem and the fans will accept only total commitment to the cause.
This is a place with its sensitive side too, though. When recently-departed coach Cesare Prandelli lost his wife during his previous spell at the club there was an outpouring of emotion when he returned to the bench that was heartfelt and sincere. And, when fans were still allowed at games, the memory of former club captain Davide Astori – who died ahead of Fiorentina’s match with Udinese three years ago – is always honoured in the 13th minute, in recognition of the shirt number he wore.
The ground has seen many great players don the purple of their club. Giancarlo Antognoni, Daniel Passarella, Kurt Hamrin, Socrates, Rui Costa and, of course, the aforementioned Batistuta have all passed this way with differing results. But, if you win their hearts, the Florentine fans will stay faithful until the end.
There are mixed feelings, it would be fair to say, about what the future might hold for this grand old ground. It has been modernised – a little – but plans to demolish it and build a replacement or construct a new home elsewhere have struggled to make progress. Even major “restyling” projects have been scuppered by slow-moving bureaucracy or laws to protect historic edifices. For now, at least, the Franchi marches on.
You can see why any new and ambitious owner would want to have a new home. The council-owned stadium does not meet modern requirements and, with a capacity over 40,000, is probably too big for Fiorentina’s needs on all but the biggest days. A more compact ground, belonging to the club, with all the infrastructure fans have come to expect would probably make more sense – certainly economically. Not everyone, though, would view that as the ideal solution.
We’ve grown to love this place down the years and to see it go – although it might improve the club’s fortunes – would not be an easy pill to swallow. There are shared memories, great games, famous players and fine moments that it would take a long time for any new facility to match. Coming out of the Stadio Artemio Franchi with the scooters buzzing, car horns blaring and fans in celebration is an experience like no other and it would be hard to replicate elsewhere. Progress, of course, waits for no man and nobody wants their favourite team to be left behind but – at the same time – we are surely allowed to feel a bit of sentiment if it should be replaced. It is just a building, for sure, but what a building it is.
Words by: Giancarlo Rinaldi. @ginkers