In December 2001 I had just moved from Ireland to Florence. The initial excitement of living in a city which was home to one of the Serie A clubs that I had often admired on Channel 4’s Football Italia, was dampened slightly when I saw how they were struggling at the bottom of the table. The big name players, such as Roberto Baggio, Gabriel Batistuta and Rui Costa, were no longer playing their football at Fiorentina, and their striker Enrico Chiesa had already been ruled out for the rest of the season through injury. I soon realised that, not only were they battling for survival in Serie A, but for survival in the very real sense of the word.
Anyone I spoke to had already given up hope of the team avoiding relegation. As my grasp of the language improved, the newspapers kept me informed of just how bad things were off the field too.
Club owner Vittorio Cecchi Gori, and those around him, had managed to run the club into the ground, taking whatever money they could from the club and leaving the coffers empty. Players and staff were not getting paid, and more and more fans had begun to realise what was happening. Protests were held in the city, while the Curva Fiesole was deserted by its most loyal Ultras. In the end, inevitably, the club were relegated, but that would be the least of their problems. Fiorentina had an owner who lived in his own imaginary world, a man who refused to listen to any offers to buy the club, a man who continued with his lies and empty promises right to the very end. By August 1st,2002, ACF Fiorentina had ceased to exist.
That same evening, the local mayor had registered a new club, Fiorentina 1926 Florentia. With time running out as the new season approached, a new investor was quickly found, as Diego Della Valle became the new owner of the club. To avoid any legal action connected to the old Fiorentina, he decided to call this new club, Florentia Viola. They would also wear white jerseys, with their unique purple colour used only for the trim. Giovanni Galli, former Fiorentina, AC Milan and Italian goalkeeper, was the man responsible for getting a new squad of players together. Angelo Di Livio, who had just returned from the World Cup, was the one player who decided to remain with the club and help them get back to where they belonged. For the fans, it wouldn’t matter for now what the team was officially known as or what colours they wore, “C’è solo la Fiorentina” (there’s only Fiorentina) and Forza Viola would forever be the chants of the Curva.
The chance to see the new club in action came shortly afterwards, as they were drawn in a four-team group in the Coppa Italia for Serie C. The club still hadn’t put together a proper squad of players, and for now would need to use many of the youth players from the old Fiorentina that had decided to stay with the club. Together with captain Di Livio and a few new signings, this would be the first team to represent Florence under the new owners and their new name. On August 21st, a warm summer Wednesday night, along with 25,000 Fiorentina fans, I made my way to the Franchi stadium for this historic first game.
The fans went there, barely knowing the names of the players who they would support. They went there for a competition which the club really had no interest in; promotion was the only objective of this team. This was, however, a chance to show the world that Fiorentina were still very much alive, that their club could not be extinguished, and that they would always be there to support their team no matter what happened. Their name and their colours could be taken away, but nobody could take away their right to support the one team that represents their city.
The opposition that night just so happened to be their near neighbours and historic rivals, Pisa. There is a saying in Florence which I learned back then, it translates as ‘better a death in the house than a Pisan on your doorstep’. This was also a glorious opportunity for the Pisa Ultras to lord it over their bigger, more powerful neighbours. Back in the 80’s the teams had clashed many times in Serie A, often with trouble breaking out between the rival fans. That was a Pisa side which had bounced between the top-flight and Serie B, and the last time the clubs had met was in 1994.
Since then, they too had gone through bankruptcy, and the reformed club needed to start again from the amateur leagues, but they were now competing in Serie C1 while Fiorentina had been placed in the division below them, Serie C2. Pisa had never defeated Fiorentina in Florence, and their fans were relishing the prospect of conquering the enemy. The Fiorentina fans on the other hand, for once placed no great importance on the result of the game. This was different, this was not about winning or losing, or about how they performed on the pitch. It was enough that they had a team on that pitch, that they had a team to cheer for again.
The Fiorentina fans had ultimately got what they wanted, the end of the Cecchi Gori era, but it had come at a very high price. It was a price which many now realized they were more than willing to pay. August in Italy is traditionally holiday time, most people are at the beach this time of year, but nobody wanted to miss out on this night. The fans had suffered a painful summer which followed a disastrous season. The Curva Fiesole was a sell-out. For the league campaign the club would sell over 18,000 season tickets, more than most Serie A clubs. This was the start of something new, the dawn of a new era, and the city rallied around their club.
If anyone is interested in the result that night, Pisa did come away from Florence with a 1-0 win. Seven minutes into the second half they hit the net, the Pisa players running to celebrate under the away sector as their fans reacted as if they had won the Scudetto. After the initial few seconds of disappointment at conceding a goal had worn off, the Forza Viola Ale’ chant was louder than ever. The Pisa fans continued to enjoy the goal, with the flares lighting up the night, but the Fiorentina fans kept on singing, kept on cheering. Before the game, as I stood high in the Curva Ferrovia, we had been treated to the arrival of the Pisa fans on the road below us. As the police escorted the 1,500 of them from the nearby train station, there were plenty of verbal exchanges between the fans. As I watched from above, it was impossible not to join in the typical Italian hand gestures involved in the insults.
Despite the strong police presence, there were some clashes between the rival fans before they entered the away sector. An exchange of smoke bombs and firecrackers filled the night air, a spectacular introduction to Italian football for me. The few games I had attended in the months prior to this had none of this atmosphere. Those were the days of a team that had almost stopped competing, of fans protesting against the owner by not entering the stadium. It wasn’t the best atmosphere in which to enjoy the typical Italian match day, and so this for me was finally what I had been waiting for.
The atmosphere in the ground was like a top of the table clash, or a Champions League night. The Pisa fans, for their part, never stopped singing either, as the home fans tried to drown out the chants of Pisa, Pisa. The game was largely ignored, and for me the real spectacle was the noise and colour in the stands.
At one point the Pisa fans made a giant cross out of white banners, with the words, ACF Fiorentina Rest In Peace. They were trying their best to make it seem like the club was dead and buried, while the Fiorentina fans celebrated the fact that their club was still very much alive and kicking. The new owner, Diego Della Valle, was in the stands, and received a standing ovation and applause from the fans. The Honorary President of Pisa had not been given permission to join Della Valle in the VIP stand, instead forced to watch the game from pitch side. The fact that Gunther was a German Shepherd may have been the reason for this slight.
The team that lined out that night as Florentia Viola, but representing the Fiorentina fans, featured very few of the players who would go on to be a part of the squad when the real action got underway. Angelo Di Livio was of course one of those, Florence born goalkeeper Andrea Ivan and midfielder Marco Andreotti were another two who would also play a major part in the league campaign. There was also a 19 year-old striker by the name of Fabio Quagliarella in the team that night. He never really showed his promise in Florence whilst on loan from Torino. His loan spell was ended in January having scored just once in 12 league appearances, though many of those came from the bench.
Towards the end of the game, Angelo Di Livio was replaced, a good excuse for another long applause and ovation from the crowd. Di Livio had refused offers to play in Serie A, and had turned down plenty of money in order to remain and fight for his Fiorentina. He showed that fighting spirit right from the start, even in this game, almost coming to blows with opposition players. The match ended in defeat, but, apart from the Pisa fans, nobody seemed to notice. The Fiorentina players made a lap of honour at the end, applauding the crowd, this was no ordinary night, no ordinary game. “La nostra fede non conosce fallimento” declared one of the many banners held aloft by the fans, ‘our faith knows no failure’.
The road ahead would not be without its own problems. The team would have to accept the fans disappointment at some of their performances when the league campaign got underway. The enthusiasm at the beginning naturally gave way to concern that the club would not in fact achieve its goal of promotion. If you take a look at the final league table, an eleven-point gap to their nearest rivals would seem to suggest that Fiorentina had strolled to promotion. That was certainly not the case, and it would take a change of manager to steady the ship, Alberto Cavasin coming in to replace Pietro Vierchowod after only nine games. At that stage of the season, Fiorentina were six points behind the leaders, with six teams ahead of them. At the halfway point they would find themselves level at the top of the table with Rimini. The two clubs would contest the top spot for much of the season, and Rimini would go ahead again, before a Fiorentina away win against their rivals saw them take over the leadership, and from then on they started to pull away.
Their success was largely thanks to the 30 goals scored by Christian Riganò, a player who hadn’t yet been signed by the club when this game with Pisa was played. After long negotiations with his club Taranto, Fiorentina finally got their hands on the striker they believed had the firepower to guide them to promotion. He had scored 27 goals in 33 games the previous season in Serie C1, and was convinced to take the step down to the lower division by the plans and ambitions of the new owners in Florence. No other player in the Fiorentina squad managed to score more than four league goals that season, so ‘Rigagol’, as he came to be known, was an absolute vital part of Fiorentina’s drive for promotion.
I am still a passionate Fiorentina fan and I’ve seen them compete in Serie A, Serie C2, in Serie B, a promotion play-off, back in Serie A, Coppa Italia, the UEFA Cup and the Champions League. I have yet to see them lift a trophy, but the memories I have are worth so much more. When I made that move to Italy I never imagined that the football experience that would pull me in and stay with me for all this time, would be a team playing in the bottom division. Almost twenty years have passed, but I still often look back on that August night in Florence. A night when Fiorentina fans reclaimed their club. A night when they sang the name of their club and city louder than ever before. It was a night when the Fiorentina fans celebrated, not because they had won something, but celebrated their very existence.
Words by: Trevor Stynes. @StynesTrevor