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Viola Inside and Out: Fiorentina legend Giancarlo Antognoni on loyalty, business, and a career in the game

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In this "Viola Inside and Out," I had the enormous privilege of speaking to Florence's "unico dieci" in his office at the Azzurri headquarters.

Antognoni captaining the Italian National Team. Photo
Antognoni captaining the Italian National Team. Photo
Getty Images/Getty Images

It's a sunny spring day in central Tuscany, and my Dad, my uncle, and I are craning our necks in the hope of spotting a sign from inside my uncle's Ford Fiesta.

None of us have been to Coverciano before, and the adventure is stop-start despite the training ground being so close to Florence. We get there too early, so we go get a coffee. In the shop, I have my Dad look over my formal Italian grammar (I'm so used to the informal among family, that it's a struggle for me). I'm interviewing one of his all time favorite players in Giancarlo Antognoni and I don't want to embarrass him; but I shouldn't have worried. The conversation ends up being so easy going that I forget all about the formalities I was prepared to use.

We parked outside Coverciano and waited for Antognoni to arrive, so that the guard would let us through. The beginning to our conversation was a bit halting, with all three of us nervous and the Fiorentina legend brusque in getting us to his office. But once we settled into his simple and practical office, things began to move more easily.

Me: I only brought some simple, broad questions because I don't want to take up too much of your time. A good place to start would be a quick reflection on your career, perhaps the things that you remember with the most pride?

GA: From when I started, with everything I have done, I remember everything with pleasure, except for the severe injuries, which you remember sourly, but that's part of the life when you have a career in the game. I suppose, [I am most fond of] my debut appearances.  Getting to leave home at 15, when I had to improve, even personally, and then when I was 18 arriving in Florence, playing in Serie A when I was 18, and then to debut for the national team at 20. I had a precocious career which permitted me to have more satisfaction than not, so these are my memories, the debuts.

I scored some goals too...

Unfortunately in this career, I didn't win much. The World Cup in '82 remains the principal thing, but with Fiorentina again unfortunately I didn't win much in 15 years, just a Coppa Italia, and the memory of a championship narrowly lost in 81/82. So, really that's my career. Then once that was over, I stayed at Fiorentina for another 10 years as a director, and after that I started working for the National Team, and it's been 11 years here now, working for the youth sides, that is.

Me: Is there any one memory that remains your favorite?

GA: Well, there are lots of beautiful memories, first of all the debut at Verona, but then, also the reappearances after the injuries. Because even those make up part of a career, and even those are pleasant, even if the accidents were unpleasant,  then when you come back it's almost like starting over. So then it becomes a positive thing... Of course, the scudetto we missed in 81/82... '82 became the important year for me. Negative, in that I had that serious head injury at the beginning, then missing the scudetto, and then winning the World Cup. It was the key year, both in a positive and a negative sense.

My dad broke in at this point: "That diving header ..."

He didn't finish the phrase. It's clearly a familiar prompt for Antognoni.

GA: Against Juve? The 3-3 in Florence? That was 83/84. I remember because I never scored from headers.

We all laugh, and Antognoni seemed to be loosening up as well. He's famously (at least for my uncle) stiff in interviews.

GA: I only scored 3 goals with my head, I remember them well.

Fortunately, I never found any difficulties. As soon as I arrived they seized me with good will, and they have continued to do so all the way to this day.

Me: Florence is a beautiful but difficult "piazza" in which to play... How did you get past difficulties in your career with Fiorentina?

GA: Fortunately, I never found any difficulties. As soon as I arrived they seized me with good will, and they have continued to do so all the way to this day, and I am 61 years old. It's remained constant.

It's one thing when you are playing, but the fact that I showed faith to Fiorentina, gives me the gift of being lauded for this same loyalty in Florence even today. So I never struggled in this sense.

In fact, people [of Florence] always helped me, through all the difficult moments.

After the injuries - I had two ugly ones - I even had a fractured tibia and was out for a year and a half.

Me: Do you have any advice for players today?

GA: Advice on their careers? Well, everything is multinational now, the players live in a glass case and rarely or with difficulty make contact with the public in the way that we did. The game has changed. I don't know if it has changed for better or for worse,  but I do know that there is no longer that relationship between player and fan."

My Dad broke in again, and I was glad he did. This was always going to be a bigger deal for him than for me, as excited as I was. He was the one who saw Antognoni play at the stadium, and he was the one who reached out to a club legend... Through Facebook for goodness sake. The world is a strange place.

Dad: I have an example. When I was a kid, the Italian national team was training at little fields in Florence and Argentina was in town for a friendly, and we yelled out to you on your way out "Giancarlo, are we going to have fun tomorrow night?" and you yelled back, "Eh, I think that they are going to have more fun..."

GA: In fact, they won 5-3...

Dad: Nowadays, nothing like that would ever happen. You could never have that contact.

GA: No, I mean, we have segregated the players considerably now. You used to be able to go watch the training sessions. Now you can't.

Dad: You guys used to walk to the stadium from the training fields!

GA: Things are different, and the fans have suffered a bit (in terms of contact with the players); today things are more business. Even in America-

Me: Certainly, you're kidding, it's the American model.

GA: And we've learned it. You know we did a tournament in America, Fiorentina, back when the Cosmos were big... There was the Europe - Rest of the World match, that was in '82 as well, so lots of good memories of New York. I was named the best player, it went well. That was after the World Cup ... 60,000 Italians at Yankee Stadium. Beautiful.

Antognoni, likely thanks to being so good for so long, has the effortless ability to restate his quality or his past without bragging, or appearing conceited. He is merely stating facts. "I scored some goals" ... "It went well" ...  He has a careful simplicity of manner that contrasts elegantly with his former grace and speed with the ball at his feet, a contrast that he subconsciously exhibits in his appearance as well. His long and never-brushed grey hair falls in distinct contrast to his elegant shoes, briefcase, and upright posture.

He, now apparently trusting that we mean well and aren't media sharks, asks us about the growth of soccer in New York, in America generally, and we have a couple laughs as my Dad jokingly claims responsibility for the growth of youth soccer in the US. Antognoni, on learning that my father works as a youth coach and sporting director, offers to lend a hand with another laugh.

Me: Now I just had one more question to ask of you, as a fan-

GA: I am a fan of the team, not of the club. [He used the word società].

Always a fan of the fans, I'm not very fond of the ownership. They didn't offer me a conversation, and that was serious, even though I am doing well here. Very well. No one bothers me.

I was a bit taken aback by his straightforward manner on this controversy. But he softened immediately after clarifying his position.

Everyone still asks me about the club, even abroad... been away from the club for 13 years but they still connect me with Fiorentina. And that pleases me.

Me: I'm sure you still follow the team closely.

GA: Of course.

Me: So where do you see the team now, after 3 years of Montella?

Either you spend, either you pull out the money ... But we sell, and recover from selling.

GA: Now we are right there, and it's hard to pass this point, this 'step'.

Either you spend, either you pull out the money ... But we sell, and recover from selling. Like that, you don't make that step, you stay 4th, 5th, 6th...

If there isn't investment from the ownership we'll stay the way we are.  Of course, Florence can't compete financially with clubs like Milan and Inter, but they are behind us now, and next year... they'll be looking to improve... [but the time under Montella] has been good, positive. They are a good team.

He landed on that phrase, "good team" with an air that made it clear to us that he both meant and appreciated that this Fiorentina is "good," but also made it clear that he didn't think they were "great." Antognoni was emphatic in his silence that he felt Fiorentina ought to aspire to be great.

When I started out ... there weren't any foreigners then, they were all Italians ... but I would have played anyways.

My dad used the pause to embark on one of his pet discussions, on the lack of young Italians both in Fiorentina and at the top level in Italy generally. He asked Antognoni if he thought that - given the impressive performances of Fiorentina primavera sides in recent years, whether it was possible to have Italian youngsters be the foundation for the next great Fiorentina.

GA: Well, first of all there are foreigners in all of the youth set ups now too... But right now, the "gap" is too big... There isn't the same patience from fans.

When I started out, well first of all there weren't any foreigners then, they were all Italians, so I had a better chance, but I would have played anyways.

We all laughed at that, another fact, and the conversation moved from there, but without particular focus. We talked about Babacar, Capezzi, and Bernardeschi, and we spoke of other set ups in other leagues. At a certain point my father looked at me expectantly, and I explained that I had been done for ages, in my head thinking "how the hell do I organize all this into something even marginally coherent."

We very politely began to take our leave, aware that we had already taken a lot of his time and that he had been more than generous already. We were halfway down the hallway to the car when he called towards us, asking if we wanted to take a tour of the complex. We probably did a cartoonish double take and mumbled something like "If it's not too much trouble."

So that's how we ended up on a balcony overlooking the two central fields of Coverciano, admiring their perfect smoothness, in the glorious spring sunshine. My uncle talks to Antognoni about the game against Juventus. "When Borja Valero speaks to the referee it's a 4 game ban, Chiellini can get right up in his face screaming at him without even receiving a yellow card!"

To which Antognoni is diplomatic, although at one point, as my uncle and Dad banter about the game and Juventus matches past, he does observe that "over 90 minutes they always have that little advantage. You have to be ready for it as a player."

I stay mainly silent now, just enjoying the slightly surreal scene. Three veteran fans, chatting about old club rivalries, except one is a World Cup winner, and they are standing in the center of the heart of calcio. Actually, it wasn't surreal at all. It made perfect sense.