Almost exactly one year ago, on 13th April 2014, Fiorentina racked up their 1,000th Serie A win at the Stadio Marc’Antonio Bentegodi. The 1000th win for the Viola coincided with my first live Italian game, and the opponents were then the very same ones we will be facing this Monday night: Hellas Verona.
The long standing friendship or "gemellaggio" between the viola and the gialloblu meant that I felt at ease sitting with the Verona fans - I even had my son with me, who was then only eight years old. This strong affection between the two fanbases is said to have come from the 1984-85 season. Hellas had won their only scudetto with numerous ex-Fiorentina players, including Florentine midfielder Antonio DiGennaro, who formed a key part of Hellas’ most successful season.
A favourite book of mine "A Season with Verona", is written by Tim Parks, an Englishman who has lived in Italy for 30+ years. He writes about this friendship between the two teams: "For the curious thing is that Verona fans, who always insist on shouting and writing ‘soli contro tutti’ (alone against everyone), have a gemellaggio or twinning, with Fiorentina fans. That is to say, where normally there is the theatre of hatred, here we have a theatre of friendship and even brotherhood."
On the day of the game, I took my son into the centre of Verona as we were keen to cram in some sightseeing before the 3pm kick off. As we climbed down from the top of the Torre dei Lamberti, having taken in magnificent panoramas of the ancient city, we noticed a sea of purple. It was not, as so often is the case, the away supporters being frogmarched from the railway station to the ground, but full families dressed in purple eating in restaurants together before the game.
The famous Bar Bentegodi outside the ground was the meeting place for our group, so we headed over there before kick-off. The bar was so full, that most people were outside, drinking beer in the hot sunshine, and with only one toilet, talking to the person next to you in the queue was a good way to pass the time – bizarrely a man speaking perfect English introduced himself to my mum as the man who had translated Tim Parks’ book into Italian. As kick off approached, I handed round my sunscreen to anyone who needed it. We suddenly became aware that we were making ourselves conspicuous as the more olive skinned Italians had probably never seen a group of pale English people slathering on sunscreen outside a football ground.
Once inside the ground, we had the Curva Sud to our left and the Fiorentina fans to our right. Our stand at the side however, was a complete mixture of viola and gialloblu. In all my time watching English games, I have found that it takes something special for opposing fans to show anything more than derision, and at best, apathy towards each other. Myself and my son were next to a rather eccentric gentleman who chain smoked through the entire game and carried an umbrella even though it was 25 degrees with not a cloud in the sky. He did not seem in the least bit surprised that we were chattering away in English and the only time he tried to interact with us was when ex Fiorentina player Marco Donadel scythed down Juan Cuadrado. I said "he’s off!" The man just turned slowly to look at me and nodded, then turned away and went back to his smoking.
I had tried to engage my son with the game by providing some context as to who some of the players were. "That’s Luca Toni" I said, "He won the World Cup with Italy in 2006, and that’s Juan Cuadrado, we will see him on TV when he plays at the World Cup this summer" (And wow, did we see him at the World Cup!)
Verona took the lead early on in the game through Jacopo Sala and Cuadrado equalised with a superb effort 15 minutes later. Both sets of fans cheered and applauded for both goals, a concept totally alien to me. The only thing I could relate the atmosphere to was to that of a pre-season friendly, but at the time, both teams were vying for a place in Europe! The final score was 3-5, an eight year old boy’s perfect match. He exited the ground with his eyes as big as saucers. He had seen 8 goals, a sending off and two penalties – the last goal, although only a consolation for Hellas, was wonderful effort from outside the box from Juan Iturbe, another player that I had told him was destined for bigger things.
I felt very lucky to have witnessed a unique footballing phenomenon. As a one off event it was wonderful, but if all fans were friendly like this, football would just not have the same edge. For me personally, the passion, excitement and electricity of being in the Curva Fiesole amongst the home fans once normal hostilities resume is what makes supporting Fiorentina so exciting and so addictive.