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Lessons from an ugly, angry night (or, to be Florentine)

I started to worry because I wasn't worried.

I am at the stadium, in the Curva Fiesole, looking down on the playing surface as the sun was setting and I was just... happy to be there. I wasn't nervous, I wasn't terrified, I wasn't tense. My uncle and cousins were nervous, bouncing up and down, hoping aloud for the best. But I was quietly confident.

Why shouldn't I be? We had been playing well, we had the edge from the first leg, and we had more of our starters available than Juventus. It is, as usual, a party atmosphere in heart of Fiorentina fandom, where, if an athletic field weren't at the center of the stadium one could have been forgiven for thinking a concert was the main event. Beer and cigarettes abound, and even whiffs of weed float by on the breeze. I am excited, but not worried.

And when I acknowledge how good I feel? That's when the alarm bells start going off in my head, as they do for any long time Fiorentina fan. I became worried. You should always be worried about getting your heart broken if you love the Viola, like a paranoid multiple divorceè or a Viola-clad Mad Eye Moody. Because heartbreak? Yeah, that's kind of what they're great at.

My awakened worries faded slightly in the thrill of the pre-match chants and songs, but they were confirmed within the first 10 minutes, before Juventus even scored their first goal. Mohammed Salah was first hacked down at midfield when running clear, and the offender escaped a booking, then Salah's early goal was very softly chalked off. The Curva Fiesole reacted with vociferous whistles and jeers to both of these very early decisions, a reaction that would have been out of measure in other games against other teams in other places. But we've all seen it too many times before. And when the second goal was thumped home in front of us, it might as well have hit me square in the stomach.

"Be sure to write about Chiellini's handball!"

...said my 91 year old grandmother in the car to pick up my Dad. She hadn't gone to the stadium, of course, she could barely get into the car to go to Peretola to get my father, who had been delayed by our collective ignorance of a very silly US passport law, and had therefore missed his chance to get back to the stadium. "I know you write your opinions on things for Fiorentina, and no one talks about this kind of stuff outside Florence."

While Chiellini's handball happened after Fiorentina were already down 3 goals, it was another highly dubious decision that went against the Viola, while Juve got the benefit of the doubt on their third goal. And it's also true that in the major newspapers outside of, sometimes, La Nazion and La Repubblica, the Juventus win was celebrated as merely another superb and comprehensive performance, with no asterisk attached.

To be clear, we were not good against Juventus last night. We did not deserve to win. But we also didn't deserve to be cheated by inept refereeing and dirty play. And our poor play last night does nothing to prevent the cynicism from deepening within the Fiorentina faithful, as happens, well, most times that the "big" clubs are in town.

But if this frustration reoccurs so regularly, why bother going to the stadium and cheering? Why bother watching at all? Is it a kind of serial masochism that keeps us Fiorentina faithful watching, blaming, griping, and lamenting over the years? This line of thought is a line that Viola dectractors use, describing Fiorentina fans as masters in the art of "playing the victim," that we are serial martyrs looking for a cross. Are we?

Leave aside the fact that we have been one of the best teams to watch in Italy over the past 3 seasons, and also ignore that we have one of the most consistently full stadiums in Italy, and additionally gloss over *that* 4-2, surely the exception that proves the rule. Why would any fan base keep showing up in droves for rivalry games that so often don't go our way? Just to rain abuse on the visitors? That certainly is fun, I can tell you from experience, but that's the cheap answer. The answer is the most consistently ignored (but best) part of our (or any) trodden-upon fan base: a great capacity for hope.

While Viola fans distrust hope - I knew something was up when I felt carefree ahead of a match against Juventus - we are inevitably hopeful people. Fiorentina fans are dreamers. When we win games, thousands of us show up at the train station on a weeknight  to celebrate the team, and when we sell our best players, we riot in the streets. We're idealists. Maybe if we were more practical, or richer, or more I-don't-know-what, we'd win more often. But I guess we - organization, fans, players - have something a bit more colorful about us.

The year before Vincenzo Montella arrived in Fiorentina ahead of a heavy squad turnover, Juventus visited Florence in a night that will live in infamy. Fiorentina were roundly beaten 0-5 in a season filled to the brim with mediocrity. I wasn't there that night, so I can only imagine. But the rage was palpable on TV. Fans storming the elite seats, whistling their own team, the rest leaving early ... Yet at full time this Tuesday night, the exiting Fiorentina players received a heartfelt ovation from the Curva Fiesole, one acknowledged on his way to the tunnel by Borja Valero, the captain at full time. The fans didn't cheer the team because they were good; they were, in fact, very bad. They cheered the effort, they cheered the quality that's been shown in recent months, they cheered the victory away to Juventus in the first leg. They cheered because this team has restored our hope.

"Honestly these days, I'd rather watch from home"

said my uncle, who used my Dad's ticket for the Curva Fiesole last night. "Maybe I've just become lazy in my old age, but at home you can see everything! I watched Salah's goal against Sampdoria 50 times on Saturday night. Those people at the game under the rain for 4 hours barely saw it at all!"

I also had to go home and look for replays of most of the salient actions so that I could discuss them accurately. And additionally, if I am being entirely honest, I saw several unsavory things in the Curva Fiesole last night. There were a couple of people wearing Liverpool jerseys. As a Liverpool supporter who understands a bit of history, I would never dream of wearing one to a game against Juventus, but it is an unfortunately long-running, deliberate, and distasteful provocation practiced by a very small minority of fans (I also heard a slightly larger number of people sing "Amo Liverpool").

I also heard some monkey chants during the game although, to be fair, many were directed at Chiellini and Bonucci, and the implication seemed to be that Juventini were monkeys, rather than a racial jibe. Regardless, not ok. I might have different sentiments about what's "ok" in the curva if I grew up in Florence. I also continue to feel like I only have a foot in the obscure and exclusive club that is being a Fiorentina fan *here.* All the same, I consider myself a better supporter than the genius (SARCASM) that was yelling abuse at our players and Montella the whole game, asking for the players to "show some balls." And then there was the guy with the giant inflatable penis (picture evidence to maybe follow)... Actually that was pretty funny.

In other words, with all the garbage that I had to put up with last night - not least, the Fiorentina performance on the field itself - I know that every fan from everywhere understands (and craves) the strange satisfaction of being able to walk into a shop, have a coffee, and gripe with 3 strangers about the game last night, and in so doing silently refine their continued loyalty, and continued hope. I had that experience this morning, and that's what the stadium became about last night, bringing the fans together and the players together even while what was happening was really lousy. And that's something, unfortunately, that you can't get from home. Or at least, not your sofa.