As we’re currently mired in a international break that has mercifully put an end to Fiorentina’s gasping displays of the past few weeks, let’s ignore the team’s current struggles and instead dip back into the halcyon days of yore. Specifically, let’s dive into the founding of the club that we all love, since there’s no shortage of stories, legends, and trivia worth discussing in that story.
The first football club in Florence was founded in 1898 as Florence Football Club, an aristocratic outfit that held strongly to the anglophile traditions of the game. Others shortly followed: Itala FC in 1902, Club Sportivo Firenze in 1903 (originally a cycling and athletics club that picked up football a few years later), and Firenze Football Club in 1908. In 1910, a group split off from Firenze Football Club and joined the well-established athletics society Palestra Gimnastica Fiorentina Libertas.
Firenze FC and PGF Libertas maintained a strong rivalry in the early years of the twentieth century, largely because, after their split, they still effectively shared a ground called the Prato del Quercione in the Parco delle Cascine, a Medici-created green space a bit west of Santa Maria Novella in the city center. The Prato del Quercione itself was a big meadow in the middle of the park with a rope separating the parts that Firenze FC and PGF Libertas played in.
After a decade or two of internecine warfare amongst the handful of clubs in the city, PGF Libertas and CS Firenze rose to the top as the best teams in town. They left the public park on 22 April 1922 for a new ground on the Via Vincenzo Bellini, just north of the Parco delle Cascine. After the civic government got sick of the lads churning up the meadow and banned football in the park, PGF Libertas and CS Firenze, with their spiffy new playing space, solidified their hold on footballing supremacy in Florence.
Even that wasn’t enough to let them compete with the elite clubs of Italy, though, as neither had the resources to grapple with the likes of Ambrosiana (which would later rebrand itself as Inter Milan), AC Milan, Genoa, Lazio, and Pro Vercelli, who dominated the Prima Categoria, the Prima Divisione, and the Divisione Nazionale, the precursors to Serie A, which officially kicked off in 1929.
Of course, football and politics have always been close if uncomfortable bedfellows, and in Benito Mussolini’s Italy, they linked themselves inextricably for way too long. Tuscan nobleman and local fascist party leader Luigi Ridolfi, operating on Mussolini’s instructions and his own civic pride, engineered a merger between PGF Libertas and CS Firenze, hoping that their combined resources would let them compete with the big boys. Mussolini’s brief also called for the unification of cities and provinces, which frequently required similar mergers—AS Roma and Inter received similar boosts.
Ridolfi was a decorated veteran from World War I and a scion of the famous Ridolfi family that first appeared in Florence in the second half of the 13th century. They rose to prominence in the 1300s as politicians, clergymen, and scholars, maintaining a high profile in the city thereafter and founding various famous Florentine institutions. Luigi Ridolfi, who made a fortune in oil speculation, joined the Fascists in 1921 and ascended through the ranks to become the secretary of the Tuscan branch of the party. He served as president of the IAF, CONI, and the precursor to the FIGC and had his mitts all over calcio even after the fall of Mussolini. Rather than suffering any repercussions, he extended his interests in oil and sport and died wealthy and powerful in 1958. He even had an athletics stadium named after him in 2001 despite being a fascist who supported Mussolini, which is not exactly Florence’s brightest moment. Anyways.
On 3 July 1926, Libertas played its final match, securing promotion to the Seconda Divisione for the combined side the following year. A month and a half later, PGF Libertas and CS Firenze officially consolidated, with Ridolfi as the club chairman and Károly Csapkay as player-coach. To symbolize the new union, Ridolfi bestowed the name “Fiorentina” on his new outfit and gave them a half-red, half-white shirt, black shorts, and black socks; the two-toned shirts were an effort to match the city’s crest, which the players also wore on their chests as the club badge; Ridolfi was hardly subtle in his effort to present his new project as a reflection of the people of Firenze.
Those colors were chosen because they were the colors of Libertas and CS Firenze, respectively. The former side rather comically earned the nickname gli ghiozzi rossi (the red guppies) because they frequently had to crawl across the water-filled ditch called the Fosso Macinante that runs into the Mugnone River next to the meadow to retrieve their ball, leading them to spend a lot of time in the drink, just like the doofy little fish in the Tuscan rivers and streams.
Things didn’t start out so well: the newly-dubbed club lost its first match, a friendly against Signa (a suburb just west of Florence) that they lost 2-1. Their second time out, another friendly, saw mild improvement with a 2-2 draw against Sampierdarenese, featuring a midfielder with the surname Benassi (no idea if he’s related to current Viola man Marco Benassi), but more importantly featured a striker by the name of Bolteni.
Bolteni, however, didn’t exist. His real name was Rudolfo Volk, and he was forced to play under a pseudonym because the Italian army refused him permission to participate in non-military activities. He eventually moved onto Roma, where his powerful style of play earned him a place in the Lupi pantheon: he’s still the club’s third-leading scorer. His most productive spell as a professional, however (at least by the numbers), was the year he spent at Fiorentina, scoring 11 goals in 14 outings. The Biancorossi, however, finished just 6th in the 10-team table, and Volk left for hometown outfit Fiumana.
The following year, Florence’s finest finished second to Bari and thus barely missed promotion to the top flight. However, there was no shortage of controversy, as Fiorentina failed to report an attempt by the brass at Savoia to bribe them into throwing the promotion-sealing playoff match against Bari. A ₤1000 fine followed, and the Viola ended up losing 5-3 to Bari anyways, despite protests of biased refereeing and threats from the fans that influenced the outcome in favor of the Galletti. While the Viola were eventually found innocent of any wrongdoing other than failure to report someone else’s attempts at skulduggery, the episode feels prophetic in how it reflects the absurd near-misses that the club would suffer thereafter.
Following a shakeup of the national league system that year, Fiorentina gained promotion to the top tier. It went, well, terribly: a last-place finish, a record featuring 23 losses from 30 matches, and 26 goals scored with 96 conceded (including an 11-0 thumping from Juventus) saw the Gigliati relegated back to the second division with their tails between their legs for 1929.
The famous purple shirts didn’t appear until 1929, when, as legend has it, the red-and-white shirts were laundered improperly in the Arno River, causing the colors to run and turning the shirts purple. While the cynic may point out that such a combination would make pink, not purple, perhaps the black shorts and socks were also at fault. Of course, the historian will remind us that Ridolfi fell in love with the violet shirts that Újpest FC wore for a friendly against his men in late 1928 and decided to claim the color as his own, the better to stand out and bring greater glory to his city, but that’s not nearly as compelling a story. The famous purple strip first appeared in a pre-season friendly against Roma in 22 September 1929.
This has been the first installment of Fiorentina 101, which will be a semi-regular feature diving into the history of Fiorentina. Next time, we’ll have a look at those first few seasons in Serie A.