Somewhat lost in the commotion about Rocco Commisso’s acquisition of Fiorentina has been the role of the former owners, Diego and Andrea Della Valle, in the club’s recent history. While their apparent lack of interest and investment over the past few years has soured a lot of fans on them, this seems like a good time to look back on some of their highlights in Florence.
Let’s take a look back at the 2001-2002 season in which the Cecchi Gori era came crashing down. Fiorentina were unable to pay the players for much of the season and were revealed to have debts over €50 million. Despite selling the likes of Rui Costa and Francesco Toldo, the club lost its entire roster (except Angelo di Livio). The club lost its history and badge as the FIGC repossessed everything it could to repay those debts as it busted the Viola down to Serie C2, which was the fourth tier of football back then.
Into this carnage rode the Della Valle brothers. They bought the club and assembled a team that absolutely destroyed the competition in Serie C2, earning a quick promotion—after the Caso Catania let them skip a level—back to Serie B, and a subsequent promotion to the top flight after seeing off Perugia in the playoff in 2004. With intelligent and generous investments, they brought in exciting young players like Christian Riganò, Fabio Quagliarella, Christian Maggio, and Alessandro Diamanti for peanuts to give big-time managers like Roberto Mancini and Emiliano Mondonico good pieces to work with. After the most hopeless moment any club can experience, the DVs made sound, careful decisions and brought Fiorentina back from the dead.
The Prandelli years
The mid-2000s were an amazing time to be a Fiorentina fan. For me, a lot of that was connected to my discovery of this website called the Offside that had an inexplicably passionate fanbase dedicated to discussing the Viola (and all sorts of other stuff) in English; having smart people to read about in the comments, and eventually discuss the team with, is a big reason I love this team so much, and that probably holds true for most of you, whenever you began watching.
But those early years, when San Cesare Prandelli took the reigns, were special. While the Della Valles never looked to challenge the economic hegemony of Juventus or the Milan clubs or AS Roma, Prandelli created one of the funnest footballing products you’ll ever see. Mixing pacy, technical attackers with forward-thinking midfielders and fullbacks who weren’t afraid to bomb forward, the Viola dazzled everyone who saw them. Goals poured in from Luca Toni, Adrian Mutu, Stevan Jovetić, and Alberto Gilardino. Riccardo Montolivo looked like the second coming of Andrea Pirlo. There was so much magic in Florence that even Per Krøldrup managed to become the 8th-best defender in Serie A.
They didn’t just score goals and ooze style, though. They won. They won a lot. Despite a 15-point deduction that knocked them out of the Champions League spots in 2006, they pushed all the way to the semifinals of the UEFA Cup before losing to Rangers on penalties. They qualified for the Champions League for the next 3 years in a row, most dramatically losing in the quarterfinals to eventual runners-up Bayern Munich in the worst refereeing performance I’ve ever seen across two legs.
It all came crashing down eventually, but for that half decade, there was a belief that Fiorentina could do anything. They proved themselves time and again against the biggest teams, won when they had to, and looked fantastic doing it. Not very many teams get to have a run like that, and it was beautiful and delicate and perfect because of its effervescence.
Andrea Della Valle loved this team
Diego was the money at Fiorentina given that he owned a 99% stake in the team, and his little brother Andrea had just one measly percent. But Diego was an Inter Milan fan and never seemed to care all that much about the Viola. ADV, on the other hand, dove headfirst into life as a superfan. He took over the presidency almost immediately and, despite his occasional petulance, nobody can doubt that he lived and died with the results.
Sure, sometimes he set himself at odds with the Curva Fiesole, but that always seemed more a function of their not seeing eye-to-eye on how to best run the club. Nobody ever doubted that Andrea wanted the best for Fiorentina. I mean, this is not the celebration of a guy who doesn’t care:
They weren’t afraid to take risks
As previously mentioned, the Della Valles were never the richest owners in the league. They were never going to compete with Juventus or the Milan clubs or Roma, but even the likes of Napoli (before they were as big as they are now) and Lazio were always a financial tier above. Even teams like Sampdoria and Palermo sometimes sported bigger budgets than the Viola.
As with every smaller team that succeeds, Fiorentina made up in cunning what it lacked in economic clout. Pantaleo Corvino was the biggest part of that, signing a steady parade of veterans who were reborn in Florence and youngsters who broke out, all while keeping the books balanced with the occasional big sale (Melo-to-Juve is still hilarious to me).
It wasn’t all sorting through the scrap heap, though, because Diego and Andrea signed off on some huge risks, too. Adrian Mutu had flamed out at Chelsea and then at Juve and was generally considered to be damaged goods; he became Serie A’s most complete striker as soon as he moved to Florence. Alberto Gilardino couldn’t shoot from more than about 10 yards away, but the club spent big on him and he wound up being a star for both club and country. A broken Giuseppe Rossi turned into a talisman through the early Montella years. Juan Vargas and Juan Cuadrado were both considered fullbacks, rather than world-class wingers, when Fiorentina paid big bucks for them.
As happens when you gamble, sometimes the DVs gambles missed badly, and we can name all of those. The most obvious is Mario Gómez, who cost a then-team-record €20 million, although there are plenty of others (Valeri Bojinov, anyone?). However, you can’t fault the DVs for those failures, as they were never in charge of scouting players; after all, you don’t expect a couple of fashionista capitalists to make judgement calls in soccer. But they were willing to pony up all that money to improve the team, and more often than not, it worked out well.
The Montella years
If Prandelli oversaw the first golden age under the DVs, Vincenzo Montella ushered in the second. The former Roma striker didn’t have much of a resume when he arrived in Tuscany, but soon won over everyone in the city with the most elegant passing football on the peninsula. Eschewing physical power and instead opting to dazzle opponents with skill and movement, he quickly created a team that became a media darling throughout Europe and the toast of soccer hipsters everywhere.
Just like Prandelli before him, though, spectacle wasn’t the only purpose. Those all-midfield sides were a terror to face and propelled the Viola upwards not only in the estimation of the neutrals but also in the table. Three successive 4th-place finishes is as good a stretch as the Viola have managed since the 1960s, and it would have resulted in regular Champions League appearances had the rest of Italy not spent the previous decade stinking up the joint in Europe, particularly the UEFA Cup/Europa League. Had Serie A kept that 4th spot for the continent’s premier competition, we could be looking at a very different Fiorentina indeed, one has followed a similar trajectory to Tottenham Hotspur in England. And that would be fine.
The Della Valles were not without faults. Thin-skinned, quick to take offense, and impossibly snooty with both players and fans, they never quite earned the love of the city the way that, say, Vittorio Cecchi Gori did (at least for a bit). But nobody can deny that without them, Fiorentina probably wouldn’t exist. They dug it out from the smoldering wreckage and nursed it back to health, providing at least as many highs as they did lows.
In the end, as obnoxious as they could be, they rescued the team. Their greatest fault, perhaps, is that they wanted to be loved by the fans the way those fans loved Fiorentina; while Diego and Andrea will never receive that sort of adoration, we should at least be thankful to them.