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Let’s talk about Fiorentina’s 40-game unbeaten streak in the league

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When you’ve gone weeks, months, years without calcio (or maybe it just feels that way), it can be a lot of fun to look at some history.

ACF Fiorentina v Bologna FC - Serie A Photo by Gabriele Maltinti/Getty Images

On Sunday, 17 April 1955, Fiorentina traveled to Bergamo and got shelled by Atalanta to the tune of 5-1. They let Poul Rasmussen score a hat trick in 54 minutes. Their only goal came at the hour mark, courtesy of Dea defender Angelo Villar turning the ball into his own net. It was a pretty distressing result, especially against a team that only escaped relegation on the final day of the season. It was also the last time that Fiorentina lost in the league until 3 June 1956, over a year later; the team went undefeated in its next 40 matches, which is the 7th-longest such streak ever in the major European leagues.

The rest of that season wasn’t especially impressive. The Viola won 2 of those remaining fixtures and drew the other 5 en route to a 6th place finish. It was the following campaign that Fiorentina really took off; they only missed out on an undefeated season with a defeat on the final matchday at Genoa, by which point they’d already sewn up the first scudetto in club history.

The players

Only 23 players appeared for the team in these 40 matches spanning two seasons; keep in mind that this was before substitutions were allowed, so these guys played 90 minutes every outing. It’s a reminder of how much the game has changed, since that simply isn’t possible any more as fitness has become perhaps the most important aspect of football.

Some of these guys are household names: Giuseppe Chiappella, Miguel Montuori, and Julinho are all Viola legends, while Giuliano Sartri, Ardico Magnini, Francesco Cervato, Guido Gratton, and Giuseppe Virgili are remembered fondly as well. Players like Francesco Rosetta, Armando Segato, Alberto Orzan, and Maurilio Prini, however, aren’t as well-known despite their key contributions to the side.

All statistics from Transfermarkt

You’ll probably notice a few things from this. First and foremost, let’s all applaud Cervato (who wore the armband through this streak), Segato, and Gratton for playing every minute of this run. That’s simply wild.

Next, you’ll notice that the defense seems undermanned. That’s partly true, as many Italian teams in the 1950s, Fiorentina among them, played a variation of the famous WM. They normally set out with 3 defenders, 4 midfielders, and 3 forwards, although sometimes it ended up looking more like a 3-3-4. Guys like Cervato and Chiappella were also more than capable of playing in the back line—Chiappella may have originated the role of the holding midfielder who drops into the defense in possession—which meant that the attacking midfielders like Montuori and Gratton could stay higher up the pitch and focus on unlocking opponents. In effect, it looked something like this:

Made using Share My Tactics

The manager

Fulvio Bernardini was born 28 December 1905 in Rome and grew up in the Lazio youth system but broke through as a professional for Inter Milan in 1926, scoring a brace in his debut as the Nerazzurri beat Novese by an eye-opening score of 14-0 in the Coppa Italia. Despite his Lazio roots, he spent 11 years playing for AS Roma before moving to lower-division club MATER as a player-coach in 1939 and hanging up his boots in 1943. He was a brilliant midfielder (although he started his career as a goalkeeper and could play as a striker or on the wing) and an international who helped Italy to the bronze medal at the 1928 Olympics as the first guy from outside the northern provinces to earn a cap.

He broke into management with the Lupi in 1949 but was let go at the end of the season, managing Reggiana and Vicenza before landing in Florence in January 1953. He steadied the ship that year before leading the Viola into the top 5 for the next two years. He stuck around until 1958, when Lazio came calling with a chance to return to his beloved Rome. He’d eventually win another Scudetto with Bologna in 1964. He coached the Italian national team for a minute in the 1970s too; he called up a shaggy-haired maverick by the name of Giancarlo Antognoni to the Azzurri for the first time. He also masterminded the 1978 World Cup team coached by Enzot Bearzot as the head of the FIGC. He retired after that and died at the age of 78 in 1984.

While he’s not thought of as a brilliant innovater, he knew the game forward and back and had strong ideas of how to play. Despite the attacking talent he had on hand, his first focus was at the back, where he constructed formidable defenses; Fiorentina had the best defensive record in the league three times in his five years. That wasn’t just because he had some outstanding defenders—although he surely did—but also because he was very intelligent in how he used them. As mentioned above, Chiappella often dropped into the defense to mark opposing forwards, which left Rosetta as a free sweeper. To prevent the midfield from being outnumbered, he’d often use the slightly clunky but hardworking striker Maurilio Prini on the left wing; Prini would retreat into deep and central positions to ensure that the engine room wasn’t overrun, secure in the knowledge that Cervato’s bursts forward from defense would preserve the width on that side.

The result was a shape that often looked more like a 4-4-2 than anything else, a decade before Brazil wowed the world with a similar setup. It wasn’t just the formation, though, where Bernardini’s instructions were apparent: whenever possible, he ordered his players to avoid passing to each other’s feet, instead preferring that they pass into space for a teammate to run onto. While other managers had already come up with the idea years before, moving the ball to the feet of a dribbler and letting him carry the ball was still the dominant form of attack. By creating a nearly impregnable defensive structure and encouraging passing that jump-started counterattacks, Fuffo anticipated Herrera’s catenaccio brilliantly.

Off the pitch, he was also a fascinating character. Known as an excellent tennis player as well, he earned a degree in economics while at Inter, which naturally led to him being nicknamed Dottore or Professore (although he also answered to Fuffo). He was also the one who convinced the brass to promote a youth team striker named Giuseppe Meazza to the first team.

Perhaps most impressive is the story about the time in 1935 that, stuck in a traffic jam in Rome, he refused to yield to another vehicle and ended up in a minor collision with it. Upon arriving home and finding the carabinieri waiting for him, he discovered that the other vehicle contained Benito Mussolini. The famously apolitical Bernardini’s license was suspended for months; the only way he could get it back was to let Mussolini beat him in a tennis match (which yikes).

The matches

This is probably as good a place as any to admit that I wasn't around for these matches and thus can’t really provide a first-hand account of things. Not even the redoubtable Footballia.net has any Serie A recordings stretching this far back, and finding accurate accounts of these is tricky no matter what, given the local newspapers’ penchant for exaggeration and bombast during this era. Nevertheless, I was able to track down some in-game footage, mostly on YouTube, and get at least a very vague impression of how the team played.

The first thing that jumps out at you, of course, is the space. This was before the idea of pressing. It was before Karl Rappan developed the verrou system that Helenio Herrera modified into catenaccio. This was an age when the idea of fielding more than three defenders was simply unsporting; after all, the point of the game was dribble and score. Midfielders ambled around, waiting for the ball to come their way, and jogging unopposed up the pitch when it did. Wingers stayed high up and dribbled. The striker and the central defender engaged in a 90 minute duel. The game is so much faster and more tactical now that it’s barely the same sport.

Still, though, you can see the talent in the players. Virgili was just a monster: he could outrun or out jump most defenders, and he could finish from distance or from close range with either foot or his head. Julinho was arguably the best winger in the world during his stint in Florence what with his combination of electric pace and outrageous technical ability. Montuori is rightly recognized as the finest 10 to play in Florence until a certain Giancarlo Antognoni showed up decades later; he was a slight, slithery figure who found seams in the defense that nobody else imagined and used them to set up himself or his teammates. Cervato and Magnini were two of the best defenders of their generation, as reflected by their combined 48 caps. The latter was an old-school defender who climbed inside his opponent’s shirt from the opening whistle and refused to be dislodged until the match was over, while the latter defended well but also bombed down the wing and even took set pieces. Chippella was a bowling ball possessed by an evil spirit, rolling all over the pitch and leaving havoc in his wake. Gratton was a brilliant box-to-box player who linked the team together as well as anyone in purple ever has. The squad was just too talented.

The aftermath

So, with this outrageously talented team in place, how did Fiorentina not string together a couple more scudetti? Well, they finished second (albeit by 11 points) to Juventus the following year, so it’s not like they fell off the map, and also fell to Real Madrid in the Champions League final (largely due to some dodgy refereeing that maybe wasn’t that surprising given the venue and the Franco regime). The season after that, though, they added a devastating Swede named Kurt Hamrin to the attack, as well as the great Francisco Lojacano. You might think that these two would have supercharged the attack; combining them with the rest of the squad—still very much in its prime—should have done more than achieve another second-place finish. Even with Virgili and Julinho moving on the following year to Torino and Palmeiras, respectively, they had enough in the tank, but came up just 3 points short of Milan. The Viola were so close to a dynasty but, like so many beautiful things, it was too delicate to happen in the world.

Results and goalscorers

24 April 1955: Fiorentina 0-0 Napoli

1 May 1955: AS Roma 3-4 Fiorentina (Virgili 3’ 67’, Mariani 22’, Segato 50’)

8 May 1955: Fiorentina 2-2 Genoa (Buzzin 50’, Gren 82’)

15 May 1955: Bologna 0-1 Fiorentina (Segato 60’, Virgili 79’)

5 June 1955: Fiorentina 2-2 Torino (Segato 64’, Mariani 89’)

12 June 1955: Fiorentina 3-3 Inter Milan (Nesti OG 38’, Virgili 40’, Mariani 80’)

19 June 1955: Triestina 1-1 Fiorentina (Virgili 18’)

18 September 1955: Pro Patria 2-2 Fiorentina (Virgili 9’, Julinho 48’)

25 September 1955: Fiorentina 1-0 Padova (Cervato pk 80’)

2 October 1955: Juventus 0-4 Fiorentina (Montuori 4’, Virgili 18’ 88’, Magnini 54’)

9 October 1955: Fiorentina 0-0 Inter Milan

16 October 1955: Bologna 0-2 Fiorentina (84’ Virgili, 86’ Cervato pk)

23 October 1955: Fiorentina 4-1 Atalanta (Julinho 9’ 25’, Montuori 13’, Virgili 30’)

30 October 1955: Vicenza 1-1 Fiorentina (39’ Prini)

6 November 1955: Fiorentina 2-0 Torino (Montuori 84’ 87’)

13 November 1955: Novara 1-1 Fiorentina (Cervato 33’)

4 December 1955: AC Milan 0-2 Fiorentina (Montuori 13’, Virgili 14’)

8 December 1955: Fiorentina 2-0 AS Roma (Virgili 33’, Losi OG 82’

25 December 1955: Fiorentina 1-0 Triestina (Julinho 26’)

1 January 1956: Napoli 2-4 Fiorentina (Montuori 34’ 76’, Virgili 51’ 72’)

8 January 1956: Fiorentina 0-0 SPAL

15 January 1956: Fiorentina 0-0 Sampdoria

22 January 1956: Lazio 2-2 Fiorentina (Virgili 52’, Julinho 64’)

29 January 1956: Fiorentina 3-1 Genoa (Virgili 41’, Cervato pk 61’, Montuori 71’)

6 February 1956: Fiorentina 4-1 Pro Patria (Cervato 30’, Virgili 35’ 52’, Bizzari 49’)

19 February 1956: Padova 0-1 Fiorentina (Gratton 6’)

26 February 1956: Fiorentina 2-0 Juventus (Montuori 86’, Prini 88’)

4 March 1956: Inter Milan 1-3 Fiorentina (Virgili 45’ 68’, Prini 70’)

11 March 1956: Fiorentina 0-0 Bologna

18 March 1956: Atalanta 0-0 Fiorentina

25 March 1956: Fiorentina 2-0 Vicenza (Prini 54’, Virgili 65’)

1 April 1956: Torino 0-1 Fiorentina (Montuori 44’)

8 April 1956: Fiorentina 4-2 Novara (Montuori 2’ 33’ 48’, Virgili 40’)

15 April 1956: Fiorentina 3-0 AC Milan (Prini 15’, Virgili 37’ 63’)

29 April 1956: AS Roma 1-1 Fiorentina (Virgili 62’)

6 May 1956: Triestina 1-1 Fiorentina (Julinho 42’)

10 May 1956: Fiorentina 0-0 Napoli

13 May 1956: SPAL 0-1 Fiorentina (Carpanesi 59’)

20 May 1956: Sampdoria 0-0 Fiorentina

27 May 1956: Fiorentina 4-1 Lazio (Lo Buono OG 6’, Gratton 21’, Prini 64’, Virgili 70’)