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Fiorentina All-Time XI: South American Edition

Fiorentina has never been the most prolific importer of talent from the New World, but it has provided us with some of the most legendary players to wear purple.

photoshoot fiorentina
How I wish my quarantine was more like Batigol in Florence cerca 1992.
Photo by Alain Gadoffre / Onze / Icon Sport

Now that all of us are hopefully home safe while we continue to struggle to get through what is going to be a long few months, without even the crutch of football or other sports to help us pass the time, it’s time to look back to the important things - Fiorentina and South American football.

With fantasy lineups all the rage as we look to the past to distract ourselves from the present, I have been tasked to dive into la Viola’s history of successful South American imports. Fiorentina rarely has been flooded with expensive imports the way the appropriately named Internazionale has for instance, and other organizations have generally had more consistent and prolific scouting in the Americas, but it feels like the club has always has at least one South American great at any given time, going back to the 1930s, when speedy Uruguayan forward Pedro Petrone had 33 goals in 47 games in two seasons, while his countryman Carlos Gringa added crossing skills from the wing. Both scudetto winning Fiorentina sides had South American imports to add flair to an otherwise Italian core, a trend that continues even as the 21st century makes squads generally more international.

For the purpose of this list, I tried to balance players overall careers with their track record for Fiorentina, but since this is a Viola-centric list, an emphasis is placed on their performance as Fiorentina players. As a result Sócrates will not be included - the skillful Brazilian might have been one of the most fascinating players of all time, but while he remains a cult figure in Florence, he never settled in Serie A and his brilliance only ever really clicked for a handful of games. Fellow Brazilians Edmundo and Adriano also fall short for this reason - they might be all time greats talent wise, but the latter was only briefly in purple while still young before his all too short peak, and the former squandered all possible goodwill by essentially abandoning the club.

Other than that, while trying to be objective, we all have our own personal favorites, and so while I am digging into Fiorentina history for this list, there will be an inevitable emphasis on players from the last few decades that I saw play. I try to be relatively faithful to position, but the club has consistently done a better job finding attackers and central defenders from South America, resulting in a certain level of creativity. The virtual absence of decent fullbacks from the Americas has given me an opportunity to include two recent favorites who ultimately made their name as attacking talent, but were originally signed with an idea they could play wingbacks. As far as formation goes I chose to go with 4-3-3 in a combination of personal preference and convenience.

Goalkeeper: Neto (Brazil) [2011-2015]

Although he left Fiorentina on less than ideal terms and many of us were happy to see his career not go as smoothly he may have hoped, and will never be a fan favorite after signing for Juventus after letting his contract expire, Neto gets the nod here virtually by default. He arrived in 2010 from Athletico Paranaense as an erratic prospect whose inconsistency on the ball was a liability, but by 2013–14 he appeared to have put it all together and was emerging as one of Serie A’s best keepers. After a solid half a year later, it was announced he was not renewing his contract and he was replaced by Ciprian Tatarusanu - until the latter got injured, allowing him to finish his Fiorentina career as the starter.

Since leaving Florence, Neto’s career has continued to be up and down. As his newfound enemies could have predicted, he was redundant at Juventus and spent two years warming the bench as Buffon’s backup, although his presence alone won him some trophies. He moved to Valencia after that, a much more suitable fit, where he had two solid years before being sent to Barcelona in exchange for Jasper Cillessen. Again in a backup role, Neto has been questionable at best when called upon.

Left Back: Juan Manuel Vargas (Peru) [2008-2015]

El Loco Vargas, a volatile Peruvian with a canon of a shot, was originally snatched up from Catania ahead of Real Madrid to provide a more attacking option at left back, although it soon became apparent that he was more useful for Cesare Prandelli as a midfielder, where he was capable of making powerful bombs forward in attack without having to focus on the defensive side. Vargas played a key role in bringing Fiorentina back to relevance in Europe, saving some of his finest moments for the Champions League, particularly in 2009. With strong dribbling and crossing skills as well as his shot, at his best Vargas was effective both as a left winger and interior midfielder.

Vargas’ erratic personal life became increasingly an issue in the post-Prandelli era, resulting in him being sent to Genoa for a year on loan, although he rejoined Vincenzo Montella’s skillful Fiorentina a year later in 2013, having lost much of his athleticism but still effective across various roles, scoring Fiorentina’s lone goal in the 2014 Coppa Italia final. Vargas retired in 2018 following a return to his first club Club Universitario de Deportes.

Center Back: Daniel Passarella (Argentina) [1982-1986]

El Caudillo is one of the legends of the game, the greatest Argentine defender of all time and a mythical figure for both the national team and River Plate. A fierce competitor and one of the greatest headers of the ball of all time despite his 5’8” stature, Passarella was a sweeper who was intimidating in defense and more than capable in joining in attack, whether it be from open play, set pieces, or on the spot.

A great but uncompromising leader, Passarella captained the high flying 1978 Argentina team to their controversial World Cup win, but was frozen out of the 1986 squad due to his fractious relationship with Diego Maradona and coach Carlos Bilardo (Maradona also claimed he was carrying on an affair with the wife of another player while playing for Fiorentina). He also feuded with Sócrates while at Fiorentina, and a young forward named Gabriel Omar Batistuta while coach of River and Argentina, mostly due to his policy of refusing to allow players to keep their hair long.

Passarella played for Fiorentina between 1982 and 1986 where he quickly became a team leader, fitting in perfectly with the Italian game of the 80s. In his last season in Florence he scored 15 goals in all competitions for an otherwise goal starved side, including a team leading 11 goals in Serie A, scoring against the likes of Juventus and Inter, and brought la Viola back to the UEFA Cup.

After Fiorentina, he spent two disappointing years at Inter before moving back to River for one last season, before transitioning to coach, winning several national titles.

Center Back: Gonzalo Rodriguez (Argentina) [2012-2017]

After Villarreal was relegated in 2012 and Fiorentina snatched up Borja Valero, it seemed as though Gonzalo might have been nothing more than a budget throw in, a reclamation project for a player who appeared to have his prime taken away by injuries, a player who the suddenly desperate Villarreal was going to let return to San Lorenzo for free before Fiorentina offered to throw in a little extra as part of the negotiations for Borja.

There was reason for skepticism - the skilled sweeper arrived in Spain at 21 and immediately became a starter for the rising Yellow Submarine, but two years later his trajectory was altered by two back to back tears of the cruciate ligament in his right knee. He made a comeback in 2008-2009 where he formed one of the most exciting defensive pairings around alongside fellow South American Diego Godín, but when the Uruguayan was sold to Atletíco Madrid in 2010, his form declined, followed by another devastating injury in 2011 where he brutally broke his fibula and was rushed to the hospital. Gonzalo looked a shell of himself on his return, playing his part in Villarreal’s shock relegation in 2012.

The next season, what at first looked to be a smart gamble by Daniele Prade and Eduardo Macia turned out to be a revelation for Fiorentina - the slightly slower pace of Italy suited the not old yet Argentine, and his passing skills were perfectly suited for Montella’s new possession focused Fiorentina, once again combining with Borja and his new teammates to give Fiorentina the reputation of Serie A’s answer to tiki-taka. With freedom to move forward in attack, Gonzalo was able to show off his underrated goal scoring talent, scoring 6 Serie A goals in his first season and 7 in 2014-2015, resulting in comparisons to Passarella, who he was named next to in Fiorentina’s all time XI squad in 2016.

Gonzalo was made official captain following the departure of Manuel Pasqual in 2015, and continued to play a key role under Paulo Sousa for two years although by this point he was showing his age. After 8 years at Villarreal and 5 at Fiorentina, Gonzalo finally returned to his home club San Lorenzo before retiring.

Right Back: Juan Cuadrado (Colombia) [2012-2015]

The second (and not the last) player on this squad from the brilliant summer that brought us the short but sweet original Prade and Montella era, Cuadrado was first scouted by the experts at Udinese when he played for Independiente Medellín in Colombia. By that point he had already played forward, fullback, and across the midfield, although his strongest play was at right wing or wingback to take advantage of his dribbling and direct pace.

Something of a late bloomer, Cuadrado was already 24 by the time he arrived in Florence, and although he showed promise at Udinese and Lecce, he still didn’t have a fully defined position. Montella used him at first as a wingback but then across the right flank, where his willingness to dribble the ball complimented the smooth passing midfielders nicely. His goal scoring abilities also improved significantly during his two and a half years in Florence - with more confidence in a more forward role, he scored 11 Serie A goals in the 2013-2014 season, attracting the attention of European heavyweights. He had also cemented himself as a regular on José Pékerman’s increasingly talented Colombia side, scoring one goal and four assists as Colombia made it to the quarter finals in the 2014 World Cup.

With the big clubs of Europe trying to tap him up, Prade sent Cuadrado to Chelsea in February 2015 for €30 million and what would be half a season of Mohamed Salah (a story for another day), at the time still an impressive value for a player that initially cost Fiorentina €6 million over two years. The Colombian never really settled for Chelsea and he returned to Italy soon after, unfortunately for Juventus.

Defensive Midfielder: Dunga (Brazil) [1988-1992]

Despite being captain for Brazil when they won the World Cup in 1994, Carlos Caetano Bledorn Verri aka Dunga remains one of the most polarizing stars in Brazilian football history - the Era Dunga is known for a Brazilian side that played a slow, defensive, thuggish game in contrast to the attack minded flair Brazil had been famous for, a shift that brought Brazil back to the top of the world while alienating many fans even domestically. And Dunga is often the symbol of Brazil in the 90s, a hard, defensive minded midfielder who was more interested in tackles than stepovers.

While certainly tough, Dunga’s reputation overshadows that he was a player of considerable finesse - an excellent reader of the game and a tidy passer, hard working but also a clean tackler who stayed on his feet, accumulating only 13 yellow cards and a single sending-off in his four years in Fiorentina. Although his offensive numbers were never impressive, he had the vision to initiate counter attacks with long balls directly to the forwards and was a capable threat at set pieces, both thanks to his strong right foot.

Something of a journeyman at the club level, his four years and 154 appearances between 1988 and 1992 were some of the most consistent in his career before he was sold to Pescara, a victim of the many financial shuffles of the Cecchi Gori era.

After retirement he became a coach with the same polarizing defensive mindset he had as a player. He coached the Brazilian national team twice between 2006 and 2010 and again from 2014 to 2016, winning the Copa América in 2007. He has said a few times he dreams of coaching Fiorentina.

Central Midfielder: David Pizarro (Chile) [2012-2015]

Yet another key 2012 signing, Pek was already a 33 year old veteran and one of the most highly regarded deep lying playmakers in Serie A when Fiorentina signed him on free transfer as part of their midfield revolution. Pizarro had already spent over a decade in Italy by this point, having been brought to Europe by Udinese in 1999. After a few years of adaptation, Pizarro stood out enough for a high profile move to Inter, where he only lasted a year before being shipped to Roma where he was reunited with former coach Luciano Spalletti, where he was able to thrive in one of the league’s strongest midfields next to Daniele De Rossi.

After being frozen out at Roma by Zdenek Zeman, Pek was briefly loaned to Manchester City to ride out the last half a year of his contract before Prade and Macia convinced him to join their new Fiorentina project as part of a midfield revolution that also brought in Borja Valero, Alberto Aquilani, and Matías Fernández in a mission to dominate central midfield possession. Under Montella, Pizarro would typically be the most deep lying midfielder, primarily as part of a pass-happy trio alongside Valero and Aquilani. The result was a constant domination of play, and Pizarro was usually the man setting the pace.

While strong on the ball with edge to his game despite his diminutive size, Pek’s calling card of course was his passing, with vision and seemingly unlimited range making him ideal in a deeper role. Like many of his colleagues on that team, he was also a capable free kick taker. Pizarro was extended beyond his initial two year contract at Fiorentina, but already in the tail end of his careeer, in 2015 he returned to Chile, briefly for his hometown Santiago Wanderers (who play in Valparaíso despite the name) before ending his career at Universidad de Chile. Pizarro’s international success was limited due to a falling out with the Chilean national team in 2006, leading to an early retirement. He returned in 2014 after being convinced by head coach Jorge Sampaoli. He was left off the World Cup squad but was a part of the team that won the 2015 Copa América at home.

Attacking Midfielder: Miguel Montuori (Argentina) [1956-1961]

One of the greatest “10s” in Fiorentina history and the one Viola fans of a certain age would claim as maybe the greatest attacking midfielder in club history, Montuori started his career in obscurity. The son of an Afro-Argentinian mother and a Neapolitan father, Montuori started off at Racing Club but only found any sort of success after moving to Universidad Católica in Chile, where he was brought to Italy by Fiorentina President Enrico Befani allegedly on the recommendation of an Italian priest, Father Volpi.

Alongside forwards Giuseppe Virgili and Julinho, Montouri immediately helped lead Fiorentina to their first ever scudetto with 13 goals and plenty of assists. He would also win the Coppa Italian and European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1961 as Fiorentina’s captain before being forced into an early retirement at the age of 28, after a clearance to the face knocked him unconscious and lead to a detached retina.

Scoring 71 goals in 162 games for Fiorentina, Montouri was known locally as ‘Michelangelo’ due to his creativity and despite being an impressive goal scorer himself, was also a great playmaker. His biggest strength was his dribbling skill; small and compact with inventive, unpredictable movement, he managed to constantly break through the often brutal tackles that were common in Serie A back then. One of the first oriundi of note, he was the first non-native born player to captain the Azzurrri and was one of the first to play for Italy with noticeable African descent.

A man with sad features which played into his reputation as a tragic figure, he struggled with health issues and financials after retirement. After spending most of his retirement back in Chile for his wife and children, he returned to Florence in 1988 with the support of the other veterans of the 1956 scudetto winning side as well as the local community, where he would spend his last decade.

Forward: Daniel Bertoni (Argentina) [1980-1984]

Naturally a right winger although capable on either side, Bertoni was Passarella’s teammate both for Fiorentina and the 1978 World Cup winning Argentina national team. A complete winger who today is underrated, Bertoni was an excellent dribbler with a good shot, good speed, and strength. Mostly remembered for scoring the third goal in the World Cup final against the Netherlands, Petete was famous for his link up play both internationally and on the club side, having had successful spells in Argentina, Spain, and Italy.

After a very successful domestic spell primarily with Independiente, where he won the Copa Libertadores 3 times, Bertoni followed up his World Cup success with a move to Europe, first to Sevilla and then to Fiorentina, where he was the headline signing of the start of the Pontello era. Of his four years in Florence, his second was the most memorable - in the 1980/1981 season, Bertoni, now acclimatized to Serie A and playing at the level of his reputation, was the key piece to a truly elite team - veterans Francesco Graziani and Eraldo Pecci were brought in from Torino, alongside the promising talent Daniele Massaro and Pietro Vierchowod, in order to compliment talent such as Bertoni and captain Giancarlo Antognoni. Bertoni and Graziani scored 9 goals each to lead a balanced attack, and Fiorentina lead the league for most of the season, in a year that the dream of a third scudetto came closest to reality. The league was ultimately decided on the last game of the season, resulting in Juventus - with the help of some questionable calls from the ref, winning their 20th scudetto and haunting Viola fans forever.

Bertoni would spend two more years in Florence, reunited with World Cup teammate Passarella, although his third season was cut short by a nasty bout of viral hepatitis. He would bounce back in his final year and score 10 goals in 26 league games, before moving on to Napoli and then Udinese.

Forward: Gabriel Batistuta (Argentina) [1991-2000]

One of the greatest goalscorers of his generation and the all time greatest number 9 to play for Fiorentina with 152 Serie A goals to his name (203 total), Batigol is an icon in Florence, the most important South American import to wear the purple jersey, and to many people, is himself Mr. Fiorentina.

Born to a working class family in Reconquista outside of Santa Fe, Batistuta was more interested in basketball until he was inspired by Argentina’s 1978 World Cup winning side, Mario Kempes in particular, to devote himself to football. He caught the attention of regional powerhouse Newell’s Old Boys where he developed under the tutelage of Marcelo Bielsa. With more confidence and much better conditioning, he made an even bigger move to Buenos Aires, where he found himself on River Plate under a certain Daniel Passarella. This was the start of a contested relationship between the two and, frozen out at River, Bati soon moved cross town to hated rivals Boca Juniors. After another rough start he was moved to his preferred central forward position under future Uruguay coach Óscar Tabárez, and won the league as Boca’s top scorer.

Following a strong Copa América victory where Batistuta stood out as Argentina’s top scorer, he came to the attention of Fiorentina President Mario Cecchi Gori, who brought him and his young family to Florence, which would be his home for 9 years. Batigol immediately got off to a strong start, however in his second year, Fiorentina found themselves relegated despite some high profile signings, collapsing under the weight of the unstable Cecchi Gori years. Batistuta already cemented his legend by committing to la Viola even in Serie B, helping ensure that they would only stay down for one year.

Batistuta followed that with his individually best year in 1994-1995, linking with new signing Rui Costa to score 26 goals in 32 games; the following year, in 1996 he’d win his won significant piece of silverware for Fiorentina in the form of the Coppa Italia. This was a golden age of Serie A; the Fiorentina of the Cecchi Gori family would alternate as buyers and sellers, leading to a fluctuation between years where they would be outside scudetto contenders and mid table mediocrities.

In the 1998-1999 season, everything was supposed to come together - Fiorentina had brought in legendary coach Giovanni Trapattoni to take them over the edge, Batistuta was in the peak of his career, having just come off a silver shoe winning World Cup performance, and with an equally talented strike partner in the form of Brazilian import Edmundo, not to mention Rui Costa still around to pull the strings. And until February, Fiorentina were the best side in Italy, leading the table when Batistuta injures his knee against the third place Milan. With Batistuta out for five weeks and Edmundo abandoning the team to party at the Rio Carnival, Fiorentina spiral downward, for more on this season read In Bed With Maradona’s excellent, agonizing chronicle that I come back to regularly in a ritual of self torture.

Growing tired of Fiorentina’s mismanagement and with club finances spiralling downward, Batigol remained in Florence one more year before moving to Roma for the equivalent of €36.2 million, at the time a record for a player over the age of 30. Batistuta would score 20 goals in his first season in Roma, fulfilling his dream of winning Serie A, even if it was tragically for the wrong team.

Batistuta was one of the most complete strikers of all time - strong both on and off the ball, he was quick, powerful, capable in the air, able to score with both power and finesse from virtually everywhere with both feet despite being naturally right footed. Known for his long flowing hair and goal celebrations, Batigol was a force of nature, immortal in Florence and back in Argentina, where he was the national team’s all time top scorer before being surpassed by Lionel Messi.

Forward: Julinho (Brazil) [1955-1958]

Voted the best Fiorentina player of all time in 1996 and the winger who legendary coach Fulvio Bernardini claims was the most talented he ever saw, the man born Júlio Botelho remains surprisingly obscure today for a player considered by many Garrincha’s equal when it comes to legendary Brazilian right wingers. In part this is because in 1958 when Brazil’s international reputation would be born with their first World Cup win, Julinho declined an offer to be the sole international based player on the squad, not wanting to take away a spot from the younger generation, enabling the likes of Garrincha and a 17 year old Pelé to become national heroes.

At the time, however, Julinho was one of the legends of the Brazilian game. A standout performer in the 1954 World Cup and a star at Portuguesa, Bernardini pushed to bring him to Italy, a process that would take a year. Inter had previously tried to bring the Brazilian over, however the combination of Portuguesa demanding a ransom and the restriction on foreign players back then forced them to back off. In 1955, the 26 year old Julinho would arrive in Florence as a celebrity, ready to be paired with budding finisher Virgili and a far more obscure new import named Montuori. A unworldly creative playmaker and dynamic dribbler with a slender frame who remained composed even as defenders would kick at him in desperation, Julinho scored 6 goals in his debut season but created significantly more for Virgili and Montouri. Bernardini would remark that the play never ends when Julinho has the ball, it seemed every time the Brazilian would gain possession on the right side, he would retain it until he was ready to send a precision curling cross to the box for a scoring chance.

After helping lead Fiorentina to the legendary 1956 scudetto, Julinho would be the standout performer the following season in la Viola’s European Cup final run, where they would hold Real Madrid scoreless for 69 minutes before a questionable penalty would end Fiorentina’s dream of conquering Europe. Julinho would extend his contract one more year before returning to Brazil where he’d star for Palmeiras. Although he only spent three years in Florence and would spend the rest of his life back home in Brazil, when he passed away in São Paulo, it was discovered that he had walls in his room painted purple and arranged to have a Fiorentina flag placed in his coffin alongside those of Portuguesa and Palmeiras.

Honorable Mentions

Francisco Lojacono, Midfield (Argentina) [1957-1960, 1963-1964]: A combative and robust attacking midfielder and oriundi who played internationally for both Argentina and Italy, his bull in a china shop style never won over Bernardini, nevertheless he remained valuable across different forward roles and was one of the trailblazing Argentines in Serie A.

Amarildo, Forward (Brazil) [1967-1970]: A small striker of great skill and imagination with an explosive temper and a propensity for red cards, Amarildo Tavares da Silveira was the sole foreign player and playmaker on Fiorentina’s scudetto winning 1968-1969 season, although his career in Florence was limited by injuries. Amarildo also won the World Cup with brazil in 1962.

Ramón Díaz, Forward (Argentina) [1986-1988]: Another River Plate legend, both as a player and a coach, Díaz didn’t quite have the same impact in Florence that his countrymen the Daniels did, nevertheless, in his two years in purple, he was the top scorer on a team that otherwise struggled heavily on the attacking side. If only he arrived a few years earlier.

Matías Fernández, Midfield (Chile) [2012-2016]: Although Matigol’s career remains something of a what-if, having been plagued by injuries since Villarreal signed him following a break out season at Colo-Colo, Fernández was nevertheless a joy to watch and a brilliant playmaker when healthy, and was probably Fiorentina’s best player in 2014-2015. Part of the 2012 midfield renaissance, his fragile nature meant he was frequently overshadowed by the trio of Borja Valero, Aquilani, and Pizzaro, yet he remained a key cog in the possession machine, especially in his third year where he was healthy enough to show just what could have been.

Germán Pezzella, Defense (Argentina) [2017-2020]: Fiorentina’s current captain has been one of the smartest signings of the recent era, having shown credible leadership during what has been a difficult period full of mismanagement, instability, and tragedy. A heart on his sleeve player with strong anticipation and set piece skills, Pezzella has been a well rounded defensive lynchpin despite the tendency to have long erratic spells once a season. We are happy to see that the captain appears to be making a strong recovery from COVID-19, as we need all the good news we can get.