Over twenty years have passed since the last time Salernitana graced Serie A with their presence, but the last occasion in which they appeared at the Stadio Franchi to take on Fiorentina was in 2004. Both clubs competed in Serie B in the 2003/04 season, even though they had both expected to take part in Serie C1.
Fiorentina, as Florentia Viola, had won promotion from Serie C2, while Salernitana had finished bottom of the table in Serie B and were relegated. After yet another turbulent summer in Italian football, Serie B was extended to 24 teams, and both Fiorentina and Salernitana found themselves needing to prepare for the new season in the second tier. The protests of other clubs caused a delay to the start of the season, and some teams boycotted the Coppa Italia.
With little time to prepare for the higher-than-expected level, Fiorentina strengthened their squad as best they could. Sebastián Cejas would take over from Andrea Ivan in goal, and they also brought in players such as Christian Maggio, Alessandro Lucarelli, Christian Manfredini and Gianluca Comotto. Angelo Di Livio was still the captain, they would again need to rely on the goals of Christian Riganò, and Alberto Cavasin started the season as manager. With 46 games to play, this was always going to be a tough season, and when you look at the clubs who Fiorentina were competing against, promotion was never going to be straightforward. Palermo, Napoli, Genoa, Cagliari, Torino, Verona and Atalanta would all be battling for the promotion places. It was also a season in which future Viola legend, Luca Toni, would end the campaign as top scorer.
When Salernitana arrived in Florence on a Thursday night in early March 2004, they found themselves a point ahead of a Fiorentina struggling to stay in touch with the promotion race. That had already cost Cavasin his job, and Emiliano Mondonico was the new man in charge. He hadn’t got off to the greatest of starts, with one win in three games, and Fiorentina had lost at Piacenza the previous weekend. Salernitana had already beaten the Viola 1-0 when the sides met in Salerno earlier in the season, and Stefano Pioli was hoping for another three points to keep them well away from the relegation zone.
Pioli had taken charge at Salernitana at the start of the season, in what was his first ever role as manager of a senior side. The former Fiorentina defender had certainly improved things at the club after the disaster of the previous season, when the team had managed just four wins all season and had seen Zdeněk Zeman sacked in December. Pioli did need to stop a recent slide though, having gone the previous four games without a win. Mondonico meanwhile was hoping that a home game would give them a better chance of a much-needed victory, the side having failed to win even once on their travels so far that season.
The January transfer window had seen the end of loan periods for both Comotto and Christian Manfredini and the arrival of Daniele Delli Carri, Gaetano Fontana, Enrico Fantini and Zīsīs Vryzas among others. They had also signed Alfonso Camorani from Salernitana. Since Mondonico taking over less than a month before the game with Salernitana, the fans hadn’t seen much of an improvement, and they certainly let their feelings be known to the squad. The team bus arrived back from the defeat at Piacenza on Sunday to a barrage of eggs thrown by the waiting fans, and there had since been plenty of messages left outside the training ground to greet the players that week; “29/2/2004 Florence has endured too much”, “Watch out, our patience has run out”, “In the night, only us… watch out”.
Paolo Tagliavento was the man chosen to referee the game in Florence, as he had done when the sides met in Salerno. This was the fourth Fiorentina game he would referee that season, and the Viola were without a win in the previous three. The night before the game, Diego Della Valle called a summit of his staff, including Mondonico, and they all met for dinner at a restaurant in the city. After the meal, the club issued a statement in which they spoke of the need to stay united, after Della Valle had given back the city its club, they were now here to do important things.
The Fiesole Ultras, meanwhile, announced that they would remain silent for the first half of the game. In fact, not only for the Salernitana game, they said the protest would continue until they saw an improvement in the squad’s attitude. Some groups had wanted to send an even stronger message, by leaving the Fiesole empty. Their message to the club was plain and simple – “This protest is aimed at all the components of this club, who to date have been unable to build a football team capable of respecting what the fans have been promised”. It didn’t end there though – “we say enough to the overt amateurism on the part of the current leaders! Enough of the humiliations suffered up to now! Florence deserves respect and promises must be kept! We want to go to Serie A”.
The players didn’t get away lightly either – “As for the players, in particular, responsible for not honouring the shirt they wear, and for relying only on their name (not even that famous) as the only guarantee which is enough to collect their salary”. Plenty of tension then around this game, but at least the authorities had declared it as a game not in the high-risk category for potential trouble between fans. Less than two hundred fans were expected from Salerno, and luckily there were no fears expressed that bad feeling remained between the two sets of fans after what had happened in Salerno when Fiorentina played a European game there against Grasshoppers in 1998.
Pioli would have to do without the injured defender, Davide Mezzanotti, and Raffaele Longo, a player who had been with Fiorentina in Serie C2. They also needed to replace their fever-stricken goalkeeper Domenico Botticella with Alfonso De Lucia. Mondonico had defender William Viali on the injured list.
The game kicked off in silence, and it was Fiorentina who created a couple of early chances for Riganò, both of which were wide of the mark. Leandro Rinaudo’s free kick took a deflection off the Viola wall but was saved by Cejas. Six minutes before the break, and Fiorentina finally broke the deadlock. A Salernitana clearance from a Fantini cross was headed back into the box by Luigi Piangerelli, the ball was headed on again by Luca Ariatti and Riganò pounced to fire home. There were strong protests from the visitors, and these days the goal would surely be ruled out by VAR for a clear handball by the striker to control the ball.
Salernitana were unable to find an equalizer after the break, and with less than ten minutes to play, Fiorentina should have doubled their lead. Salvatore’s poor back pass was picked up by Riganò who made no mistake from just inside the area. The referee, and the linesman, combined to mistakenly rule the goal offside, perhaps an attempt to make up for their previous error.
Delle Carri and Gaetano Fontana both picked up yellow cards in the game which ruled them out of the trip to Treviso at the weekend. Vryzas was again disappointing, leading many to question why Mondonico preferred him over Mattia Graffiedi. Di Livio started the game on the bench for the first time that season, although he did replace Fontana later on. It certainly wasn’t the greatest Fiorentina performance, but the three points and the win were what mattered most at this stage, as Fantini declared after the game – “We won, and that’s enough, we played showing determination and pride. It was important to get the three points and we proved it”.
After the silence of the opening half, Fiorentina were applauded at the end. There were plenty of ironic banners on display in the crowd – “Our silence reflects your performance”, “11,000 mini season tickets for 11 mercenaries” and “Serie A in three light years”. With the win, Fiorentina overtook Salernitana, but were still seven points off Livorno in sixth place, and there were ten teams ahead of them in the table.
Pioli’s side would go another seven games without a win, and would finish the season in 17th place, five points above the relegation zone. Fiorentina drew that next game at Treviso but then went on a five-game winning run, which included a victory over league leaders, Palermo. With a victory over Torino on the penultimate day of the season, they guaranteed themselves a place in the play-offs, where they would see off Perugia for the famous return to Serie A. It’s easy to look back on our return to Serie A from Serie C2 with rose-tinted glasses. The reality however, especially this Serie B season, is that it was sometimes a hard slog, it cost managers their jobs, and fan protests were not all that uncommon.
Stefano Pioli moved on to Modena for the following season, a season which would also spell the end of Salernitana’s time in Serie B, when they ran into financial trouble.
To finish up, the two sides competed in the 1947/48 Serie A season, the longest campaign in history. It was the also the only season in which an uneven number of teams took part in Serie A, and the 21 clubs competed from September until the following July.
When the sides met in Florence in October, Fiorentina were a point ahead of their visitors after six games. They struggled to get the better of Salernitana, and it took a late Alberto Eliani goal to claim a narrow win. Fiorentina travelled to Salerno in March, but it was the hosts who took revenge. Two second half goals from Renzo Merlin and the Argentine, Adalberto Sifredi gave them hope of survival.
It wasn’t to be however, as defeat to Roma on the penultimate day of the season condemned them to relegation, with four teams dropping down. Fiorentina, after a good start to the season, finished poorly and ended the season in seventh place. Salernitana, along with Napoli, blamed refereeing bias towards the bigger clubs on their relegation, but their appeals were dismissed. It would be fifty years before the club made a return to Serie A, and now after 22 years they are back again, involved in yet another battle for survival.