They say the one thing you can never change is your football team, but is that really true? I’m not someone who supports different teams in different countries, there can only be one team for me. For a long time now, that team has been Fiorentina, but it wasn’t always the case.
It’s confession time, as a kid I was a Liverpool fan. This was in Ireland in the 1980’s, in a country with an unhealthy obsession with English football (nothing much has changed) and for no particular reason, I chose Liverpool and my brother picked Manchester United. Now, should a decision made by a seven-year-old boy be something that decides his future, the rest of his football watching life?
It’s a different story if this is your hometown team, but this was a club in a different country, and I would never attend a game at their stadium. Football back then was followed mainly through newspapers and radio, with the odd live game on television. The game for me as a kid was all consuming, an escape almost, and I read everything I could get my hands on about football. I bought old football programmes by mail order, and this was also a very successful period in Liverpool’s history, making them an easy team for a schoolboy to be proud of supporting.
I remember the 1985 European Cup Final against Juventus in Heysel, but I don’t recall being aware of the tragedy that happened before the game. Hillsborough was a different story in 1989, as I sat in silence and disbelief watching the disaster unfold live on television. I can still remember a month later going to watch Ireland play a World Cup qualifier against Malta in Dublin, and a moment of panic as the crowd surged onto the terrace just before kick-off. My love for football was stronger than ever though, and now finally I even had a national team qualifying for major tournaments to support.
Before the Italia 90 World Cup, Irish television started showing Italian football highlights on a Monday night from February of the 1989/90 season. Later, Channel 4 in England would also have plenty of coverage of Serie A, and we were suddenly shown this other footballing world, with the top players from all over the globe, these iconic stadiums, and an atmosphere we’d never seen before. This is not, however, when I became a Fiorentina fan, and at the time I was more attracted to Napoli simply because they had the greatest player ever, Diego Maradona. I was still a Liverpool fan though, that was something which I never expected to change.
English football was undergoing a shiny overhaul at the time, as the First Division became the Premier League, and Sky TV seemed to take control of the game. Rather than being attracted even more by the hype, I slowly became distanced from football, and growing up discovered other means of escape. That once all-important long-distance relationship petered out, and without any dramatic breakup it slowly ran its course.
By 2001 I was living in Dublin, and when the chance came to move to Italy, I grabbed it with both hands. With the relocation to Florence approaching, I started to remember those days watching Italian football, and realised I would now be living in a city with one of its major clubs, Fiorentina. I was excited at the possibility of finally being able to go to a game at a stadium and having a local club. As I started scanning the newspapers on a Monday for the weekend’s results, I was aware that this future local club was not having the best of starts to the season. By the time I moved there in December, it soon became clear that this was a club fighting not just against relegation, but to survive against financial collapse.
The dream of being able to watch a local club in Serie A soon died, but this was when I really became a Fiorentina fan. As the new club started from Serie C2 I went to every home game and soon it just became a part of my life. That passion and attachment only became stronger, and I knew that I had now found my club for life. I moved back to Ireland in 2006, but this long-distance relationship only grew in strength, and I went back as often as I could to Florence, always basing my holidays around the football calendar.
2009 came around, and Fiorentina found themselves in the same Champions League group as Lyon, and Liverpool. Some people wondered how I would react, meeting up with my ex after all this time. I was working in Ireland, where almost everybody was a fan of some English club, many of them Liverpool supporters. As Stevan Jovetić fired home two first half goals to give us a win over Liverpool at the Franchi in September, I had no sympathy for the Reds, I realised there was nothing left, no trace of the old feelings I once felt for that club. I was a Fiorentina fan, and that was all that mattered, and I celebrated the win as much as any Viola fan.
On this day, December 9th, 12 years ago, Fiorentina travelled to Anfield, where most expected Liverpool to avenge that earlier defeat. Andrea Della Valle, before departing for Liverpool, declared it the biggest day in the club’s history, since they took over, and Diego would be flying in from the US to be there. The Florence mayor, Matteo Renzi was also making the trip, and there would be over 3,000 Fiorentina fans to cheer on the team. The night before the game, Juventus went crashing out of the competition at the group stage, while Fiorentina were already guaranteed a place in the next round, and now had a chance to top the group.
Fiorentina created early chances, both Lorenzo De Silvestri and Riccardo Montolivo had their efforts saved. When Yossi Benayoun headed home a Steven Gerrard free kick just before the interval, it certainly looked like Liverpool would have their revenge. Those names meant nothing to me, Agger, Darby, Dossena, Mascherano, Kuyt. I had Sebastian Frey, Manuel Pasqual, Mario Santana, Juan Vargas, Marco Donadel, Martin Jørgensen and Alberto Gilardino. Adrian Mutu and Jovetić were out through injury, but we still believed. We had Cesare Prandelli working miracles, who was this Rafa Benítez guy?
With over an hour played, Gilardino passed to Jørgensen who scored the equalizer. It was looking like another famous result, coming away from Anfield with a draw was no mean feat, Juventus, Roma and Inter had all been defeated here in previous Champions League games. Shortly after the goal, Liverpool sent on Fernando Torres in search of the winner, while Prandelli sent a not 100% fit Vargas into action. Marco Marchionni was another replacement, and he had a shot from distance saved. Time was running out, in fact we were already into injury time, when Vargas dispossessed Stephen Darby and his low cross into the box was met by the right foot of Gilardino. His intelligent shot back across the goal found the net, and the Fiorentina fans went crazy as Gila ran to celebrate behind the goal.
That was that, Fiorentina had beaten Liverpool, home and away, and I just felt pride that my club had made a name for itself again in Europe. Three months later I was at the Franchi the night we beat Bayern Munich but ultimately went out of the competition on away goals. But suddenly, those people I worked with in Ireland now knew the name Fiorentina and had respect for the club I supported.
It’s now 12 years since that famous night, and it’s 20 years since I made the move to Florence. I’ve since moved back to Ireland and now live in Poland, but Fiorentina continues to be as important to me as ever. Florence will always be home for me, and I will always be a Fiorentina fan. It’s been 20 years without ever seeing this club win a trophy, but the memories mean so much more than that. Seeing Liverpool return to being a successful club means nothing to me, I have no regrets. We cannot change our pasts, but the future, well we can always make decisions which will take us on a completely different path.
That path led me to Italy, to Florence, to the Stadio Artemio Franchi. I’ve seen the club under Vittorio Cecchi Gori, the Della Valle brothers and now Rocco Commisso. I’ve seen us go from Fiorentina to Florentia Viola and back again. I’ve watched us play in Serie C2, Serie B, Serie A, Coppa Italia, UEFA Cup, Europa League and Champions League. I’ve been through relegation and promotion, seen players and managers come and go (and some return). None of this would have been possible had I not fallen in love again with football, and for that, I will be eternally grateful to ACF Fiorentina.