It’s a pity that Sunday’s Euro Final against England won’t be played at Fiorentina’s Stadio Artemio Franchi. The Italian national side has played in Florence on 29 occasions and have never lost a game there. The stadium, which was inaugurated in 1931, was originally named after Giovanni Berta, a local fascist militant. After World War II it’s name was changed to the ‘Comunale’ (Municipal), and was given it’s current title in 1991. Artemio Franchi, from Florence, was a major Italian football administrator, who had served as President not only of the Italian FA, but also of UEFA, and had also been an important figure at Fiorentina at a time when the club won their first ever Serie A title.
The first ever Italian international match in Florence, took place in 1933 when the home nation recorded a 2-0 win over Czechoslovakia. Italy’s most important fixture at the stadium came a year later, when they were the host nation for the second ever World Cup tournament. They actually played against Spain twice in Florence, as their quarter-final tie needed a replay. The first game finished 1-1 after extra-time, and unlike today there were no penalty shoot-outs, and the sides returned the very next day to the same stadium where Italy overcame the Spanish 1-0 thanks to a Giuseppe Meazza goal. Meazza would later have the San Siro stadium in Milan named in his honour. Italy would then go on to win their first World Cup trophy.
Italy have also taken on Sunday’s opponents England in Florence, on one occasion. The sides met in an international friendly game in May 1952. This would be the sixth meeting between the two nations, and in the previous five, all friendlies, Italy had failed to get the better of their English counterparts. England had won three of those ties, which included a 4-0 win in Torino four years previously. On that occasion Tom Finney had scored twice, and the legendary Preston North End player would again be in the side to face Italy in Florence.
The pre-match forecasts didn’t give Italy much chance of finally beating England, and their most recent outing had seen them lose in Belgium. England meanwhile, had gone seven games without defeat. Despite the lack of optimism, there was a lot of excitement in the city for the game. Newspaper reports spoke of flags in every window, crowds of people, and ticket touts asking extortionate prices for tickets. They also claimed that nobody would get any sleep the night before the game, in a city where many people who hadn’t been able to find accommodation would spend the Saturday night in the bars and the streets of Florence, keeping everybody else awake.
A week before the game, Fiorentina had thumped Inter 5-0 in Florence, and Egisto Pandolfini, the man who had opened and closed the scoring in that game, was the sole Fiorentina player in the Italy team a week later. There was a former Fiorentina player between the posts, Giuseppe Moro. England held their training session at Rifredi the day before the game, under the watch of their manager Walter Winterbottom, and Stanley Rous of the English FA. Afterwards they were taken to have a look at Fiorentina’s stadium, and were said to have been surprisingly impressed at the excellent condition of the pitch, even better than the superb grounds in England according to the visiting players themselves.
On Sunday afternoon, a crowd of over 90,000 packed into the stadium, more than double its current capacity. Even the athletics track around the pitch was used, with temporary seating put in place, and fans were already arriving early that morning. Those in attendance were treated to a parade of the teams from the city’s Calcio Storico, wearing their traditional costume. Pre-match entertainment is something that Florence has always done well.
The Italy lineup included Amadeo Amadei, Giampiero Boniperti, Alberto Piccinini, Gino Cappello, and were captained by Silvio Piola. The England side were captained by Billy Wright, and featured Tom Finney, Nat Lofthouse, Stan Pearson, Tom Garrett, and future World Cup winning manager, Alf Ramsey. Just four minutes after Austrian referee Alois Beranek whistled for the start of the game, the visitors had already taken the lead. Manchester City’s Ivor Broadis, after a one-two with Lofthouse, was the man to silence the home crowd, and give rise to celebrations from those English fans present.
There was no change in the score before half-time, with Moro pulling off a fine save from Wright, and Boniperti failing to convert a header from close range. Fourteen minutes after the break, and the stadium exploded in celebration, as Italy finally managed to level the game. Fiorentina’s Pandolfini got the better of Jimmy Dickinson, and his pass found Amadei who sent the ball past Gil Merrick in the England goal. Shortly afterwards the Italians were looking for a penalty for a handball by Ramsey, but the referee waved their claims away. Boniperti had a shot hit the crossbar as they went in search of the win, but their chances weren’t helped when Piola went off injured. With no substitutions allowed (a far cry from the five allowed these days), the captain limped back onto the field ten minutes later.
In the end, despite a better than expected display from the home side, a draw meant Italy were still without a win against England. That would finally come in 1973, when in the ninth meeting between the sides, Italy came out on top in Turin. In competitive games however, it has been the Italians who have had the better time of it. Italy have won three and drawn one in their four previous meetings in major tournament finals and England’s only competitive win over Italy came in a World Cup qualifier back in 1978.
With Italy having such a good record when playing at Fiorentina’s stadium, one might wonder why then were there no international fixtures played there between 1993, when Italy beat Mexico, and 2006, when they played West Germany in a warm-up match for that years World Cup. Some might also question just why some Fiorentina fans in the city either have no interest in the national side, or actively cheer against them. Both of these puzzling questions are unsurprisingly linked, as it was the local fans reaction to Italy in that 1993 game which brought about the decision not to host any further games of the national side in Florence.
A friendly game in January against Mexico is when things came to a head at the Franchi. Before the game there had already been fears that there would be protests against the national team. In reality, these protests would be against the Italian football authorities, with Antonio Matarrese the main target. The Fiorentina fans saw themselves as victims of many decisions of the FIGC, including having to play their home leg of the 1990 UEFA Cup Final against Juventus in Avellino. Due to crowd trouble in the semi-final against Werder Bremen, the club were banned from playing their next home game in Europe in Florence. The fact that the Italian authorities chose Avellino, seen by Fiorentina fans as home to many Juventus fans, did not go down very well in the city. This had already been a season where they had needed to travel to Perugia to watch their team play their home games, as the stadium in Florence underwent work in preparation for the World Cup that summer.
Fast forward to 1993, and the fact that their former idol, Roberto Baggio, was now playing with Juventus, and in this Italian side, certainly wasn’t going to help matters. Both the club owners and the city mayor appealed to the Fiorentina fans not to cause any disruption at the game, and when the organized fan groups agreed, it seemed like the game would pass off without any trouble. There was however, a group of fans who decided to go against the advice. Even during the Italian national anthem before the game they could clearly be heard chanting ‘Via la merda da Firenze’. The Italians won 2-0, with goals from Baggio and Paolo Maldini, in a side which also contained current Italy manager Roberto Mancini. There were jeers and whistles from that sector of rebel fans for most of the game, and even though the majority of the crowd in turn tried to silence the protesters, the Italian football authorities were not impressed. (It may be of interest to some that Vittorio Cecchi Gori was in the company of director Spike Lee at this game)
( It’s funny hearing the whistles and chants during the Italian national anthem here, and then the commentator Bruno Pizzul talking about the warm welcome from Florence for the national team)
Italy do of course train in Florence, at Coverciano, although there have been periods when they have moved their training camp from here to escape the protests of local fans. They actually played another game at Fiorentina’s stadium in November 1994, but this was just a training camp friendly against Fiorentina’s Primavera team, in the build up to a Euro qualifier in Palermo. A crowd of around 12,000 turned up to watch this game, and although manager Arrigo Sacchi played down the behaviour of the fans, the players were not so understanding. There were the usual whistles and insults for Baggio, along with another Juventus player Pierluigi Casiraghi. A few Brazilian flags were also seen in the crowd, a clear provocation after Baggio’s famous penalty miss against Brazil in the recent World Cup Final.
Sacchi declared himself happy to see so many fans turn out to watch, while also acknowledging that the city had a love-hate relationship with Roberto Baggio. For his part, Baggio said that he understood this type of reaction when he came to Florence with Juventus, but the least he would expect was some respect for the Italian jersey. Paolo Maldini was the most critical, claiming that they didn’t deserve this type of treatment and that they shouldn’t play any more friendly matches here in Florence.
In fact it would be 2006 before Italy played another international game at Fiorentina’s stadium. To get to the heart of this whole story, we need to go back to 1990, and again talk about Roberto Baggio. At the end of that season, when Fiorentina fans discovered that the club owner, Pontello, was about to sell their hero to their most despised rivals Juventus, there was chaos in the city. The trouble didn’t just take place in Piazza Savonarola, where the club’s headquarters were bases, but soon it moved to Coverciano. This was May, and the Italian squad were in preparation for the World Cup, Italia ‘90. The hosts were, as usual, based in Florence, but now they found themselves under siege from angry Fiorentina fans, and soon decided to move their camp to Rome.
The Baggio story, combined with Avellino, meant that there were many people in Florence who weren’t exactly getting behind Italy as they hosted the World Cup. Some even celebrated the night that they lost on penalties to Argentina in the semi-final. There was a stadium chant created by Fiorentina fans back then about Walter Zenga, the Italy goalkeeper whose mistake gave Argentina the equalizer in that game “quando c’è zenga fra i pali, l’italia è fuori ai mondiali, caniggia gol di testa, tutta firenze è in festa” (When Zenga is between the posts, Italy is out of the World Cup, a Caniggia header, and all of Florence is partying - it sounds better in Italian).
By 1993, things hadn’t changed for some local fans, and so the national side would not be seen at our stadium until that friendly with Germany. The club’s bankruptcy and everything which surrounded that in 2002 certainly didn’t help change things, but in 2005, when Ferruccio Valcareggi passed away, this was seen as a possibility to bring Italy back to Florence. Valcareggi had been both a player and manager at Fiorentina, before going on to manage the national team from 1966 to 1974. He is the only manager to win the European championships with Italy, in 1968, something that another former Fiorentina manager, Roberto Mancini, will hope to replicate this weekend.
Two years later he took Italy to the World Cup Final in Mexico, losing to Brazil, but the 4-3 semi-final win over West Germany is still regarded as one of the finest games in the history of the tournament. With the Germans coming to play Italy in March 2006, before they themselves hosted that summer’s World Cup, what better way to remember and honour Valcareggi, than to host the game in Florence, where he was loved and where he died.
In all his time in charge, Valcareggi’s Italy had only played one game in Florence, a 3-0 over Republic of Ireland in 1970. (For any Irish readers, Eamon Dunphy was in the Irish side that day, but went off in the first-half). In that game the local fans could celebrate a goal from Fiorentina player Giancarlo De Sisti, and in 2006 they also had a goal from their hero Luca Toni to enjoy in the 4-1 win. Club legend Giancarlo Antognoni was given the honour of kicking off the game and Manuel Pasqual came on as a late sub to make his debut for Italy to loud cheers from the crowd. There were of course some who couldn’t resist in their chants against Juventus players, but on the whole, the event was deemed a great success, so much so that the national side returned to play in the stadium two years later.
Since that game with Germany, Italy have played at the Franchi another seven times, winning six and drawing once. The most recent game was last November in a 4-0 friendly win over Estonia, and they actually played in Florence on three different occasions last year.
This Euro tournament has again seen the squad based in Florence at Coverciano, and they have also used Fiorentina’s training ground for friendly games during their stay here. The days of protests at the gates, and abuse for the players thankfully look to be far behind us. Back in 2018 after the sudden and devastating death of our captain, Davide Astori, bitter rivalries were temporarily put to one side.
The whole of Italian football was in mourning and the Juventus players and manager arrived for the funeral in Santa Croce. Players such as Giorgio Chiellini and Gianluigi Buffon, normally the targets of abuse and insults from Viola fans, were greeted with nothing but applause by the Fiorentina faithful. Gigi Buffon, along with manager Max Allegri, had been responsible for hiring a private plane to take himself and his Juventus team mates from London, where they had defeated Tottenham in the Champions League, to arrive in time for the funeral.
He told the rest of the team in the dressing-room after the game, that anyone that wanted to join him would need to be ready to leave at 4:30am. The problem then was, that almost the whole of the squad appeared in the hotel lobby a few hours later, and the chartered plane could only take nine of them. Federico Bernardeschi would also join them direct from Turin, he hadn’t been on the trip to London due to injury. The Juventus players were also given the option of entering the church from a side entrance, to avoid the massive crowd at the front of the church in Piazza Santa Croce. Buffon refused, saying that he wanted to show, along with his team-mates, that they were with Florence in this difficult time. Afterwards Gigi Buffon spoke of the reaction from the Fiorentina fans “Going to Florence for us Juventus players is never easy, but on our arrival, seeing those Fiorentina fans who applauded us, who called our names and thanked us, was very beautiful.”
For some, Davide’s death may have given them a new perspective on how they see the game of football. It was something that brought fans and players from all clubs together, at least temporarily, and maybe one good thing that came of all this was to make some people realize that these guys are just football players, privileged yes, but they are people who hurt and who suffer and who cry just the same as all of us. That goes beyond the colour of a jersey, the transfer of a player, the club you play for or support.
Leonardo Bonucci, who has since returned to Juventus, but at the time was at Milan, was another player visibly upset and shocked at what had happened.
Our rivalry with Juventus goes back even further than the whole sorry saga of Roberto Baggio. The Scudetto lost on the last day of the 1981/82 season in controversy, will never be forgotten by Fiorentina fans. For some, those who still call the national side ItalJuve, they will probably never be able to support a player from that club even when he is wearing the Italian jersey. Some still repeat that phrase coined back in 1990 ‘Fiorentina e’ la mia Nazionale’. But things have changed in Florence and at Fiorentina, there were plenty of celebrations in the city during this tournament, especially after the semi-final win over Spain. There is no doubt that if they do manage to win the final against England, Florence will be just the same as any other city, and the people will be on the streets partying long into the night.
I am not colour blind, and I can tell the difference between a black & white jersey and a blue one (or white if it’s the away shirt). Football without rivalry would be a much poorer sport and a far less passionate one, but for me there is a major difference between when a player pulls on their club jersey and when he steps onto the field to represent their country. I admit, I find it hard to understand those who say they cannot get behind a team which includes Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci, who cannot celebrate a goal by Federico Chiesa, who see him as a traitor for wanting a better career (even Gabriel Batistuta needed to move on eventually in order to win a Serie A title). Some cannot find it within themselves to support a team managed by Roberto Mancini, after his controversial time at Fiorentina, and how he left the club.
We do have one player in this Italy squad, Gaetano Castrovilli, but it’s doubtful that he’ll even be on the bench for the big game. I can still however, watch with pride, a player such as Chiesa, who grew up at our club, and see him become a star on the international stage. I can remember Giorgio Chiellini from his time at Fiorentina, a 20 year-old at the beginning of a long Serie A and Italy career. I can look on as Roberto Mancini impresses the world of football with the style of play and the togetherness that his squad displays, and recall that his managerial career all started at Fiorentina. As Federico Bernardeschi runs on as a late substitution, I... okay, even I have my limits!
Nobody is saying that Fiorentina fans should forget 1982, Avellino, Baggio, Moggi, Bankruptcy, Calciopoli and all the rest, but maybe it’s time to realize that all of this has got nothing to do with the players who line out to represent Italy. This Italian team does not represent the FIGC, the Lega Calcio, the system, or the government. This Italian team represents Italy, it represents every Italian, those who live in Italy and those who have found a home in some far off place. This Italian team represents all those children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Italian emigrants. This Italian team represents me, someone who is not even Italian, but as somebody who once lived there, who called it home, who still calls it home, this is a team that fills me with pride.
On Sunday night I will be glued to the screen, I will sing along with the anthem, I will suffer every second of the game, I will live every moment, every pass, I will swear (and nobody does it like the Italians), I will cheer, I hope to celebrate, and whichever way it goes, I may even shed a tear. For those who won’t feel any of this even while watching their own country compete in a major tournament final, then you’re really missing out on what football is all about.