Watching Giorgio Chiellini in Italy’s semi-final win last night, football fans around the world were both amazed and entertained by the captain’s composure under pressure, and by how much he still enjoys the game. Even before the game, as the team prepared to enter the pitch, I watched the images in the tunnel and noticed how relaxed he was on this massive occasion. He appeared to be bouncing and dancing as he waited, and when he lead Italy onto the Wembley turf, he had a massive smile that just seemed to soak up the atmosphere.
After an enthralling game, and the tie going to a dreaded penalty shoot-out, both captains headed to the centre circle for the coin toss. Here we saw such a contrast between an understandably visibly nervous Spain captain Jordi Alba and Chiellini who treated it like a kick-around in the local park. Some say it was mind games, but it could also simply be the fact that the Italian captain was loving every moment of it. Social media has been flooded with images and videos of him joking around, pushing and hugging Alba, and the world seems to have fallen in love with the tough defender.
He who does not love Chiellini does not love life pic.twitter.com/3KTuz0ajWW— Jonny McFarlane (@jonnyrmcfarlane) July 6, 2021
For some Fiorentina fans, who have always had an uncomfortable relationship with the national side, it’s already difficult to see former player Federico Chiesa show what he can do on the international stage. They then need to watch another Juventus player become the darling of the tournament. Chiellini is one of those players that are so associated with our bitter rivals, that it may be hard to get behind him even as Italy’s captain. It may also be difficult to remember that he began his Serie A career with Fiorentina.
His one season in Florence coincided with Fiorentina’s return to Serie A for the 2004/05 campaign, having made their way back from extinction and Serie C2. Like his new club, he had spent the previous season in Serie B, where he had helped his hometown club Livorno win promotion. Livorno had finished that season in third place, six points clear of a Fiorentina side which needed a play-off to gain their place in the top-flight. Fiorentina had also failed to beat Chiellini’s Livorno, a home draw and an away defeat was all they could manage. Chiellini received a yellow card in both those games.
At the end of the season, it looked like the young defender would be heading to the capital to join AS Roma. They were co-owners of his contract, but in the end Livorno bought him back and then sold him to Juventus. Fiorentina then bought one half of the player’s contract and it was in Florence where he would start his long career in Serie A. He actually missed Fiorentina’s first few early games in the Coppa Italia in August as he was at the Olympic Games in Greece with the Italian team who came home with the bronze medal.
After promotion, the Fiorentina squad needed strengthening, and along with Chiellini, Tomáš Ujfaluši, Martin Jørgensen, Dario Dainelli and Hidetoshi Nakata joined. Another two players from Juventus were also signed for Emiliano Mondonico’s squad, Fabrizio Miccoli and Enzo Maresca. A 20-year-old Chiellini went straight into the starting eleven for the first league game of the season, away to Roma, having just returned from two games with the Italy Under 21 side. In a game which saw an early red card for Fiorentina’s William Viali, Antonio Cassano was also sent-off in added time at the end of the first-half. He looked to have gone down much too easy at the edge of the area, and when Chiellini let him know what he thought of it, Cassano pushed him to the ground and now both sides were down to ten men. Chiellini would later admit to have exaggerated his fall.
Roma recorded a 1-0 win thanks to second-half goal from Vincenzo Montella, but Chiellini, playing on the left wing was one of Fiorentina’s better performers, along with Luca Ariatti on the right. Chiellini had whipped in plenty of crosses, but unfortunately Christian Rigano’ had left the action early through injury, and his replacement, Javier Portillo, didn’t quite seem ready for the big time.
In a season which would see Mondonico replaced by Sergio Buso, who was in turn replaced by Dino Zoff, and a battle against relegation, Chiellini was the one certainty in the starting lineup for all three managers. He played in 37 of the 38 league games, starting all but one of those, collecting more appearances than any other Fiorentina player.
His first goal came in a 4-0 win over Lecce at the end of October. Not content with preventing Valeri Bojinov’s attacking threat (a player who would join Fiorentina later that season) he also scored the final goal of the game. His run down the left wing brought him into the area and a fine finish to beat Vincenzo Sicignano in the Lecce goal.
Chiellini was now being spoken of as the best signing the club had made this season. In November came the Tuscan derby with Livorno, and a game which would see Giorgio take on his old club, his hometown. In the build up to the match he spoke of how it would be strange to come up against so many friends, but he insisted that this was a game he wanted to win and that he would give his all to ensure that. He also said that those who were friends before and after the game, during the match were just normal opponents.
He also came to the defense of players who had been criticized, such as Nakata: “It’s pointless for me to say that Maresca and Miccoli are good players, because it’s obvious to everyone. It’s better to talk about those who are criticized by the fans and journalists, which is why I say that Nakata is a fundamental player for us. I truly hope he scores on Sunday, he’s really giving everything.”
Nakata wasn’t on the score-sheet in the 1-1 draw, but it was his replacement, Rigano’, who put Fiorentina ahead with less than 20 minutes to play. Cristiano Lucarelli levelled the game six minutes later, but Chiellini didn’t have much time to dwell on the result as he was on his way to join up with the Italian senior squad after his first ever call-up.
He did also score an own-goal in a disastrous 6-0 defeat to Milan at the San Siro in December. Milan were 1-0 up at the time, but in reality Chiellini wasn’t helped in his attempted clearance by an onrushing team mate, Viali. His second goal with Fiorentina came in February, in an important win over Parma. Both sides were by now struggling to survive, and were level in the table, just two points ahead of the relegation zone. Dino Zoff had taken charge of the team, but had lost his first three league games in charge, and had already caused controversy with his ‘cattivi pensieri’ comments, due to refereeing decisions.
After a scoreless first-half it was Chiellini who opened the scoring just after the break. Marco Donadel played the ball into the box and from out wide on the edge of the area, Chiellini hit a beautiful first time left footer past Sebastian Frey. The Parma keeper wasn’t the only future Viola idol playing that day, as it was Alberto Gilardino who gave the game a nervous finish when he pulled a goal back five minutes from time. Miccoli had doubled Fiorentina’s lead just four minutes before that, and just as Chiellini before him, he celebrated by showing the t-shirt the whole team were wearing underneath their jerseys: “L’era l’ora” or ‘It was about time’, in reference to their recent poor run.
One of my favourite games at the Franchi that season also came in April. A Saturday night match against Juventus was always going to be special, and this game didn’t disappoint. We were treated to a six goal thriller, and although Fiorentina were pegged back three times after taking the lead, and a point wasn’t a great help in the table, it was a spectacular game to witness in the flesh. 45,000 of us packed into the Franchi that night, and Giampaolo Pazzini had the place rocking with the opening goal inside 15 minutes. Seven minutes later and Alessandro Del Piero leveled the game.
It was Chiellini who put the Viola back in front nine minutes before the break. He headed home a Jørgensen cross and celebrated not as a player scoring against the club he was on loan from, but as though he was Fiorentina through and through. If Sebastian Cejas could have done better for the first goal, the Fiorentina keeper certainly looked at fault for the second Juventus goal. His indecision found him completely out of position and Zlatan Ibrahimović took full advantage. Fifteen minutes to play and Dainelli put Fiorentina in front for the third time, but again it was Ibrahimović who would break Viola hearts with just eight minutes left to play.
The Juventus DS Luciano Moggi spoke around this time, saying that of the three players with Fiorentina, Miccoli, Maresca and Chiellini, the former Livorno defender was the only one he would be taking back to Turin at the end of the season. This despite the fact that Chiellini seemed happy to stay in Florence for now. The following week saw him travel back to Livorno with Fiorentina and he admitted that it would be a strange feeling having to go to the visitor’s dressing room, but he also knew that Fiorentina were badly in need of points and wanted to see the same spirit that they had shown against Juventus. Cristiano Lucarelli struck two first half goals which sunk Fiorentina into deeper waters, as they now found themselves in the relegation zone after Siena’s win over Milan.
Fiorentina did manage to survive thanks to a final day of the season win over Brescia. There were nine clubs still involved in the fight to avoid the two relegation spots remaining, with Atalanta already condemned to Serie B. On a scorching end of May afternoon, a 3-0 win was enough to keep Fiorentina in Serie A, and early in June Cesare Prandelli was announced as the new manager at the club.
What about the future of Chiellini? Moggi, speaking to Lady Radio in Florence in early June spoke of the good relationship between Juventus and Diego and Andrea Della Valle. He said that the clubs would meet the following week and that they were willing to help Fiorentina. He did clarify that his club did retain the option to buy back the player, but the fact that both the player and Fiorentina were willing to continue their relationship gave some possibility that an agreement could be reached. At this stage Chiellini was away with Marcello Lippi’s Italian side, as they played two friendlies in Toronto and New York.
By now, Pantaleo Corvino had also arrived from Lecce, and towards the end of June looked to be involved in an arm wrestle with Juve as he wanted to renew the loan deals for all three players, without having to spend anything further. In the end, all three players would return to Moggi’s club, with Maresca and Miccoli going to a blind auction won by Juventus in both cases. In his autobiography, Chiellini admitted that he learned a lot at Fiorentina, and also made quite a few mistakes in the second half of the season. (I do remember one particular game at home to Milan, where he was given a torrid time by Andriy Shevchenko). He also said that the fact that it was more or less certain that he would be returning to Juventus once the season ended, made him the target of abuse from certain sectors of the crowd. This despite scoring that goal against Buffon and celebrating as he did.
With the game against Spain going to that penalty shoot-out, it reminds me of the time Chiellini put his penalty away for Fiorentina. This was in March 2005, as Fiorentina and Roma ended 1-1 after a two-legged quarter final Coppa Italia tie. This brought the return game at the Franchi to a penalty shoot-out. After the first five penalties the sides were tied at four apiece, where Cassano’s first penalty was saved as was Miccoli’s, the fifth which could have won it (even our goalkeeper Cejas had put away his spot kick). Who stepped up to take our sixth penalty? Yes, it was Chiellini, and he made no mistake against Gianluca Curci. Fiorentina eventually lost out 7-6, with Ujfaluši’s penalty hitting the post.
Chiellini’s time in Florence had brought him into the national team, and as mentioned earlier, his first ever game came in November of that season. Joining him was Fabrizio Miccoli, who scored the only goal of the game in the friendly win over Finland.
As Miccoli left the field at half-time, little did he know that he had just completed his last ever appearance for the national team. For Giorgio Chiellini on the other hand, when he appeared as a substitute at the start of the second-half, could he possibly have imagined that this would be the first of over 100 games for Italy, and that he would one day captain his side and lead them out at Wembley for the final of a major tournament?
So maybe instead of the typical hatred for the Juventus players in the Italy team, why not instead celebrate the fact, that for captain Chiellini this Italian adventure all started almost 17 years ago when he was a part of Fiorentina’s first season back in Serie A.
Forza Viola and Forza Azzurri!