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It was 20 years ago today: The first time I watched Fiorentina play (A musical dedication)

Una canzone per te, A look back at my time as a Fiorentina fan

Mi Ritorni in Mente (You come to my mind again)

Today, January 20th, is a special anniversary for me. On this day, 20 years ago, 2002, I saw Fiorentina play at the Stadio Artemio Franchi for the first time. It was a Sunday night, and Milan were the visitors, and I probably got to witness the best atmosphere at the stadium in what was otherwise a depressing and disastrous season. Manuel Rui Costa, who had been sold to Milan the previous summer, was injured for this game, but he did make an appearance on the pitch before kick-off to huge applause from the crowd.

This was the Italian football I had imagined experiencing when I knew I would be moving to Florence. An evening kick-off, flares in the Curva, a large, loud, and passionate crowd. It didn’t continue like that, as Fiorentina limped from one game to the next, and the crowd stayed away in protest at Vittorio Cecchi Gori. That night though, those thoughts were far from my mind, and in my naivety, I imagined a miraculous recovery, and being able to enjoy Serie A football when the next season came around.

Fiorentina did manage to snatch a draw at the end, but a point wasn’t really enough for a team deep in relegation trouble. Roberto Mancini had already left the Viola bench, and Carlo Ancelotti was in charge of a Milan team slipping out of the Scudetto race. After the away side took the lead, it looked like Fiorentina would be finished off when Andriy Shevchenko stepped up to the penalty spot. The effort was weak, and Alex Manninger kept Fiorentina in the game. With fifteen minutes still left to play, Gennaro Gattuso received his second booking of the game, and suddenly the home fans were given some hope.

Adriano had recently arrived in Florence, on loan as a favour from Massimo Moratti of Inter, and had already scored a last-minute equaliser the week before at Chievo. With number 90 on his back, it was clearly a sign, as Billy Costacurta bounced off the Brazilian in the box and Adriano kept his cool and fired his shot under the onrushing Christian Abbiati for another late goal. I watched from the Curva Ferrovia as off came his jersey and he ran to celebrate under the Fiesole, and I realised, that was the place to be to get the full experience.

I left the stadium that night, unaware that this would be a big part of my future. I had seen Fiorentina and Milan play live, a former club hero’s return, a penalty saved, a red card, and a last-minute equaliser. I knew I wanted more evenings like that, but I had no idea that it would be a while before I got to experience a similar atmosphere again. For now, I had just been to my first Serie A game and was looking forward to having a coffee the next morning while reading all about it in La Gazzetta Dello Sport and Lo Stadio.

Povera Patria (Poor country)

Silvio Berlusconi was the owner of Milan at that time and would be the Prime Minister of Italy for the whole period that I lived in Italy. I had no idea who he was having just arrived in the country, but he loomed large over life in Italy, and was impossible to avoid or ignore. I soon found out that over the next few months, most of what I read and heard about Fiorentina would involve politics and finance more than football.

In Un Giorno Di Pioggia (On a rainy day)

Addio, addio e un bicchiere levato al cielo d’Irlanda e alle nuvole gonfie

(Farewell, farewell and a glass raised to the Irish sky and the swollen clouds)

I did have a few drinks in Dublin the night before leaving for Ireland. An early flight the next morning wasn’t ideal, and in reality, it wasn’t a rainy day as such but a dawn with fog so thick that my flight was first delayed, and then cancelled. A great start to my move to Italy.

I had been preparing for this departure for a couple of months. When I say preparing, I had one Italian language lesson (I still have the book), and I bought a beautiful guidebook to Florence (which I still have). I probably spent more time checking the Italian football results and Serie A table on a Monday morning in the newspaper than anything else. To be honest, I had kind of lost interest in football by then, but the fact that I was now going to be living in a city with a major club, a stadium, Serie A football, this reignited something.

Back then I couldn’t even get a direct Ryanair flight from Dublin to Pisa, and eventually I got on a later plane to Stanstead. Luckily, I had left plenty of time in between my original flight from Dublin and the one leaving London for Pisa, so I still made it on time.

La Storia Siamo Noi (History is us)

Arriving in December, I remember it was cold, but with beautiful blue skies. It was perfect weather for exploring Florence, and I walked and walked for hours. I found myself in the most beautiful city I’d ever seen, a place so full of history that it’s impossible to avoid. The city of Dante, Petrarca, Brunelleschi, Lorenzo de’ Medici, Michelangelo, Donatello, Machiavelli, Vasari, Galileo Galilei, Vespucci, Botticelli… not all born exactly in Florence, but it was here where they made history. Everywhere I looked was art, architecture, beauty, and then after Christmas I started going to Italian lessons every morning.

Firenze Canzone Trieste (Florence, sad song)

It soon became clear that Fiorentina would not survive in Serie A, and then came the realisation that they wouldn’t even survive as a club. On the day relegation was confirmed, there were few fans inside the stadium, a result of Cecchi Gori’s running of the club, or rather, running it into the ground. Up until the very end, the club owner was insisting all would be okay, but most people knew these were empty promises, lies, but when the seemingly inevitable happened, it was still a shock to the fans, to the city.

Comincia Adesso (Start now)

At the start of August, Fiorentina ceased to exist. On the same day, a new club was formed and very soon an investor was found. This was the start of the Della Valle era. There wasn’t much time to prepare for the upcoming season, in Serie C2, the fourth tier, but we were there in our thousands on a summer night to witness the rebirth, as neighbours Pisa came to town. In a Coppa Italia Serie C tie, the visitors may have won, but Fiorentina and its fans were the real victors. They were still there, in their stadium, singing for their team, their club, as they always had been and as they always would be. They had tried, but they could never take that away from this city and its people.

Non e’ per Sempre (It’s not forever)

The club would be called Florentia Viola for a while (not by the fans) and we would need to do without our unique purple jersey, but the city still had a club, a team to support. It took a while for the squad to get going, and it would need a change of manager to get things back on the right track. There could only be one objective that season, escaping this bottom division. While we were there, we enjoyed it, but this wasn’t where a club like Fiorentina belonged.

Photo: Fiorentina v Castel di Sangro, Curva Fiesole. First home game of the Serie C2 season, 2002/03 (15/09/2002)

Mi Sono Innamorato di Te (I have fallen in love with you)

Then it happened, and as it always does, it came out of nowhere, I fell in love. A scoreless draw with Forlì on a rainy Wednesday night, sitting alone getting soaked, may not seem like the most romantic situation to some. I had cycled to the ground, and nobody I knew was interested in braving the weather to watch this game. As I sat there watching this game fizzle out, it suddenly hit me, this was the only place I could be that night, Fiorentina were playing, where else would I possibly want to be? That’s when I knew, this was now my club, this team with a temporary name, this team who were beginning a run of poor form which would cost the manager his job, none of this mattered, Fiorentina is a club you support through thick and thin, and I had no doubt back then that this was how it was going to be for me from now on.

Photo: Match tickets from Serie C2 season 2002/03

Photos: Images from promotion win from Serie C2

Firenze Sogna (Florence dreams)

We did make it out of Serie C2, and I was at the Franchi that day when we beat Savona 3-0 and a packed stadium celebrated. We knew though, that the battle had just begun, but then we were given a boost with the news that we would be competing in Serie B the following season. It was a tough slog, and there would be another managerial change. Diego Della Valle also got a taste of how the fans reacted when things weren’t going well. Then came the night of the play-off with Perugia, Fantini’s goal, the Fiesole going crazy, the wait for the final whistle, invading the pitch, and celebrating long into the night. Fiorentina were back, and sooner than anyone had expected or even dreamed.

Il Grande Incubo (The great nightmare)

Back in Serie A, but that first season didn’t go quite as we had hoped. This time we had two changes of manager, we had Dino Zoff and his ‘cattivi pensieri’, and only on the last day of the season, under a scorching sun, did we manage to avoid relegation. I also remember my first Fiorentina v Juventus game that season, another night under the floodlights, as we took the lead three times only to have to settle for a draw in the end.

Cesare Prandelli arrived, and we dreamed of European football returning to the Franchi. Then came Calciopoli to steal it all away again. Nobody knew what would happen, an uncertain future yet again. We kept our place in Serie A, but with a massive points deduction, what kind of season could we hope for next?

Come nelle favole (Like in the fairy tales)

Incredibly we did qualify for Europe again, and that would be a regular feature of the next few seasons. When I had begun that Serie C2 adventure with Fiorentina, it seemed to me like the beginning of a fairy-tale, and where I hoped it would lead was right here, back in the top division and European football at the Franchi. In that first season back in Europe we made it to the semi final of the UEFA Cup, beating Everton along the way but falling to Rangers in a penalty shoot-out.

La porti un bacione a Firenze (Bring a big kiss to Florence)

The time came when I would leave Florence, and Italy, and return to Ireland. I knew I would return, again and again. The city was now a part of me, as was Italy, the language, the people, the culture, the music. There were friends I had made who would always be there for me, and of course, there was Fiorentina.

Lontano Lontano (Far, far away)

Back in Ireland, there was never a problem in having this long-distance relationship. I kept up to date with everything that happened at the club, I listened to Radio Blu and Lady Radio, I watched all the games. Whenever I could, I went back to Firenze, and those trips were always planned around Fiorentina’s fixtures. Sometimes I would stay a few days, even managing to take in a couple of games in one visit. On other occasions it was just a flying visit, an overnight stay after seeing Fiorentina play.

Ti Dedico il Silenzio (I dedicate the silence to you)

One of those return visits took in a Fiorentina v Inter game. Earlier that week, Cesare Prandelli had lost his wife, Manuela, after a long illness. He still took his place on the bench that Sunday, and the Fiorentina fans were right there with him. We watched as he bent down to gather the white roses thrown to the pitch, and we stood in complete and utter silence before kick-off.

Certe Notti (Some nights)

Another trip back came when we faced Bayern Munich in the return leg of the Champions League. It was a last-minute decision after a friend had a spare ticket for this sold-out game, and I wasn’t going to miss the chance of being there. I flew in on the day of the game, and was back in Ireland the next afternoon, and even though we ended up getting knocked out on away goals, it was well worth it. I got to experience a big Champions League night at the Stadio Franchi.

Una Storia Sbagliata (A wrong story)

It’s not always easy being a Fiorentina fan, and there came a tough period after Prandelli left. Sinisa Mihajlović came in, and it was hard to get excited with the football on offer. The fans turned against him, not that many had ever really taken to him. Finally, he made his exit, but things didn’t really improve. The Delio Rossi and Adem Llajic fiasco just summed up what was happening at the club.

La Cura (The Cure)

Change was just around the corner, in the shape of Vincenzo Montella. The improvement was immediate, and we were back near the top, and playing in Europe. We had three fourth place finishes in a row, and there was that famous 4-2 comeback against Juventus. Paulo Sousa came next, and for a while looked like he could bring even more glory to the club, but that proved to be a false dawn, and certainly not helped by the lack of investment by the club.

Terra Degli Uomini (Land of men)

Son sempre i migliori che partono, Ci lasciano senza istruzioni

(It’s always the best ones that leave, they leave us without instructions)

Out of everything that has happened, all the drama, the highs and lows over the years, this was the lowest point. The loss of our capitano, Davide Astori, was a shock that was hard to take for all of us. Davide was a player, and a person, loved by all at the club, a leader, and an inspiration. I met him just the once, but in those brief moments he showed his sense of humour, and just what a down to earth and humble person he was. Firenze again came together in those difficult days, first for the funeral, and then stood with the team as they somehow had to continue on. That game against Benevento is one that no Fiorentina fan will ever forget, and it was a time, when for once, Italian football came together.

Photo: Autograph from Davide Astori

Ancora Tu (You again)

As they often seemed to do, things turned sour between the club owners and a manager, and Stefano Pioli left. In his place, came the return of Montella. The glories of the past were not to be repeated however, as the team failed to win a single game for the rest of the season.

L’ultimo Bacio (The Last Kiss)

It was to be the end of the Della Valle era at Fiorentina, and it was a dismal ending. The last day of the season, saw Montella up against Cesare Prandelli’s Genoa. With both sides looking to avoid relegation, an embarrassing scoreless draw was played out. Diego and Andrea Della Valle had already decided that the time had come to walk away. People’s memories and judgement may be clouded by the way things ended, how it all went wrong, but they are still an important part of this club’s history. They were there for the vast majority of my time as a Fiorentina fan, and they gave us some great memories and amazing times at the Stadio Franchi.

America

We welcomed Rocco Commisso with open arms, there was a new optimism around the club. Here was someone with money to spend, and who was willing to invest in our club and in Florence. He was a breath of fresh air after the silence of the Della Valle towards the end.

Tutti I miei sbagli (All of my mistakes)

It didn’t get off to the dream start we had imagined under the new owner. Keeping Montella on as manager was never going to work out, and although Beppe Iachini came in to steady the ship, that should have been where his role ended. Instead, he was confirmed for the next season, which many saw as a lack of ambition on the part the club. The inevitable happened, and we then had the return of Cesare Prandelli. Just like with Montella, the past could not be replicated, and we found ourselves back under Iachini again.

In all this time, Rocco was becoming increasingly frustrated, by the local politicians, the bureaucracy, and the media. He started to lash out, at local journalists, at how things were done in Italy, at anyone who criticised his running of the club. We then had the whole Gattuso debacle, as for a brief moment Rino was our new manager, except then he wasn’t.

Un Raggio di Sole (A ray of sunshine)

Vincenzo Italiano was then confirmed as the man to take charge, and things were about to get a whole lot better. He managed to make a squad out of these players who had struggled in recent times, and had us playing football that we could enjoy. Fans could return to the Franchi, the optimism was back, and we started to dream again.

Una Notte a Napoli (A night in Naples)

After a heavy defeat, and a dreadful performance at Torino, some people’s doubts returned. The team needed to recover quickly and put on a display which proved it had just been a once off. The Coppa Italia tie away to Napoli was never going to be easy, and when we went down to ten men before half time, hope started to fade. Fiorentina then showed what they’re made of, that this is a group of players who stick together. After a crazy game, a 5-2 victory, followed by the 6-0 drubbing of Genoa, and everything was right in Fiorentina’s world again.

L’anno che verra’ (The year to come)

Who knows what the rest of this season holds, there is still the possibility of European qualification. One thing is for sure, our battles at the bottom of the table are behind us. We can now look forward to Fiorentina’s games, and I hope to be able to make a trip back to Florence at some stage to see a game.

Io Vagabondo

Firenze, and Fiorentina, are now a part of who I am, and that can never change. I’m now living in Poland, but it doesn’t matter where in the world I find myself, I will always be proud to call myself a Fiorentina fan, and will always defend its honour, and that of Firenze and Italia.

Firenze

Firenze l’è piccina e l’è anche casa mia...ce l’ho sempre davanti, anche quando vado via...

(Florence is small and it’s also my home.. I always have her before me, even when I go away)

Sara’ perche ti amo (It will be because I love you)

In these 20 years, I have yet to see Fiorentina lift a trophy, but to be honest, I’m not in any rush. This club has given me so many memories, so many afternoons and nights at the stadium, drama, tension, excitement, celebration, countless nervous cigarettes, sore throats from the singing and shouting, and of course disappointment and suffering, but that’s all part of being a Fiorentina fan. ‘Mai una gioia’ is a phrase which is very popular with Fiorentina fans, ‘never a joy’, but for me it is a pleasure, a privilege, and a source of pride to support and follow this team no matter what happens.

Gocce di Memoria (Drops of memory)

I wish I could remember it all, every second of every ninety minutes (plus added time), every goal and celebration, every heartbreak, every insult from the away fans, every song we sang, every walk across the bridge over Campo di Marte train station on the way to the stadium, every player, every cigarette smoked, every coffee before entering the Curva, every time the team emerged from the tunnel to Garrisca il vento, every referee we cursed, every nervous moment waiting for the final whistle. Maybe that’s why I write about Fiorentina’s past a lot, maybe I want to keep those memories alive, it’s a history that deserves to be remembered, but maybe I’ve forgotten more than I’ll ever know.

FORZA VIOLA!