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A look back at the 1957 European Cup

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Last time Fiorentina met with Real Madrid, there was a much bigger cup on the line.

Santiago Bernabeu Stadium
Yeah, we’re still salty about the last match here.

Fiorentina will play a friendly match for the meaningless Trofeo Santiago Bernabéu on Wednesday, 23 August 2017. They last met in the 2014 edition of the Intercontinental Champions Cup. As you may (but probably don’t, because c’mon, the Intercontinental Champions Cup?), Cristiano Ronaldo put the Spanish outfit on the board before Mario Gómez—wearing the armband, no less—headed home a Juan Cuadrado cross and Marcos Alonso wormed through the defense to strike one home as well, shocking the world for a 1-2 win (highlights/evidence here). A real Viola tifoso, though, knows that such a minor win does nothing to redeem the skulduggery of the 1957 meeting between these two.

In 1956, Real Madrid had lost the league title to Athletic Bilbao, but qualified for the second-ever European Cup (precursor to the Champions League) by virtue of having beaten Stade Reims in the first edition a year previous. Despite their status as the only team in the competition that hadn’t won its league, they were heavily favored, what with their fantastic squad headlined by all-time great Alfredo di Stefano.

However, los Merengues didn’t exactly cover themselves in glory at the start, finishing 5-5 across two legs with Rapid Wien and requiring a playoff at the Bernabéu to advance from the first round. They then coasted past Nice 6-2 in the quarterfinals to set up a semifinal date against Manchester United, which they won 5-3 on aggregate to set up a meeting with an unfancied outfit from Tuscany.

Yes, here’s where our Fiorentina comes into the story. They’d won their first Scudetto the previous year to gain entry to the European Cup, and been drawn into a bye for the first round. They faced Swedish giants Norrköping in the first round. In the first match at the Stadio Comunale (it wouldn’t become the Artemio Franchi until 1991), striker Harry Bild struck in just the 8th minute to put the visitors in the lead, but Viola left winger Claudio Bizzari equalized in the 15th minute, with the remaining 75 finishing scoreless. In the return leg, played at Rome’s Stadio Olimpico—even back then, nobody was hard enough to go 90 minutes in a Swedish November—Viola striker Giuseppe Virgili hammered in the deciding goal on the 15’ mark to win the tie on aggregate.

Next, Fiorentina faced off with Swiss champions Grasshopper. The Viola did their damage early: midfielder Armando Segato rifled home in just the 3rd minute, and then Romano Taccola scored his only two goals in purple, in the 10th and 12th minutes. Striker Robert Ballaman pulled one back at 31’, but the Gigliati took a comfortable 3-1 lead into the Stadion Hardturm, where Julinho added another after just 7 minutes with a mazy run and powerful finish. Ballaman reduced the arrears at the 25’ mark, but Miguel Montuori restored the 3 goal aggregate lead in the 52nd minute, and Branislav Vukosavljević’s goal 5 minutes from time was mere consolation. Fiorentina were in the semifinals.

There they met a formidable Red Star Belgrade outfit, who hosted the first leg of the tie in front of 40,000 fans at the JNA Stadion in Belgrade. The breakthrough finally came 2 minutes before the whistle, as midfielder Maurilio Prini, normally a reserve, hammered one home after a nice team move. The return leg saw a reported 70,000 fans in the Comunale (although the figure is generally accepted to be an exaggeration) on hand to witness a match played with the romanticism that one associates with those halcyon years, including one lovely moment in which Montuori went down after a head clash with a Red Star defender, after which the entire Yugoslav team gathered around the fallen striker to offer encouragement. Despite some skillful play going both ways, including a rampant Julinho, the draw finished scoreless, which was enough to send Fiorentina into the cup final against Real Madrid.

And oh, that final. 30 May 1957 was a glorious spring day, the sort that’s perfect for a match. 124,000 people packed the stands at the Bernabéu, wearing their finest and cheering almost entirely for the Spanish side. Nevertheless, they were treated to a fine display from the underdogs, who looked to challenge Rafael Lesmes with the brilliance of Julinho. The Brazilian made inroads on several occasions, but the hosts came closest in the first half as Alfredo di Stefano smashed a shot from distance that was screaming towards the top corner until goalkeeper Giulano Sarti somehow threw himself up and sideways in a tremendous feat of athleticism to palm the ball away.

The second half, though, is what still haunts the Gigliati faithful. In the first of what would be many indefensible refereeing decisions against the Viola in Europe, the Dutchman Leo Horn ignored his linesman’s flag and awarded a penalty after Ardico Magnini caught Enrique Mateos from behind as he was through on goal. Adding insult to injury, the foul clearly occurred outside the area, so even if Mateos had been onside (and he wasn’t), the spot kick never should have been awarded. In Horn’s defense, it’s hard to resist 124,000 voices screaming for a penalty, particularly when one of them belongs to Francisco Franco, who was of course in attendance to watch his beloved Real Madrid. Di Stefano duly slotted home the penalty.

Fiorentina bravely soldiered on, forcing a couple of fantastic saves from Juan Alonso, but Horn whistled them for ticky-tack fouls that went suspiciously uncalled for their opponents. As the increasingly desperate Gigliati threw more numbers forward, it was no surprise that they were eventually caught out on the break: Francisco Gento broke through the defense in the 75th minute and beat an onrushing Sarti to clinch the match. Notable in that goal is Viola defender Alberto Orzan, who’s in close pursuit of the opposing winger and then pulls up suddenly, as if realizing that any challenge he makes will surely result in a penalty.

The aftermath is what you’d expect. A smiling Miguel Muñoz accepts the big-eared trophy, shaking hands all around. Los Blancos celebrate their second consecutive win in the competition in front of a legion of adoring fans. Fiorentina congratulate their opponents with the grace typical to that period of football before quietly exiting stage left.

It’s ridiculous, of course, to think that the match changed the trajectory of either club. Real Madrid, after all, had the backing of Franco, which meant that they were firmly ensconced as a powerhouse no matter what. Fiorentina, meanwhile, finished 2nd in Serie A the following three years, although they managed to win their first continental silverware in the Cup Winners’ Cup (brilliant name) against Rangers in 1961, which presaged a decline that lasted until Giancarlo Antognoni arrived on the scene at the end of the decade.

So remember, when you see Cristiano Ronaldo celebrate madly after he’s buried Bruno Gaspar and bought the deceased’s family a nice wreath, that it wasn’t always like this. Remember that Fiorentina could have won the ultimate trophy in this stadium more than 60 years ago but for a referee whose decisions were influenced by a dictator’s money or menace. Remember that the purple shirt has a proud tradition in the Bernabéu, and that nothing can take that history away from us. Not even Cristiano Ronaldo’s inevitable 17-goal outburst.