When football, like the rest of the world, came to a standstill back in March, as football fans we had one of the main distractions from our everyday world taken away from us. This, at a time when we possibly needed it more than ever, with most of us suddenly spending a lot more time at home and cut off from daily social interaction.
We had over three months of no Serie A football in the end, and when it did come back, with so many games being played over short periods of time, we found ourselves with more football than ever to watch. Between Serie A and European games, there was hardly an evening that we didn’t have a game to watch on TV. At first those games without fans seemed strange, silent, apart from the echoed shouts of players and managers. But eventually I did get used to it, and definitely had no need for those annoying fake crowd noises that some TV stations started to provide.
But now that we’ve had football back for a while, there is one thing I still sorely miss, actually being in the stadium myself for a game. To be precise, being at the Stadio Franchi to see Fiorentina in action. I don’t live in Florence anymore, or Italy for that matter, so obviously I wouldn’t be there for too many games anyway, but I would have the option, and I know that once fans are fully allowed back, I will be booking that flight straight away.
For now though, we have no idea when that will be and unfortunately it certainly isn’t looking like any time very soon. I’ve always been very nostalgic when it comes to of football, and now more than ever. Possibly the return of Cesare Prandelli as Fiorentina manager has heightened that romantic vision of football that I have, for me football is all about the romance, sentiment, emotions, nostalgia and memories, much more than formations and tactics. It’s a romance which for many will last a lifetime.
What do I miss about being at the game? Everything, and it all starts with getting there, if you take one of those designated buses supplied for match day you’ll find yourself standing on a packed bus, crammed with people of all ages, young kids with their parents, teenagers, and also people of an age that can probably remember our last Scudetto. One thing that unites us all, apart from the purple scarves that almost everybody is wearing, is one team, one club, one passion. That and a love for actually being at the game to support our team, something an armchair fan can’t possibly understand.
Whatever way you get there, and I’ve walked, cycled, been in a car full of people and on the back of a scooter; nothing beats crossing that pedestrian overpass bridge which takes you over the Campo di Marte train station. The thundering sound of shoes pounding, all in one direction, and if it’s an evening kick-off even better, those floodlights in the sky mean you don’t even need to know how to get there. There’s always the crowd to follow anyway, so it’s impossible to get lost.
Before entering the stadium, maybe a quick stop at Bar Marisa or one of the many other places to grab a coffee, or something stronger, before the game.
I even miss the suffering, those days when you walk away dejected. I miss lighting cigarette after nervous cigarette, it’s an anxiousness you don’t quite feel when you’re not physically at the game.
My first stadium visit in Italy was indeed to the Stadio Artemio Franchi, no surprise you might think. Except it wasn’t to the place that would become such a regular destination for me over the years, it was the Franchi in Siena. This was January 2002, I had only been in Italy a month at this stage, and a good friend of mine, Paolo, who lived in Florence but was actually from a place called Terni, wanted to go see his hometown team Ternana as they were playing in nearby Siena.
So my first live experience of Italian football, was in Serie B and also in the away end. Which meant that not only was I in the most vocal and passionate part of the ground that Sunday afternoon, but I would also have to wait for quite a long time after the game, in the freezing January cold, until the police decided it was safe for us to leave. I was also in the happiest end of the stadium as Ternana recorded a 3-0 win here that day. Two of the goal scorers that day would go on to play with Fiorentina, Houssine Kharja anyone? If that name doesn’t ring a bell then the other one definitely will, Fabrizio Miccoli. Super Miccoli as we knew him when he would wear the Viola jersey just a couple of years later, sadly for just one season. There was even another future Fiorentina player on the Siena team that day, Franco Semioli.
Just one week later and I was ready for my first taste of Fiorentina at the Franchi. A Sunday night game, under the lights, taking on AC Milan, a side containing Gennaro Gattuso and Andrij Shevchenko (who would have his penalty saved in this game). Admittedly this wasn’t the best time to arrive in Florence and start watching Fiorentina, I had missed the days of Gabriel Batistuta, Francesco Toldo and Rui Costa. This was now a team already in the relegation zone, and under Vittorio Cecchi Gori, also heading for financial disaster. I did get to see a last-minute equalizer though, from the Brazilian Adriano, on loan from Inter at the time.
Really though my love affair with Fiorentina would begin the following season, or should I say with Florentia Viola, when the club found themselves in Serie C2. This was a story hard to escape living in the city, with the team already relegated and lots of rumours around the clubs financial situation, the summer would pass by with marches and protests by fans. It proved impossible for me to not get drawn into what was happening. With the chance of a new beginning, watching a once great club battle to regain its rightful place at the top level of Italian football, how could I resist.
The first game of Florentia Viola was an early one, taking part in the Serie C Coppa Italia in August, which meant this newly reformed club didn’t even have a proper squad yet. There was no Christian Riganò, and the line-up would mostly include names that would not be seen for the rest of the season as youth players were drafted in. Our opponents that Wednesday summer night, were near neighbours and bitter rivals in a historical sense, Pisa. The away fans arrived in force, loving the chance to see their team finally play in a higher division than Fiorentina (C1). As I watched from the top of the Curva Ferrovia, the Pisa fans escorted by police, headed to the away section, chanting, singing, with plenty of abuse for the name of Fiorentina. A battle of flares breaking out with some Viola fans before they entered the ground. The game ended in a 1-0 defeat for us, but that really wasn’t what it was about for the fans present that night. This was the chance to witness, in the flesh, their club reborn.
There were some who questioned my sanity as I proceeded to go to every home game that season, to watch a team in Italy’s bottom professional division. Admittedly most of these weren’t Fiorentina fans, but work colleagues and regulars in my local bar who would look at me with bewildered expressions as I told them I was off to see yet another game against the likes of Poggibonsi, Gubbio, Grosseto and Gualdo, Aglianese and Imolese, Castelnuovo and Castel di Sangro, San Marino and Sangiovanesse, Fano and Forlì.
For some reason one game from that season sticks in my mind. Not the opening home league game, in a packed Fiesole to watch this team now called Florentia Viola put 5 past Castel di Sangro, our new bomber Christian Riganò getting the first two goals. No, the game I remember most came a few weeks later, a midweek match in October. The opponents were Forlì, and in the end it was a drab 0-0 draw. Then why so memorable? It certainly wasn’t the game itself, I wouldn’t be able to tell you one thing that happened during those scoreless 90 minutes (With some research I can tell you both sides had a man sent off and that Fabio Quagliarella hit the post with a shot in the first half). I think it was the fact that this was the evening when I realized that I was now truly a Fiorentina fan. I went to that game on my own, nobody else I knew at this stage was interested in going to see this lower league clash on a wet Wednesday night. I even decided to cycle to this one, in the rain.
As the game drew to its conclusion there were certainly more groans from the crowd than cheers, with Fiorentina on a run of poor home performances which would cost the manager his job less than a month after this game. But it occurred to me that none of that mattered. I would be back here for the next game, and the one after that, no matter what the results or performances.
All because I was there in the stadium. I was now a part of this crowd, all hoping for the same thing, all dreaming the same dream. The scarves in the air, the passion, the joy, and the anger too. I certainly learned a lot of Italian from going to games, and in those early days I was picking up words and phrases that I probably shouldn’t have. But this was home now, and I was starting to feel like I belonged.
I was one of the 40,000 there the following April, when we finally secured promotion. A sea of coloured smoke greeted the team onto the pitch, along with our ever-present club anthem, the words of which I now knew by heart and could sing with the best of them. The final whistle came after a 3-0 win over Savona, everyone on their feet, cheering our heroes who had done exactly what we had asked of them.
After a hard-fought Serie B, I was there the night we won promotion back to Serie A. The second leg of the play-off with Perugia, on a Sunday night in June. The records will claim that there were 43,000 people here that night (including Gabriel Batistuta) but I know for certain there were quite a few more than that. I went to the game on the back of a scooter, with one of my house mates. For this sold out game, I had my precious ticket safely tucked away, he didn’t. But he told me not to worry, this wouldn’t be a problem, and he was right. That’s where we’ll leave that part of the story.
I was down in the parterre of the Fiesole, whose seats are there for standing on. I was there in the middle of a delirious crowd as Enrico Fantini celebrated in front of us after scoring a vital goal just after half-time. A Perugia goal 8 minutes from the end meant that the final moments of the game were played out in front of a crowd much more nervous than we should have been. When that final whistle blew, it was a mixture of relief, revenge, smiles, tears, joy and pure happiness that erupted from all around the ground. I’ve only ever been on the pitch of Fiorentina’s stadium once, and this was the night. It is without a doubt the greatest night I have experienced at the Artemio Franchi so far.
I became a Fiorentina fan at the beginning of a new story, one with a fairy-tale ending. It was a journey I’ll never forget and one that I feel privileged to have been a part of. I was lucky to live in the city itself when all this took place. I experienced every high and low along the way, as part of one big family. I lived every second of every game at that stadium, suffering and celebrating.
Since then, there have been so many games, many forgotten, which is why I try to look back on those days as often as I can, to recapture and retain some of those memories. These are moments you will never experience while watching from the comfort of home or a bar.
That first season back in Serie A, I vividly remember a 3-3 draw with Juventus on an April night, the away fans next to me meant an evening watching bottles and flares fly overhead. I remember the last day of the season, a relegation battle against Brescia, a 3-0 win on an end of May Sunday that was not an afternoon to be in the Curva Ferrovia, the heat and sun unbearable, the fire service spraying us with water to keep us from collapsing.
Weather is never something that matters when you’re there, at our mostly uncovered, unsheltered stadium. Bouncing in the rain singing “Sotto l’acqua Forza Viola alè alè’” in the Fiesole is something you don’t forget. Unforgettable like the afternoons and nights at the Franchi, watching Fiorentina in Serie C2, B and A, Coppa Italia, UEFA Cup and Champions League.
After I left Italy, I would still often return to Florence, my holidays booked around the fixture list. Sometimes flying in just for one night. A week before the sold-out Champions League game with Bayern Munich I got a call from a great friend Francesco to say he had a spare ticket if I wanted it. Once I’d managed to get a couple of days off work, I booked flights, trains, and although we got knocked out that night, I’ll never regret taking that trip that cost me probably more than I could afford.
Stadiums right now are like empty theatres yet we still expect these performers to continue as before, even when suddenly there’s no audience to play for, to take energy from. It can never be the same game when there’s no atmosphere, no noise, no singing, and for those of us who love the stadium it can never be the same watching on TV. When we’re there, we’re a part of the action, a vital part in our opinion, convinced that we can influence what happens on the pitch, drive on our team, intimidate our opponents, influence a referee. That’s all been taken away from us, our team suddenly further away than ever before.
It’s a common feeling at the moment that when things do eventually get back to how they were before there are certain things we won’t take for granted again. For me that thrill of going to a game is something I never did take for granted, but having been denied it for so long now, I’ll enjoy it even more when I can finally get back to singing at the Stadio Artemio Franchi in Florence.
Football without fans isn’t quite nothing as some have claimed, but it’s certainly not the same.