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Salernitana’s last season in Serie A brought trouble for Fiorentina, but tragedy for their own fans

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A story which takes in Barcelona, Grasshoppers, Gattuso, Delio Rossi, and a tragic end to the 1998/99 season

Salernitana Soccer Team Supporters Celebrating First-Class Promotion Photo by Ivan Romano/Getty Images

The final day of the Serie B season has just seen Salernitana win promotion to Serie A, for only the third time in their history. Since their last appearance in the top-flight, the club has twice gone bust. The first time, the new club restarted in Serie C1, but the last time, in 2011, the club found themselves in Serie D for the first time ever.

This is where Claudio Lotito comes into the picture, taking over the club along with his brother-in law, Marco Mezzaroma. While the club celebrates their success, the rules which state that two clubs in the same division cannot be owned by the same person, means that Lotito, also the man in charge at Lazio, will now have to make a decision on which club to keep.

That last season in which we saw Salernitana in Serie A, 1998/99, had left a lot of bad feeling between the fans of Fiorentina and those from Salerno. That year saw the club make it back to the top division after a gap of 50 years. They didn’t survive, and were relegated on the final day of the season, on a day which ended even more tragically for four of their fans.

But to see what caused the bad blood between the rival fans, we need to go back to 1997, and a European Cup-Winners Cup semi-final with Barcelona. Fiorentina had drawn the first leg 1-1, where Gabriel Batistuta silenced the Nou Camp with a splendid strike from the edge of the area. They could have had a chance to win that away leg at the very end, but the referee chose to blow the final whistle just as Batistuta had sent Anselmo Robbiati free on a counter attack.

Batigol would miss the home leg through suspension, and the game two weeks later was a bad tempered affair at the Stadio Franchi. Barcelona came away with a 2-0 win, the second goal scored in the first-half by Pep Guardiola, direct from a free-kick which had sent Francesco Toldo the wrong way. The Fiorentina fans did not take kindly to the performance of referee Anders Frisk.

It was while the Barca players celebrated that second goal that members of the crowd started to fire objects such as bottles, coins and lighters onto the pitch. Sergi was struck above the eye by one of these, and needed medical attention. Things got even worse for Fiorentina at the start of the second half, when Luis Oliveira was shown a second yellow card for a dive in the penalty area.

This certainly didn’t help to calm the crowd, and when Giovanni went down injured close to the sideline, more objects rained down on the crowd from the stands. As Iván de la Peña prepared to take the resulting free-kick, he too was struck in the head by what appeared to be a lighter. The referee Frisk again stopped the game, handing some of the offending items to the fourth official, the Irishman Tony O’Neill. Barcelona had Nadal sent off in the last ten minutes of the game, but Ranieri’s side just couldn’t find the breakthrough to get back into the game.

Out of Europe then, and they also found themselves punished by UEFA for the scenes at the Franchi. They would be forced to play their next two home games in European competition on a neutral ground. Which brings us back to the 1998/99 season, as Fiorentina hadn’t competed in Europe the season before. In the UEFA Cup, Fiorentina had played the first round game against Hajduk Split in Bari, and were then drawn with Swiss club Grasshoppers for the next round.

On October 20th, Fiorentina won the away leg in Zurich 2-0, with goals from Batistuta and Robbiati. The return leg would be played on November 3rd. Before that, Salernitana came to Florence on October 25th, and left with a 4-0 defeat, Batistuta and Edmundo both scoring twice. After the game, a group of Fiorentina Ultras had attacked the Salernitana fans at the Santa Maria Novella train station, where one of the away fans needed to be taken to hospital for treatment.

Now a decision needed to be made on where to play the return leg with Grasshoppers. With UEFA’s punishment meaning it had to be played at least 500km from Florence, Catanzaro seemed to be the most likely destination. Instead, Vittorio Cecchi Gori decided to intervene and chose the Stadio Arechi in Salerno, Salernitana’s home ground. He announced that all proceeds from the game would be donated to the victims of the flood that had struck the region earlier that year. He was obviously of the opinion that such a gesture would be welcomed by the fans in the area, and help to avoid any further trouble.

Not many Fiorentina fans made the trip to Salerno in the end, and the first half was played without any incident. Fiorentina also had a 2-1 lead at this stage, and were well on their way to qualifying for the next round. Shortly before the opening half ended, a small group of local fans made their way into the Curva closest to where the players would exit the pitch.

At the half-time whistle, as the players and officials headed towards the dressing rooms, a paper bomb was launched by the Salernitana fans onto the pitch. It exploded close to the fourth official, who needed to be taken for treatment for a leg injury. Fiorentina player Luis Oliveira, who had scored both Viola goals, was the nearest player to the bomb, and complained of hearing problems in the immediate aftermath.

Fiorentina were, for obvious reasons, keen to make sure the game would continue, but after a number of the Grasshopper players informed the officials that they weren’t willing to play on, the game was suspended. It was still hoped that the game could go ahead the following day, behind closed doors. In the end, despite the fact that the events had nothing to do with Fiorentina or its fans, UEFA awarded the Swiss club a 3-0 victory, and the Viola were out of Europe amid controversy, yet again. The club’s appeal was also dismissed, although this time they would not face any further ban from hosting their games at home.

Later that season Fiorentina would need to return to the Stadio Arechi once more, for their league game at the end of February. By then, they had lost top spot in the table, but were still just two points behind leaders Lazio. An injury to Batistuta, and Edmundo’s trip to Rio for the Carnevale, certainly didn’t help matters.

Delio Rossi was the man in charge at Salernitana for this game. He had been the one to win promotion the previous season, and when the club had tried to replace him in January, the Ultras caused so much trouble that he kept his job. The club President had taken a punch during the press conference to unveil the new manager, this time it wasn’t Delio using his fists. He would eventually be replaced later in the season. The Salernitana team that faced Fiorentina that day included probable future Viola manager Gennaro Gattuso, along with Marco Di Vaio. It also included two players who would later join Fiorentina, Marco Rossi, a player infamous for his involvement in our relegation in 2002, and goalkeeper Andrea Ivan who would help us gain promotion from Serie C2 a year after that.

The home side had missed the chance to go in front when Antonio Bernardini smashed his penalty kick against the crossbar. Di Vaio then gave Salernitana the lead before Moreno Torricelli leveled the game five minutes from the end. That draw saw Lazio build a four point gap over Fiorentina, while it kept Salernitana in the relegation zone. There they would remain until the final day of the season. A 1-1 draw at Piacenza would see them condemned to a quick return to Serie B. The man who would take charge of Fiorentina at the start of their Serie C2 adventure, Pietro Vierchowod, gave Piacenza the lead that day. What would turn out to be the last ever goal of his career caused a lot of anger among the Salernitana players. This wasn’t the defender’s only involvement in the game, it was his foul which gave the away side the equalizer from the penalty spot. With the game in added time, and the visitors needing a winner to save them from relegation, Vierchowod looked to have caused another penalty, but not according to the referee. This sparked off violent clashes between opposing players at the final whistle, with the referee needing a police escort to leave the pitch.

The travelling Salernitana fans unleashed their anger after the game, with car and shop windows their main victims outside the stadium, having wrecked the toliets inside it. It was on their trip back home however, that the real tragedy occurred. It’s a long trek from Piacenza to Salerno, the train ride taking over 12 hours to complete. 1,500 fans packed into the train which departed Piacenza at 8pm that Sunday night, May 23rd 1999. It would be a long night, with a lot of those fans angry, drunk, and ready to cause whatever trouble they could along the way. Emergency brakes were pulled many times on the journey home, train stations from Bologna to Florence and Rome to Nocera saw scenes of more vandalization, fire extinguishers thrown from carriages, rocks smashing bar windows and other trains attacked.

Just when it seemed the worst was over and with the final destination almost in sight, tragedy struck. With the train in the Santa Lucia tunnel, which divides the Nocera station from the one at Salerno, a fire was started in one of the carriages. The effect of the tunnel caused the train to become an inferno causing scenes of panic as passengers threw themselves from windows in an effort to escape. The train drivers managed to haul half of the train out of the tunnel despite the emergency brake, otherwise the death toll would have been far greater. As it was, four young people lost their lives that Monday morning, Vincenzo Lioi 15 years old, his cousin, Ciro Alfieri 16 years old, Giuseppe Diodato 23 years old and Simone Vitale also 23 years old.

While all over Italy people were reading about the previous day’s events on the football field, four families in Salerno were being informed that their sons would never be returning home. The relegation of Salernitana had turned into an event which has no sense, no place in football. It cost the lives of four innocent victims, who are no longer here to see their club return to Serie A.