Like many people of a certain age, I grew up with Serie A as the only major European League available to watch on free-to-air terrestrial TV. Thanks to Channel 4 we got to see the best footballers in Europe every Sunday in the days when the Premier League was still finding its feet and Barcelona were just a feeder club for the two Milan giants. OK, that might not be entirely accurate but the early expose to the Italian league along with Italia 90 being my first footballing memory has meant I’ve always had a soft spot for league. It’s somewhat surprising then that I’ve been to the country on so few occasions. Only twice previously, both times for weddings.
It was time to break my Serie A duck and pick a side to follow for good. Obviously, as a West Ham fan, I’m conditioned not to follow sides that are too successful – you have to experience the struggle. That meant Juventus were out. I also needed a team that were based in a city that would be nice to visit, with a stadium that was easy to get to, as my wife and daughter would join me for the trip. I was left with Bologna. Mainly because the flights were cheap. Although their stadium looks nice they didn’t quite do it for me. Fortunately, Florence is only a 30 minute train ride away. It was settled. Fiorentina would now be my team and I would make my first trip to the city for their game against Atalanta.
Who are ya, Fiorentina?
Florence was the centre of European Medieval trade and is considered the birthplace of the Renaissance. As such all four of the Renaissance artists I’ve heard of (yes, the ones immortalised by the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) are noted former residents. ‘Associazione Calcio Fiorentina’ (ACF), or Viola as they are known, were founded after a merger of several local clubs in 1926. They were founded by a local member of the fascist party under the party’s belief that each major city should have one strong football team.
Fiorentina enjoyed a strong period in their history during the 1950s when they won their first scudetto (Italian Championship) and were runners up on three further occasions in the decade. Success continued into the 1960s with a couple of Coppa Italia victories. The Viola then capped off the decade with their second and final Championship in 1969. They won further Italian Cups in the ‘Football Italia’ era of my youth but fell short of the Serie A title.
Having been one of the most attractive sides of that era with players like Rui Costa and Gabriel Batistuta Fiorentina’s finances were severely affected. The club was relegated and went into judicially-controlled administration in 2002. They were promptly re-established as ‘Associazione Calcio Fiorentina e Fiorentina Viola’ and began life again in the fourth tier. They soon returned to Serie A thanks in some part to the ‘Catania Case’ which involved the top two divisions expanding and Fiorentina benefiting from the extra places for what were known as ‘football merits’, we can all guess at what that might mean.
The club has stabilised since then and garnered a reputation for developing some of the best talent in Europe. Players like Mohamed Salah, Ante Rebic, Steven Jovetic, Juan Cuadrado and Mario Gomez have all played at the club before being sold on. Club Captain Davide Astori who was overseeing the birth of another talented generation suddenly and tragically died in 2017 leading to the club retiring his number 13 shirt. The young side currently features the son’s of two famous Serie A players for the Channel 4 days in Federico Chiesa (Enrico Chiesa) and Giovanni Simeone (Diego Simeone).
The Viola had started the season well with Chiesa and Simeone both performing well, the former perhaps laying claim to being one the golden hopes of Italian Football at present. They’d won three, drawn one and lost two of their opening six games. Their only defeats coming away at Napoli and Inter. Serbian Right Back Nikola Milenkovic has also been hitting the headlines recently with plenty of big clubs around Europe seemingly ready to try and tempt him away from Florence.
Atalanta hadn’t started the season as well despite having some strong recent seasons. The side from Bergamo (coincidentally one of the few other places in Italy I’ve been to) had only won one of their first six games with three draws and two defeats. Their solitary win came in the opening round of fixtures against Frosinone.
The Fiorentina Experience
One of the main attractions of Fiorentina was that the stadium was walkable from the centre of town. Fortunately, our Airbnb was on the stadium side of the central region. As advised on the European Football Weekends Facebook group getting tickets was a doddle. I went along to one of the Fiorentina Points near the stadium on Friday afternoon. The helpful staff advised me, in English as my Italian is extremely limited, of the various prices and locations available. I got a ticket in the Tribuna Di Maratona, between the penalty area and the half way line for 25 Euros.
The Stadio Artemio Franchi was a 15 minute walk from our Airbnb. The Campo Di Marte station is about a five minute walk, however, if you’re staying further afield. Initially, the walk was quiet but as soon as I crossed the train lines that separate the area of the stadium from the main part of the city I began to see people in purple strolling the streets and hear the buzz of scooters. The crowds grew and the buzz turned into din as I rounded the final corner past the shop where I’d bought my ticket two days earlier. A queue of fans were anxiously waiting for last minute tickets.
My seat was on the far side of the stadium, so I passed the Curva Fiesole where the Viola Ultras are housed. The streets around the curva were stocked full of parked scooters, clearly the preferred method of transport for the die hard Fiorentina fan. I passed the mass scooter park and headed for my entrance. All the signage was clear and easy to follow. It soon dawned on me that there wasn’t going to be much cover from the 28 degree heat on my side. Not something that I had really thought about before leaving a grey, cold London a few days earlier. Once in I headed for a pop-up club shop for a Viola hat to offer some resistance from that big yellow thing in the sky.
The stadium clearly once had the layout of a venue fit for chariot racing. The Tribunas (sides) were close to the action but there was a fair distance between the Curvas (ends) and the pitch. Lower tiers have been added closer similar to what exists at the London Stadium. It didn’t seem to bother anyone here, however, as the ultras and visiting Atalanta fans were in fine voice from the outset.
Space was limited when finding a seat and there are quite a few wedged into the rows between each aisle. Climbing, and stepping, over people are the name of the game here when navigating your way to your seat, but it all remained friendly and jovial. I couldn’t help but think what would happen at a game in England if a latecomer attempted to leap, legs outstretched, over a gentleman sitting reading his programme (which are free by the way).
Atalanta started the game well. Surprisingly the home side didn’t really get going for most of the first half and looked very disjointed. Some good defending from Milenkovic and Pezzella helped keep the visitors at bay as Gomez and Zapata were looking dangerous. Benassi had to go off in the first half for the Viola and Fernandes, currently on loan from West Ham, took his place. As is generally the case with the Swiss player he looked a little uncomfortable in a central position but was more at ease as a wide player in the second half.
Chiesa had a few good moments for the home team, but both he and Simeone struggled to get into the game, the latter grew increasingly frustrated with his teammates asking him to run onto through balls. It took a little bit of magic, or should I say deception, from Chiesa to open up the game. He wonderfully created some space for himself on the left hand side before seemingly being felled in the box. From my angle, it looked like a penalty but replays show it was a ‘clever’ dive. Either way, the referee awarded the spot kick and even the presence of VAR couldn’t help the visitors. The industrious Veretout stepped up and the home side had the lead.
Much of the conclusion of the game saw home players struggle in the heat. Plenty had spells on the ground and at one point Chiesa was told to get back up as he went down seemingly unaware that Fiorentina had made all of their allotted changes. They battled on, particularly Pezzella, who had visibly hurt his shoulder in the first half. The Viola sealed the game in the final minutes as Biraghi curled in a sumptuous free-kick. It was only spoilt by the fact that the keeper had clawed it out from behind the line meaning the crowd endured a brief moment of believing it was a save before goal-line technology intervened to send us all home happy.
Florence was an inspired choice, if I do say so myself, for my first Serie A game and I’m looking forward to adding Fiorentina to the list of teams I follow. It’s an old school experience as you can get tickets up until kick-off, walk to the ground and enjoy a good game of football in relatively relaxed surroundings while thousands of shirtless Italians provide a soundtrack for you from the curva. There was also some gentle goading of the visiting fans who were securely located in the far corner.
The vibe in the stadium matches the overall feel of the city which very laid back with plenty to see and do. As you’d expect with Italy there is plenty of good food on offer and it’s less than two hours flight from Stansted. Flying into Bologna adds a little transfer time, but it’s still pretty easy. Here’s to all the Viola games to come.