WORDS: GIANCARLO RINALDI
For a Scottish-Italian boy, summer holidays in the Tuscan hills were eye-opening for so many reasons, but the only distraction from tanned brunette girls proved to be Fiorentina. And, while trophies have been scarce since the late Seventies, Viola fans have never been short of a hero or two on the pitch…
The summer meant only one thing for me when I was growing up – Italy. My parents were both teachers, so we could go for anything up to six weeks. From 1977 onwards we spent a long spell pretty much every year nestled in the Tuscan hills.
Initially we stayed in a cousin’s holiday home, then with relatives and finally in a house my grandfather purchased in the valley he had left as a boy to seek his fortune in Scotland. Most of our time was spent at the swimming pool, in cafes or at some local food festival. The biggest issue of almost every day was “Dove si mangia oggi?” – Where will we eat today?
There was something epic about these trips. Budget airlines had not been invented – at least not to Italy – so we drove all the way from southern Scotland to the Garfagnana. Due to my father’s pride in all things Italian, this was mostly achieved by means of the latest Fiat. A 128, a Strada, a 131 and a 132 – I think – all made the two-day journey across Europe. There was usually a bit of breaking down, getting lost and general cursing and swearing involved. But it was always worth it.
I was seven years old when these pilgrimages started and they went on pretty much right through my teenage years and into early adulthood. I looked forward to leaving the wind and the rain of Scotland behind for the sunshine and fine food of Italy. And, over time, the attractions of two new obsessions in my life also started to take hold – girls and football.
I could not, to be honest, tell you which came first. I remember gazing hopelessly from the steps of the amusement arcade at some local bronze-skinned lovely and wondering if she would notice a pale-faced, acne-attacked Scottish-Italian in the corner. Needless to say, she never did.
Around the same time, Fiorentina came to town. There is a large holiday and sports complex just around the corner from the village my ancestors left behind and the Viola used to stay there or even in town for pre-season training. When the players took to the streets, we awestruck, ordinary folk looked on in wonder.
And, towering above them all in superstar value, was Giancarlo Antognoni. The fact that I shared his name simply clinched the deal. This had to be the team I was going to follow.
I first saw them in action at the humble Stadio Johnny Moscardini – named after the only Scottish-born player to play for Italy – in Barga. It was typical pre-season stuff in searing heat and played at strolling pace against a local select side. I had never seen anyone play like Antognoni did. I have seen precious few do so even since.
My lasting memory was how little he looked at the ball. At school we swarmed around it like flies, desperate to take control of it. At the Scottish matches I had gone to, they thumped it about as if it deserved a good battering. Antognoni assumed his first touch would bring it under control and already seemed about three moves ahead of an opponent. It was all achieved with a degree of nonchalance and style which I found utterly irresistible. Just like with the girls of the village, I was hopelessly in love.
In truth, over the years both obsessions have often felt similarly forlorn. One history of Fiorentina calls them the “joy and suffering” of their fans. Three decades or so of following the boys in purple have definitely brought more of the latter than the former. But I would not trade them for any other team in the world.
Throughout my first years we consoled ourselves with having Antognoni – a player all of Serie A envied us. Once, when I was not yet into my teens, we threatened to take the Scudetto in a bitter toe-to-toe duel with our arch-rivals Juventus. They won it courtesy of a penalty on the final day of the season while we were getting a goal disallowed. “Meglio secondi che ladri,” we muttered. “Better to be second than to be thieves.”
That might have been true, but it opened a period of grey football. Every summer I was convinced by reading La Gazzetta dello Sport that this would be our year as we tried to overhaul the side during the transfer campaign. Most years my belief had evaporated by the third or fourth week of the season.
By the late 1980s we were stuck in a rut and Antognoni had bid an emotional farewell. But then word reached me of a new player who might take his place. A little boy from Vicenza we had signed despite a dodgy knee. We nursed him through surgery and waited for his full recovery. For Roberto Baggio it was worth being patient.
Once again we had a talent all of Italy envied but this time the story would end a little differently. In 1990 he took us all the way to the UEFA Cup final with a team that was struggling at the bottom of the Serie A table. But we lost that all-Italian final to Juventus and then he signed for our greatest enemies. It felt like my world had caved in.
For many fans it was too much to take. They took to the streets in protest and when Italy came to Florence for pre-Italia ‘90 training they made life pretty much unbearable. I was living near the city at the time and the anger and frustration were palpable. Personally, however, I felt only despair. If we could not keep Baggio, how could we ever be a force again in Serie A?
Things changed when new father and son team of film producers Mario and Vittorio Cecchi Gori took over the club in the 1990s. Money was little or no object and we snapped up two strikers from an impressive Argentinian Copa America side. One of them would disappear without trace – Diego Latorre. The other was Gabriel Omar Batistuta.
He stayed faithful to the boys in purple through a season of purgatory in Serie B – the first, but sadly not the last, relegation I had suffered. Then he became our talisman through seasons that saw us emerge as one of seven serious challengers for the title – dubbed the Sette Sorelle, the Seven Sisters. It never quite happened but we played in the Champions League and, more importantly perhaps, we had Batigol.
I was lucky enough to see him at the peak of his powers and, to this day, I would rate only Marco Van Basten any higher as a hitman. There was more finesse to the Dutchman but, on his day, the Argentinian was a force of nature. Defenders bounced off him like bullets off Superman and when he thumped the ball towards the net, goalkeepers winced.
But as with so many smaller clubs who joust with giants, our success was built on quicksand foundations. Without the steadying hand of his father who had passed away, the younger Vittorio took the club to the brink of oblivion and into complete financial collapse. A team which had shaken up Europe was banished to play in tiny stadia across Tuscany in Serie C2.
Yet somehow those games forged a new spirit, a new love of the club. My uncle once compared it with going to confession. We repented for the sins of our overspending, did our penance in the lower divisions and came back feeling the slate had been wiped clean.
Those recovery years were the stuff of legend with a play-off win over Perugia to return to Serie A still one of the most memorable moments in my football-following life. Listening from Scotland via a crackling radio, there were tears trickling down my face after the bold baldy Enrico Fantini sent us back to where we felt the club belonged. We had gone through pure torture to get there.
The team struggled on its return at first, perhaps having risen a little too quickly. But under Cesare Prandelli a new side capable of challenging at the top end of the table emerged. The likes of Luca Toni, Alberto Gilardino and Adrian Mutu catapulted us back to Europe once more.
But Prandelli left for the national team and my favourites failed to rise again under Sinisa Mihajlovic and Delio Rossi. A complete revamp in the summer ditched most of the old guard and gave the reins to Vincenzo Montella. Above all, we kept hold of our most prized possession – the heir to the adoration visited on Antognoni, Baggio and Batistuta – Stevan Jovetic.
Following the Viola, I think it is safe to say, has never been dull. I used to listen to their games via shortwave radio, catch some pre-season action during my summer holidays and, eventually, make a pilgrimage to live matches as often as I could. There have been some memorable journeys.
I have seen Batigol score, watched Rui Costa waltz through defences and thrilled at the saves of Sebastien Frey. I have been a spectator alone, alongside my father and with my best friend who I have also converted to the Viola faith. I have heard the coarse cursing which is a Tuscan speciality, hoped to hug a nearby brunette in goal celebration and headed home in a throng of Vespas and cars tooting their horns as if we had won the title. Even when the games have not been that memorable, there is always the view across the Fiesole hills and the thought of a good meal once the full-time whistle has blown.
Now the joys of satellite television mean I can suffer every weekend. It doesn’t always feel like fun, but I wouldn’t miss it for the world. No team sets the pulse racing quite like they do.
I have, in truth, invested them with far too much importance. They are the symbols of a land my grandfather had to leave behind and provide me with an outlet for a pride in my Tuscan heritage which has little chance to express itself in south west Scotland. A win still warms me like a mellow Chianti. Defeat kicks me in the guts like a home-brewed grappa.
From those first summer days as a boy gazing in admiration at Antognoni, Fiorentina have let me down and failed me more often than I care to think about. I often joke that they stopped winning things after I was born, their last league title coming six months before I saw the light of day. They have only come close to winning the championship a couple of times in my lifetime.
And yet I still dream that I might live to see a third Scudetto. In these times of a huge financial divide between football’s haves and have-nots it seems an unlikely and forlorn hope. But in idle moments my mind still drifts to thoughts of being at the Stadio Artemio Franchi to applaud a title-winning team. I’m never going to get the Tuscan girl I admired so much in my youth – my Scottish wife would never allow it – but at least I can still fantasise about seeing Fiorentina win that elusive league crown. It would make all the hurt and heartache they have caused me seem even more worthwhile.