Clubkultur is a Box To Box series exploring the true essence of the beautiful game, a look at the intangible feelings that keep us coming back to support our club, no matter how they’re playing, no matter where. In Clubkultur, we will explore the important cultural aspects of football clubs from all over the world, as our contributors see them.
After hearing the news of the tragic death of Fiorentina captain Davide Astori at the age of 31, it made sense to write this Clubkultur as a nod to the player. Such loses reverberate around the footballing world and many touching tributes have been paid to the Italian international – although this isn’t about Davide personally, it is about the club he led and written with him in mind.
Florence is one of the world’s most scenic cities and is the metropolitan capital of the Italian region of Tuscany. The historic city is, in a sense, the genesis of contemporary Europe – it’s the birthplace of the Renaissance that gave us such critical advancements in art, culture, politics and science as to be apparent in our everyday lives, even today, over 400 years after the period ended. Figureheads of the movement could be considered forefathers of the modern world – Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Niccolò Machiavelli, three examples of quintessential ‘Renaissance Men’.
Football as we know it wasn’t quite around at that time, but a more primally-driven version, calcio storico, was a product of the Renaissance period and is still practiced today in Florence. In the game four neighbourhoods of the city – and the inspiration behind Associazione Calcio Fiorentina’s four away kits this year – compete in a mixture of football, handball and brutal unarmed combat to bring victory and glory to their postcode. This was the original goal-game, the predecessor to basketball, ice-hockey and our beloved football. In a sense, Florence is the birthplace of football – or certainly an iteration of it.
Along with laying the foundations for world football, it gave Italian football its name, calico, or literally, to kick. Although early roots of football as we know it can be traced to the city, Fiorentina were actually a late addition to professional football in Italy. They were founded in 1926 as a merger between two local clubs – CS Firenze and PG Libertas by local noble and National Fascist Party member, Luigi Ridolfi.
Their seminal years bore no fruit. Their trophy room gathered dust up until their earliest success in the post-war period – from the early 1950s onward. The club’s first scudetto came in the 1955-56 season and the following year the club made it to the European Cup final against Real Madrid, the first Italian club to do so. Their performance trailed off at the beginning of the 60s and since then the tale of the Viola has been of rapid instability – stomach-churning relegation battles, European finals and the squad that played some of Italy’s most ground-breaking football.
Traditionally Italy has placed a higher value on defensive football, eschewing flair and finesse for a deep understanding of tactics and an adherence to gameplans – more chess than cha-cha. It was the appointment of Claudio Ranieri in 1994 that defined the club as a very Italian anomaly. His first season was in Serie B, which the club dominated. Returning to the Serie A Ranieiri bolstered his formidable squad with the addition of a young Rui Costa who, teaming up with Gabriel Batistuta, were the iconic number 9 and 10 duo that lit up our Saturday mornings spent with James Richardson’s Football Italia.
Contrarian football, aided by Brian Laudrup and Francesco Baiano, was what made Fiorentina seem sexy, cool and exotic to those of us outside of Italy. Rui Costa was the essence of the continent – half-rolled socks, olive skin, slicked back mid-length hair, a look I’m sure many of us imitated badly. Their success was built on the strength of their attack, picking up two Coppa Italia’s and one Supercoppa Italiana – but it wasn’t just what they achieved, it was how they did it.
Their proclivity for swift and aesthetic attacking football inspired a new spirit of calico, hitherto rarely seen in the league. This sense of individualism continues onto the terraces of the Stadio Artemio Franchi. The stadium is cradled by the sprawling hills of the Tuscan landscape offering a scenic look at what the region has been geographically blessed with. The fans that reside in these stands on match-day may be part of one of the copious number of ultra groups that dream in violet.
Ultra Viola were the prime noisemakers during the movement’s heyday in the mid-70s and 80s, eventually disbanding and reforming with members of other groups as the Colletivo Autonomo Viola. Under their banners and in front of their screaming lungs the players played their game until the inevitable melodrama that dogs the club would return for a new series.
The Italian film giant Mario Cecchi Gori acquired the club in the early-90s and was responsible for ushering in their stable and successful ensuing era. An astute businessman, many admired his leadership and vision for the club. Unfortunately, it wasn’t to last long enough – he passed away only three years into his tenure at the club and his role was passed down to his son, the more impulsive Vittorio Cecchi Gori who answered bad results by saying “you’re fired” or words pertaining to that sentiment.
As the unpredictable nature of his leadership loomed over the club, the results on-field didn’t initially reflect it – after all, this was their golden years. Behind the dugouts though all was not fine in paradise. The turn of the millennium signaled irreparable financial wreckage – Vittorio’s personal life and mishandling of his father’s empire took their toll. Revealing their $50 million debt, the club were relegated to Serie B in 2001 and, unable to raise the sufficient capital were officially liquidised in June 2002 – the glorious Viola would no longer bloom.
To make matters worse, Vittorio was found in possession of cocaine in a hidden bedroom in his house, asleep with his model girlfriend. The story of corruption is never far away from Italian football and it didn’t take long until it reared its ugly head here – after the cocaine scandal, Cecchi Gori Jr was facing charges for unscrupulous business practices at the club – namely embezzlement and fraudulent bankruptcy.
Resurrected later that year under a new name, Associazione Calcio Fiorentina e Florentia Viola, by Italian leather good’s company Tod’s CEO Diego Della Valle, starting out life in Italy’s fourth tier – before successive promotions and a curious case of another club’s financial irregularities helped them skip a league and make it back to the Serie A promptly. Rocked again by a match-fixing scandal in 2006, the club have yet to achieve any consistency. Their success back in the top flight since the turn of the ’00s has been modest. Although high points have been fleetingly ushered in by star players like Luca Toni and Stefan Jovetic, helping the club gain three successive fourth-place finishes, the club has suffered this season from outgoing transfers.
And now, once again, a dark cloud has settled over the Florentine hills. Their captain, Davide Astori was described by Gianluigi Buffon as “the best expression of an old-fashioned world, one that people have left behind, with values like altruism, elegance, politeness and respect towards others. Compliments genuinely, you were one of the best sporting figures I ever came up against.” Astori was the consummate professional; his personality embodied the true essence of grace and dedication – he’s another man of Florentine society that will be remembered for his virtues.
What’s next in Fiorentina’s oscillating story? That remains to be seen, their immediate trajectory has always been one of surprise. We can only hope that they recover from this loss and that their next peak sees them return to their early-90s heights – to being the team that we all remember so fondly.