At the end of the 1990s, Florence-based club Fiorentina were a prominent side in Italian Serie A. They qualified for the Champions League and were consistently listed among the favourites for the Scudetto. Renowned videogames company Nintendo was their sponsor, with a smiling Super Mario standing out on the scoreboard. More than a decade later, another Super Mario may lead Fiorentina to the hardest, final stage – win the league. The recent signing of Germany international Mario Gómez, 28, from European champions Bayern Munich is exciting home fans, particularly rhapsodised by the idea of becoming Juventus’ major antagonists.
Florence is a special place of Italian football. It is the cradle of Renaissance and of famous Calcio storico, an embryonic form of football played using both hands and feet and set in the charming scenario of Piazza Santa Croce close to river Arno. The neighbourhood of Coverciano hosts the central training ground and technical headquarters of the FIGC, the Italian Football Association, as well as the football museum. In addition, traditionally violet-dressed Fiorentina became the first Italian club to qualify for the then European Cup final in 1957, when they lost 2-0 to legendary Real Madrid.
Such a prestige has seldom gone hand in hand with remarkable results, though. Fiorentina topped the league just in a couple of circumstances – in 1956 and in 1969 -, while on the European stage they just lifted the now defunct Cup Winners’ Cup in 1961 and reached . The era of Cecchi Gori, the family of film producers, marked both rise and fall of Fiorentina. When late Mario took over the club in the early 1990s, the fans were still roaring for previous chairman Flavio Pontello decided to sell emerging star Roberto Baggio to archenemies Juventus. Cecchi Gori revitalised them by signing prominent players, including young Argentinian forward Gabriel Batistuta. After an encouraging start, Fiorentina infamously relegated after a turbulent season in 1993 and a few months later Mario passed away. His son Vittorio, a film producer, too, replaced him and the new presidency commenced with the team dominating Serie B and immediately coming back to the top flight division.
The chairman reinforced the squad by signing Portuguese talent Rui Costa and Brazilian defender Márcio Santos, who had just won the World Cup. Since the latter lionised Hollywood diva Sharon Stone, Cecchi Gori promised him a dinner with the blond actress had he scored 9 goals (7 according to the footballer) and led Fiorentina to qualify for the UEFA Cup. Following a disappointing 10th place in the standings, the Brazilian was briskly sold but a new, prosperous era began for the club. Fiorentina won the Coppa Italia in 1996, reached the Cup Winners’ Cup semi-finals and participated in European competitions. They peaked with Giovanni Trapattoni as coach at the end of the 1990s, when only a heavy injury occurred to Batistuta stopped Fiorentina on their way to the domestic title and the club defeated Arsenal and Manchester United in the Champions League.
Quoting the famous epilogue of Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, it seemed Fiorentina “came forth and once more saw the stars”. Well, falling stars. Just a couple of years later, La Viola relegated and, quintessentially, finished into bankruptcy, while Cecchi Gori was arrested. With a help from local municipality, the club started again from the fourth tier behind the name of Florentia Viola. Despite this decline, fans evangelically gathered at Stadio Artemio Franchi and the team predictedly triumphed.
Fiorentina eventually gained a controversial promotion to the second tier, courtesy of FIGC boss Franco Carraro. After just one year, they overcame Perugia in a dramatic playoff match and ensured their place in Serie A. Brothers Andrea and Diego Della Valle, the new club owners, kept their promise with local fans and established an expected-to-be ambitious era. By appointing Cesare Prandelli as manager and shrewd Pantaleo Corvino as sporting director, Fiorentina amused for their entertaining style and remained among the top clubs despite their involvement into Calciopoli match-fixing scandal. Moreover, they beat Liverpool at Anfield Road in the 2009-10 Champions League group stage and were controversially knocked out in the round of 16 following by Bayern Munich.
When Prandelli left Florence in the summer of 2010 to coach the Italy national team, Della Valle brothers hired ex Lazio and Inter defender Siniša Mihajlović as his successor. The Serbian coach arrived from a good season at Catania, but his idyll with Fiorentina fans has never blossomed as well as his relationships with some Prandelli-linked players. He was sacked in November 2011 and replaced by Delio Rossi, who had the same destiny a few months later after his highly debated physical assault to Serbian star Adem Ljajić during a match. Meanwhile, discontent by fans rocketed and attendance at Stadio Franchi dropped.
Della Valle revolutionised the club at the end of the season. The signing of Daniele Pradè as the new sporting director and, above all, of ex Roma and Fulham striker Vincenzo Montella as manager attracted supporters at the stadium. Fiorentina displayed a balletic, gleeful football and battled for the qualification for the Champions League preliminary round until the last match day. Now, Gómez might be the perfect target man of a line-up which will comprise fragile striker Giuseppe Rossi, apparently recovered from his umpteenth injury, Colombian deep-lying forward Juan Cuadrado and the likes of Alberto Aquilani, David Pizarro and Borja Valero on the half-way line. Jonathan Wilson wisely suggests that the German international looks like an old-fashioned forward who doesn’t stand out for a peculiar skill. However, he also reminds that Gómez scored 75 goals in 115 games for Bayern Munich and Fiorentina fans wish him to maintain such a proficiency.
As late Antonio Ghirelli noted in his book Storia del calcio in Italia, the rebirth of football in Italy can be considered one of the several aspects of Renaissance. Now, the sporting Renaissance of Florence can be explained through football.