Fiorentina's Renaissance PeriodSeptember 09, 2002 - by Simon Kuper [http://www.timesonline.co.uk/]
Our correspondent looks at the rebirth of a fallen force in the Italian game.
THE OLD MEN WHO GATHER daily in the main square of the Tuscan village of San
Giovanni Valdarno (17,350 inhabitants) are confused. Tonight the
village football team, proud members of Serie C2, the
Italian fourth division, are playing their first match of the season against
the giants of Fiorentina.
Basking in the late Tuscan summer, the old men recall the teams’ meeting in the province’s War Cup in 1943. But there was a war on then, of course, so things were different. That Fiorentina were returning now was confusing in all sorts of ways.
First, they are a huge club, perhaps the Italian equivalent of Tottenham Hotspur; with Florence being only 25 miles down the road, many people in San Giovanni Valdarno support them and Fiorentina are bringing thousands of supporters to the game because the Florentines have remained keen on their club even though it folded this summer, was then refounded as Fiorentina 1926, and banished to Serie C2 for running up a huge debt. In fact, and this is the curious thing, the fans now seem keener than ever.
It is less than three years since Fiorentina beat Arsenal in a Champions League match at Wembley thanks to a goal by Gabriel Batistuta, with Giovanni Trapattoni sitting on their bench. In those days “Trap’s” biggest problems were his players’ insistence on busing the 150 yards from changing rooms to training ground and the Brazilian Edmundo’s late return from the Rio carnival. Fiorentina hated Juventus and sometimes challenged for the league title. Those were the days.
In retrospect the club’s demise can be dated to the day in July 2001 that the Italian police raided the home of their owner, the Italian film baron, Vittorio Cecchi Gori. What happened was exactly what should happen when police raid a film baron’s home, as if Cecchi Gori had read up on Jackie Collins beforehand.
The police broke into his apartment in the Palazzo Borghese in Rome, but then took 90 minutes to find him. This was because his bedroom door was concealed inside a mirrored wall. Only after the Filipina maid had pointed this out did they enter the room to find Cecchi Gori asleep with his girlfriend, Valeria Marini, a Caprice-like figure who calls herself a singer-actress but in fact can do neither.
The police told Cecchi Gori to open his safe. Donning his silk dressing-gown, he complied. When the police commented on the stash of cocaine stored inside, Cecchi Gori replied nonchalantly: “Cocaine? That’s not cocaine, it’s saffron!” He remains in big trouble, because his business empire is untangling. It should be said that he acquired the empire only by inheritance from his father Mario, who before dying in 1993 had warned his old business partner, Silvio Berlusconi: “Take care of Vittorio, he is so impulsive and naive.”
Vittorio’s problem was that he wanted to be Berlusconi. He bought commercial TV channels (a failure), pumped tens of millions into his football team (no titles), dabbled in politics (getting no further than senator), but might have been OK had he not got caught in a divorce expected to be so expensive that it alone could fund Fiorentina for years. Cecchi Gori remains admirably upbeat, recently leaning out of the window of his Mercedes limousine on Rome’s Via Veneto to shout “La dolce vita!” to friends. However, he ruined Fiorentina.
It is hard to work out which bit of Cecchi Gori’s empire owes what to which, but it is clear that he borrowed tens of millions of pounds from the club. After everything went wrong, he tried the traditional Italian remedy, putting his 82-year-old mother in charge, but even she could not save Viola. Fiorentina was relegated from Serie A in the spring and soon afterwards dissolved for having debts of £14 million, though even that may not have been the whole story.
There were desperate attempts to save them, but a fax from a Colombian bank offering to pay off the entire debt proved, amazingly, to be a forgery.
Fiorentina dropped to the fourth division,
but did not quite become a fourth division club. They have found a new
sugar-daddy in the shoe tycoon, Diego Della
Valle, who thankfully does not have a Berlusconi-complex (instead,
his office is plastered with pictures of John F. Kennedy). Della Valle
has already pumped about £5 million into Fiorentina.
The club has signed several players too good for Serie C2, but their greatest coup was retaining Angelo Di Livio, the stocky midfield player who three months ago was playing for Italy in the World Cup. Di Livio has reportedly taken a 90 per cent cut in salary from last season.
“I know what's expected of me in Serie C2,” Di Livio said. “Don’t forget that I started my career there. I know it’s a different type of football, more physical, and the ball flies readily into the stands but I’m prepared to do it again. I'm more curious about playing in Serie C than Serie A."
And so thinks all of Florence. After the initial shock, the Florentines seem delighted by their club’s collapse (if not quite as delighted as Juve fans). So far Fiorentina have sold 17,000 season tickets. At last they have a project: marching up the divisions, instead of just clinging on grimly at the bottom of Serie A. They have found a new lease of life, embraced an old-fashioned, rural kind of football, free of film barons and millionaire mercenaries. In yuppie jargon, they have “downshifted”. Could this be the answer for Everton?
Florentia Viola has won the C2 championship and will play in the C1 for the season 2003/2004