They travelled to watch their team despite a recent losing run, visiting the home of a resurgent AC Milan side who had begun to earn positive results. The game was held on a Sunday night, long after the last cross-country train heading back towards Tuscany had departed the city's imposing central railway station. It was January and before kick off the temperature had already plummeted well below zero degrees.
To make matters worse, this band of 700 dedicated fans looked on as an inconsistent Rossoneri side despatched them with ease. Yet high in the third tier of the San Siro's Curva Nord, they cheered and chanted relentlessly, their support for the team never wavering at any point during 95 minutes of uninspired action.
For followers of Fiorentina, it has – and always will be – this way. The dissenting voices are rarely heard during matches, insistent instead on displaying their unconditional support for the club’s famous purple shirt. But, the day after the Milan game which had so brutally exposed every shortcoming of the current squad, supporters in Florence decided to vent their frustration with the club’s owners.
From the outside looking in, this may have seemed an odd move. Andrea and Diego Della Valle had resuscitated the club, taking on ownership in 2002 after bankruptcy and relegation to Italian football’s fourth tier and lifting them to the Champions League. That alone would seem worthy of heroic status in the Renaissance city, but their behaviour since has meant that many fans feel quite the opposite. They expressed their displeasure by unfurling a banner outside the Stadio Artemio Franchi which read:
Ormai il nome ve lo siete fatto la pubblicita
Visto che era questo il vostro Progetto
Ora fatteci anche il famoso regalo
The words, carefully chosen, make little sense when literally translated, but a few key phrases convey the message perfectly.
It starts by accusing the two brothers of using the club to make their name through publicity and their project, a term frequently referred to by club officials when talking about future plans to placate supporters when results are disappointing.
Here however, those same fans had evoked the word sarcastically to infer that it only served to aid the interests of the owners. “Il famoso regalo” is the long-awaited ‘famous gift’, promised by the club every transfer window, venomously turned on its head to demand that the real gift would be the departure of the Delle Valles.
Finally, it was signed “i clienti” – the vustomers – which is the very term used by the Viola hierarchy to describe those who follow and love the team, something that this passionate fanbase hate above all else. There is no doubt that Italian Ultras have a penchant for drama, but there is an explanation for this vitriol in Florence.
Disappointment has become a running theme for a team that, in recent years, has been on the brink of genuine success so many times. Cesare Prandelli was the first man to come close, taking over in 2005/06 after the Viola – back in Serie A for the first time the previous season – had narrowly avoided relegation. Fondly remembered in the city, he would become the club’s longest serving coach and took Fiorentina to the brink of a UEFA cup final in 2008, but left to lead the Italian national team just two years later. Fans attribute his departure to a declined request for extra funds to push on towards silverware, which has since become something of a motif.
History repeated itself when, after three successive fourth placed Serie A finishes and a Europa League semi-final in 2014/15, coach Vincenzo Montella met with club officials to ask for investment. An official statement blamed the coach’s desire to free himself from a clause in his contract, but the sacking of another successful boss was once again seemingly a financial matter.
A turbulent summer ensued when the club became embroiled in a bitter public row with Mohamed Salah, the Chelsea winger reneging on a pre-agreed loan extension and joining AS Roma instead. Despite having appointed a new coach – Paulo Sousa from FC Basel – signings were scarce as the transfer deadline approached and the owners significantly trimmed the wage budget as no less than 24 players left the club.
In July, it was clear that that the squad was desperately thin in defence and Sporting Director, Daniele Prade, assured that the matter was in hand. “There is still a lot of time to go in the transfer market and we are confident that we will create a good team,” he told Sky Sport Italia. “We know that we need both a defender and a midfielder. Paulo Sousa has told us what he wants.”
Despite such assurances, no new defenders arrived and the team was forced to play out the first half of the season without adequate cover. If it was a mistake for a club with proven European pedigree to not fill that void immediately, then failing to have a player in place when the window opened again in January was arguably a genuine lack of professionalism.
Instead, Fiorentina played on in the New Year with the same squad, picking up just seven points out of a possible 15 as the lack of depth began to tell. This was perhaps most apparent in the defeat to Milan, when key central defender, Gonzalo Rodriguez, served a one match suspension and there were no options for an adequate replacement.
Since then, criticism from River Plate over an alleged attempt to change the proposed fee for Emanuel Mammana was just the latest in a series of episodes whereby Fiorentina were publicly lambasted over their handling of negotiations.
After similar issues with Prandelli, Montella and now Sousa, the club face gaining a reputation for poor relations with coaches, and the current boss has already voiced his concerns to the press. “I am neither disappointed nor surprised. I am just concentrating on what my team is doing”, he stated when questioned about the failure to sign Mammana. “We’ve needed a new defender since August, I don’t want to talk about it anymore because otherwise it looks as if I’m complaining. The club knows what we need to compete at a certain level.”
Prandelli himself appeared to sympathise with Sousa’s predicament, as the situation between the Portuguese tactician and the owners slowly intensified. “In all this carry-on, the silence of the Della Valle family speaks volumes” The ex-Viola manager said in an interview with calciomercato.com, “they should have taken a decisive stance on the matter”.
Sousa discussed an ‘air of defeat in the city’ after early hopes of a Scudetto triumph had all but disappeared. In the last hour of deadline day, the Viola eventually acquired Yohan Benalouane from Leicester City, a defender who made just four starts in the Premier League this season. The Frenchman is unlikely to change the minds of an increasingly pessimistic fanbase.
The growing disillusion has prompted some to take drastic steps and avoid funding the Della Valle project. Many have chosen to watch their team solely away from home, and declining attendances at the Stadio Artemio Franchi are becoming a trend. Comparing attendances in eleven fixtures to their corresponding games last season shows that there were 19,000 less supporters at the stadium in total, an average of 1,727 per game.
The most telling figure though was the season ticket sales, with 2,700 of the most loyal fans failing to renew for the 2015/16 campaign. These fans are not concerned with becoming one of Europe’s elite clubs, what they demand instead is that their commitment be matched by that of the owners.
Sousa has quickly endeared himself to the Viola faithful, with the Coach regularly engaging in an open dialogue and meeting with fans. He even personally arranged a surprise for them at an open training session. Under his instructions, the squad created a purple heart around the centre circle of the pitch, applauding the supporters and demonstrating just how vital their backing is in this vibrant and passionate one-team city.
With a simple gesture, the Portuguese coach had achieved something that the Della Valle brothers had failed to do in 14 years of ownership; acknowledge the importance of those in the stands. Simply put, Fiorentina supporters are fans, not customers. Enough is enough.
Follow Chloe Beresford on Twitter: @ChloeJBeresford