Transfer dealings between rivals often leave fans feeling resentful or betrayed – take Miralem Pjanic’s departure from Roma as a suitable recent example. Few moves, though, incite urban riots. When Roberto Baggio was sold from Fiorentina to Juventus in the summer of 1990, the streets of Florence erupted with rage.
Over the course of the five years he spent at La Viola, Baggio had stolen Florentine hearts. With a thin, unassuming build, he suffered a knee injury shortly after his Serie A debut that threatened to end his fledgling career, side-lining him from October to May. On his return, he scored the equalising free kick against Napoli that kept Fiorentina in the division. Despite operating more as a creator than a classical goal-scorer, the ponytailed youngster contributed an impressive 52 goals in the following three campaigns, developing a formidable attacking partnership with striker Stefano Borgonovo.
It was Baggio’s artful dribbling style that most endeared him to spectators, demonstrating a remarkable awareness of space that allowed him to glide past defenders as if they didn’t exist. Coach Aldo Agroppi was moved to particularly evocative praise; “In his feet, the angels sing.”
The 1989/90 season saw Fiorentina struggle in the league but end up in the final of the UEFA cup. Their opponents, Juventus, had pipped them to the Serie A title eight years previously after a string of controversial final-day refereeing decisions, setting alight the flame of a rivalry that rages on to this day. Juve had been in the race for Baggio’s signature when he first emerged as a promising talent in Serie C at Vicenza, and the Old Lady took La Viola’s precarious league position as an opportunity to rekindle that interest. The Bianconeri’s 3-1 home victory was enough to win them the trophy, while a world record fee of 16 billion lire – about €10 million – sufficed to secure the services of the man now known as Il Divin Cordino (‘the divine ponytail’).
Such a painful double-capitulation to their most reviled foes was too much to take for Fiorentina’s supporters. In the two days following the deal’s confirmation they packed the Renaissance town’s streets, furious at both player and club, with president Flavio Pontello forced to take refuge by locking himself in the besieged Stadio Artemio Franchi. Football and violence are, unfortunately, no strangers in Italy, but incidents have generally occurred in response to match events or hostile relations between opposing fans. Such a reaction to a transfer had no precedent, and remains a unique incident in Calcio history. Reports described bricks, chains and even Molotov cocktails being thrown; fifty injuries and nine arrests were recorded.
Baggio would later state that he was cajoled into the transfer by Pontello, and he did much to express his loyalty to the colours in which he became a star. Throughout his first game back at the Franchi, Juventus’s new number ten was subjected to a torrent of whistles and jeers from his former devotees. He won a penalty but refused to take the subsequent kick, claiming after the match that goalkeeper Gianmatteo Mareggini knew his habits too well from years of training duels. The symbolism of the moment, though, suggested that Baggio couldn’t bear to score against his old club. More clear-cut was his gesture as he left the field when substituted. The still incensed Florentines lobbed a range of items in the forward’s direction, including a team scarf. The Italian picked it up and held it to his chest while waving to the Curva Fiesole, signalling the affection he felt for the fans in the face of their derision.
Unsurprisingly, neither of these moves was well-received in Turin, and 300 Juventus supporters greeted Baggio at his next training session to offer their thoughts on the matter. Despite improving on his prolific goal-scoring record and winning the double in 1995, the Juventini remained the only set of supporters that Baggio played in front of, but never fully won over.
The Fiorentina faithful, meanwhile, largely came round to accepting their departed hero’s apology and lack of compliance in the move. Pontello wouldn’t make it past the summer as president, and it was ultimately he, not the man himself, who was to emerge as the main victim of the Baggio riots.
Words by Tom Guerriero-Davies: @TomGDella