“I stopped playing 30 years ago, but this welcome is worth one or two Scudetti,” new Fiorentina Vice President Giancarlo Antognoni told the press after Fiorentina’s home game with Juventus. The Viola fans had created a stunning display in honour of their ‘Unico 10,’ who was named the club’s new Vice President at the beginning of January.
The move to create a position similar to that held by Javier Zanetti at Inter was designed to build a bridge between supporters and the club’s ownership, as the two are often at odds. Antognoni – who made 341 appearances for the Tuscan side over an incredible 15-year career – had returned home.
Such an attitude was no surprise at a club where silverware has been scarce, and whose fans have come to value heart, passion and commitment to the team above everything else. Created on the occasion of a match against Juventus where expectations were low, the stunning choreography in honour of the former captain clearly took precedence over the result.
Indeed, Fiorentina had not triumphed over Juventus since a historic 4-2 victory back in October 2013, the vitriol towards their opponents intensified by the sheer dominance of a side that have won the last five consecutive league titles on the peninsula. The Viola simply cannot compete with the resources of the Bianconeri, and had won just one of their previous 17 league encounters at the Stadio Artemio Franchi.
All this against a backdrop of poor results for Paulo Sousa’s side meant that a draw was as much as could realistically be hoped. Tactical ineptitude by the coach had put him under huge pressure, his side taking just 27 points from the opening 19 rounds.
“Questa Fiorentina è irriconoscibile,” a fan in front of me in the Curva Fiesole said, and he was right. This Fiorentina side was unrecognisable.
The crisp, smart possession-based football on display was nothing new, but when striker Nikola Kalinic netted in the 37th minute, it was clear that the Viola had their most hated rivals on the ropes. On this bitterly cold Florentine January evening, every man knew his job; this in a season where players had struggled to recognise their role in the team.
Aston Villa reject Carlos Sanchez was masterful in his makeshift role on the right of a three-man defence, whilst the invisible Kalinic – who had played with his head down for the second half of the previous campaign – seemed a different proposition altogether. Criticised for selfishness at times this season, Federico Bernardeschi firmly put the team first, sacrificing his desire to create headlines through an excellent man-marking job on the normally influential Claudio Marchisio.
The events that were unfolding were unbelievable to all, and the noise created by those supporters at the final whistle was simply incredible. “I threw my shirt to the fans after the game because they fired us up so much,” the 19-year-old Federico Chiesa told Mediaset Premium.
“This match is like its own season all by itself. We were more determined than Juventus,” Chiesa added. Determination and team spirit are valued above all else in Florence, and the fact that these very qualities led to an unexpected 2-1 victory over bitter rivals Juventus caused nothing short of delirium.
Yet the bitterness of this rivalry was strangely absent at the Stadio Artemio Franchi this time; the unexpected togetherness of the squad pulling fans towards supporting their own side rather than constantly berating the opposition.
Although controversial events in the past provided a backdrop, hatred was not fuelling the wild celebrations under the stand at the end of the game. The simple reason for the almost eerie lack of venom was that the win stripped everything down to a triumph for the underdog.
A moral victory for fans who value their history, and culture over everything else, on a night where everything clicked into place. All this on an evening when they honoured their legendary number 10.
“Special credit has to go to Paulo Sousa,” Antognoni told Radio Uno after the match. “He pulled-off a bit of a masterstroke by moving the midfielder Sanchez into defence, that’s where the game was won.”
It remains to be seen whether Sousa’s tactical ingenuity can be repeated, and whether Fiorentina can salvage something from the season. A European finish looks a long way off, and the Tuscans can expect to finish outside those coveted places for the first time in four years.
However, the memory of such an incredible match with its electric atmosphere and rabid celebrations will live on. Football is not played according to stats or by which team has invested the most money. It is a random and unpredictable game, and being present to celebrate magical nights like these is what loiters in the memory of those passionate supporters.