Italy is famous throughout the world for the Mafia, pizza, fashion and mandolins, as well as another popular phenomenon: soccer. If soccer is sometimes considered a sickness in Italy, then in Florence there?s a high concentration of desperate cases. The passion Florentines feel for their team ? la Fiorentina - has always been something of an anomaly within the Italian panorama. Perhaps only Rome or Naples, much larger and more populated cities than Florence, can boast the same level of participation from fans when it comes to the performance of their home soccer team. It?s an overwhelming passion that burns in every corner of the city, in its piazzas and in its bars. Going to the stadium to see a match between Fiorentina and Juventus (historical enemy of the violet team) can be an experience that?s difficult to forget - if you can ever find a ticket, that is. Personally, la Fiorentina chose me when I was a child, when I was still incapable of choosing for myself. I fell for her then and, from that day forward, I?ve never been able to leave her.
1969: My First Marriage
I was six years old when my father brought me to the stadium for the first time to see what was to become one of the most passionate love stories of my life. That was the year that the Fiorentina won its second (and last) national championship, even if I wasn?t aware of it at the time. I have a very clear memory of that day: the match was supposedly a very important one, the stadium was sold out, and I was sitting peaceably between my father and uncle, totally indifferent to the game. I was busy eating my second ice-cream of the day (even this was an event that wouldn?t happen again for years). Suddenly, within a fraction of a second, I found myself alone, in the middle of a forest of yelling and jumping sequoias. The Fiorentina had scored a goal and the fifty thousand people crowded around me were transformed from an immobile, statue-like state into one of schizophrenic euphoria. It was as if a monster with four hands had suddenly started frantically hitting an old fashion type-writer that couldn?t keep up.
I returned home that day, unconscious of the impression scored on the depths of my soul. It was done. Whether I wanted it or not, my first wedding ceremony had been celebrated. I was married to a lady who in the future would bring me much pain, some joy and many bad colds.
1974: My Second Marriage
After that magical 1969 when the Fiorentina was Champion of Italy, the violet team didn?t provide any more moments of particular satisfaction or shining victories. Over the years, it proved to be a team that oscillated around mid-range, with a few exceptions on the up-side (third place in ?76) and on the down-side (1978, salvation on the last day). Either way, the stadium was always full.
It was precisely during that period that there came to the world of soccer a player who made the entire city fall in love, and I was no exception. His name was Giancarlo Antognoni. With Antognoni on the team, I celebrated my second marriage with la Fiorentina, this time with all the awareness of a considered choice. Why Antognoni? What did he have that was so special? He was simply the legendary incarnation of what all us boys wanted to be: good-looking, elegant, a skilled player but incredibly unlucky. For many years, he was the only Florentine footballer called to play on the national team surrounded by a granite block of players from Juventus, Milan and Inter. He never won anything big during his career, yet he risked his life during a game where the opposing goalie hit him in the head. He collapsed on the ground without any sign of life. His life was saved that day, thanks to a cardiac massage and mouth-to-mouth resuscitation performed by the masseuses of la Fiorentina, right there on the field, under the silent, wide eyes of an entire city.
Antognoni was a banner for Florence. Once in 1983, la Fiorentina went to play in a tournament in the U.S.A. at the Giant?s Stadium in New York. The match was against the Cosmos, a team that brought together the world?s best soccer players specially for the occasion. The Cosmos played with billion-dollar contracts in their pockets, their objective being to ?import? soccer to the States. The number 10 violet player gave them an incredible game, enchanting the American public and team managers - so much so, that at the end of the match, they offered him a contract that few would have refused, especially in those days. But his answer was, ?No thanks. I?m going back to Florence?. So to Florence he remained faithful, and Florence, in return, remained faithful to him.
After Antognoni?s career as a player ended, he became part of la Fiorentina management, where he served until just a few days before that incredible, unthinkable and dramatic period that was marked by the financial bankruptcy of the violet team?s former president Vittorio Cecchi Gori. This bankruptcy led to the team?s disqualification from Italy?s pro soccer league. The verdict was a joint decision by the Civil Court of Florence and the Italian Soccer League. It happened on August 2, 2000 at 11:45 in the morning.
La Fiorentina no longer existed. Puff!! It had vanished. But what about me?
END OF PART ONE