Viola x Mundial

In August Mundial magazine organized the official UK launch event of Fiorentina’s 2015-16 home kit at the Le Coq Sportif store in London’s Covent Garden. As a lifelong fan I was delighted to provide artwork and articles for Viola, a special newspaper produced especially for the occasion, in which the following profiles of two Fiorentina legends appeared.

 

Giancarlo Antognoni

As perhaps befits a man born on April Fool’s Day, Giancarlo Antognoni’s career can be reviewed as a series of cruel “pesce d’aprile” jokes. Considered one of the finest Italian players of his generation, and to this day revered by the people of Florence, the midfielder was also blighted by dreadful luck. Whenever success appeared a possibility, so that chance would be routinely snatched away. When triumph did arrive, it was twisted into bitter disappointment.

When Antognoni was a boy growing up in the Umbrian town of Marsciano, his father ran a bar in Perugia that doubled as headquarters for the local Milan supporters’ club. Like many football-loving Italians of his generation, young Giancarlo idolized Gianni Rivera. Just hours after his debut for Fiorentina at Verona in October 1972, Antognoni was already being mentioned in the same breath as the rossoneri’s famous number ten. High praise for an eighteen-year-old brought into the side to replace scudetto-winning hero Giancarlo De Sisti.

The young midfielder had been playing for an obscure team in Serie D just a few months earlier. But Fiorentina’s manager at the time, the giant Swede Nils Liedholm, never shirked away from giving youth a chance (he later granted Serie A starts to fellow teens Giuseppe Giannini and Paolo Maldini). When De Sisti followed Liedholm to Roma in 1974, he vacated much more than the number ten shirt and captain’s armband. For players and coaches, Fiorentina is often described as a “piazza difficile”, not least because of the city’s passionate yet demanding fans; Antognoni’s promotion was both an opportunity and an obligation.

With his Winwood-esque boyish looks and wavy golden hair, it didn’t take long for Florence to fall for “Antonio”, as he would soon become known. Italian football’s first young star of the seventies, it was Antognoni’s speed, elegance of movement and rare passing vision that compelled influential journalist Gianni Brera to describe him as “il ragazzo che gioca guardando le stelle” (the kid who plays while watching the stars). Recognizing their captain’s star power, the fans on the Curva Fiesole came up with their own, albeit more down-to-earth, nickname: “ENEL”, after the electricity company.

Antognoni continued to shine as Fiorentina started the 1980s brightly, until in November 1981 his lights went out — literally. Racing onto a ball from midfield, “Antonio” attempted to head past the onrushing Genoa goalkeeper Silvano Martina, only to receive a brutal and deliberate knee to the skull. Lying motionless inside the penalty area, the Fiorentina captain suffered a temporary cardiac arrest on the pitch before being rushed to hospital for emergency surgery on a cranial fracture. His return to action just four months later boosted la Viola’s ambitions in their race for the scudetto, but on the final day of the campaign they could only muster a goalless draw against Cagliari. Meanwhile in Catanzaro, a dubious late penalty converted by Liam Brady ensured Juventus won 1-0 and were crowned champions.

Later that summer in Madrid, Antognoni became a World Cup winner. For the twenty-eight year old it was undoubtedly the greatest moment of his career, but even this achievement was tarnished. Frustrated after seeing a fourth goal harshly disallowed in Italy’s famous 3-2 victory over Brazil, Antognoni had gone into the semi-final with Poland determined to right the wrong by getting his name on the scoresheet. His overzealousness led to a strong collision with defender Matysik as he prepared to shoot, and an injury that ruled him out of the final. A focal point of Enzo Bearzot’s national side for years, Antognoni was forced to witness the memorable triumph of his fellow Azzurri from the press box of the Bernabeu. To add harsh insult to his latest injury, burglars later broke into his home and stole his gold winner’s medal.

More setbacks followed. In February 1984 purple title hopes were dashed once again when Antognoni fractured his tibia and fibula in a challenge with Sampdoria’s Luca Pellegrini. As Fiorentina prepared to endure the 1984-85 season without their talisman, Socrates was brought in as a high-profile replacement. But the languid Brazilian seemed to oppose the Italian approach to training, and the team subsequently slumped. By the time their captain finally regained fitness Fiorentina had already signed Roberto Baggio (although his own debut for the club was delayed due to serious injury). Antognoni’s last two seasons in Florence were marred by injuries and managerial disagreements, and he left of his own accord to conclude his playing days in Switzerland.

A single Coppa Italia from 1975 was the only silverware to point to from his fifteen seasons with la Viola. Had he taken the opportunity to reunite with Liedholm at Roma, or accepted any of Gianni Agnelli’s several invitations to join his Italy teammates at Juventus, Antognoni would have surely earned a heftier trophy haul. Instead he traded in these successes for a much rarer reward: to become a bandiera, a club legend, and enjoy the mutual benefits that such status affords, even long after the boots have been loaned to the club museum’s permanent collection. Though his relationship Fiorentina’s ownership has been strained in recent years, the viola fans have remained ever loyal to Antognoni, just as he refused to abandon them. As he has often maintained, “The love of an entire city is worth more than a scudetto.”

Angelo Di Livio

To say that 2002 was not a good year for Fiorentina would be an understatement. The Tuscan side began the summer with relegation from Serie A after losing their final seven matches of the season, scoring just one goal in the same period. Three months later the club had declared bankruptcy and plunged a further two divisions, before finally being stripped entirely of their identity and history.

Almost overnight Fiorentina’s squad dispersed in all directions, and the new club — Florentia Viola, as they became legally known — was hastily assembled as a mixed bag of unknowns. The one exception was Viola captain Angelo Di Livio, who at thirty-six could have been forgiven for finding a one-year contract elsewhere or even calling time on an illustrious career. But instead, the Italian international — who’d played at the World Cup earlier that summer — accepted the challenge to start from scratch in Serie C2.

A native of Rome, Di Livio had arrived at Florence in the summer of 1999 after six years in Turin, where he’d been an important cog in Marcello Lippi’s Juventus side that reached three Champions League finals in a row. Discarded by the bianconeri, he’d reunited at Fiorentina with his former coach, Giovanni Trapattoni, the man who’d given the player his first taste of Serie A at the relatively late age of twenty-seven.

It was easy to see why Juve teammate Roberto Baggio dubbed him “il soldatino” (the little soldier). A tireless and versatile midfielder, Di Livio was content to patrol either flank like a tightly wound-up toy. If fresh orders arrived from the bench to move into a central position or drop back and support the defence, he’d simply adjust his game accordingly without fuss.

Di Livio had grown accustomed to winning, picking up three Serie A titles, a UEFA Cup, a Champions League and an Intercontinental Cup during his time in Turin. Following Fiorentina’s most successful campaign in years, there was a genuine chance he could continue that success in Florence. But an entertaining European run and a Coppa Italia victory in 2001 were as good as things would get. Following the departures of Gabriel Batistuta, Rui Costa and Francesco Toldo, Di Livio took over the captaincy. But the significantly depleted team struggled, and the fear of relegation quickly mellowed into inevitability.

In Serie C2, Di Livio’s hardwork and humility were just the attributes required if the side were to drag themselves out of footballing obscurity. Backed by the city’s tremendous and unwavering local support, la Viola won promotion up to C1, but the expansion of Serie B allowed room for one more team. Fiorentina (they’d bought back their name at this point) were granted entry into the second division on “historic merits”, and at the end of the season a play-off victory over Perugia sealed promotion back to Serie A, a mere two years since they’d left.

As la Viola adjusted to life back in the big time, Di Livio stuck around for one more turbulent season, in which the side eventually staved off another relegation. As the one player to survive the club’s rapid demise and dramatic return to top flight football, il soldatino has since come to symbolize Fiorentina’s plight and period of instability. His choice to focus on the team rather than the individual may have been the ultimate act of footballing loyalty, as well as proof that a good soldier never complains.

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