The Italian national team has not always enjoyed a warm welcome in Florence. Indeed, it was not so many years ago that the Azzurri’s arrival was greeted by a resounding chorus which went something along the lines of: “Italy! Italy! Get Lost!” In actual fact, the words were a little more crude than that.
That was a during a friendly with Mexico back in 1993 when a simmering conflict between the Florentine support and the Italian football federation came to a head. The problem originated, you won’t be surprised to hear, in a clash with Juventus and the decision to make Fiorentina play their “home” leg of the 1990 UEFA Cup final in Avellino. Many Viola fans felt the venue had been deliberately selected due to the strength of Bianconero support in the area.
The fact that Juve lifted the cup and then signed Roberto Baggio did not help matters. There were protests in the streets and when the Nazionale came to the outskirts of Florence to train for Italia 90 they faced some angry scenes. Firenze had come to harbour a deep resentment towards the football establishment and the team which represented it around the world. It culminated in the chants of support for Mexico in that infamous friendly.
It would be another 13 years before La Nazionale would return to Florence. The Italian Football Federation snubbed the city like a parent trying to discipline an ungrateful child. The Fiorentini simply turned up their nose at a team which they felt precious little affinity towards.
And yet it was an impasse which did not do the national cause any favours. The Azzurri have never been defeated in the Renaissance city with a proud record of 17 wins and six draws from 23 matches. Few other grounds in Italy come close to being such a good luck charm.
Club Italia returned for another friendly in 2006 when the olive branch was extended and accepted. But it will be an altogether more emotional occasion when the Faroe Islands come calling on Tuesday night. For once, Fiorentina fans will have much to like about the Italian team.
Above all, it is the home debut of their former coach Cesare Prandelli. Over five years at the Stadio Artemio Franchi, he developed as close a bond as it is possible to imagine between a manager and his supporters. The atmosphere in the ground following the death of his wife, Manuela, after a lengthy illness, was among the most emotional ever witnessed in Serie A.
He also brought the Viola back from the brink of oblivion to being a major force in the top division. Slowly but surely he helped to build a side which would become a top four contender in Italy and a great entertainer in the Champions League. Not bad for a team which had only recently scrambled its way back from Serie C2, Italy’s fourth division.
Prandelli himself has not been slow to recognize how special a place Florence was for him. His departure was a somewhat hasty affair, this will be a chance to say their goodbyes properly.
However, he cannot afford to let sentiment get in the way of business. The Faroe Islands should really be defeated by a considerable margin and he has turned to some of his old employees to get the job done. Flying full-back Lorenzo De Silvestri, midfield schemer Riccardo Montolivo, and hitman Alberto Gilardino might make it seem like just another Fiorentina home game.
Even central defender Giorgio Chiellini has a Viola past while netminder Emiliano Viviano was born in nearby Fiesole and supports his local side. Even the most die-hard Ultra really can have no excuse for not feeling a connection with this Italy team.
Florence can help the Azzurri to send a message to their group rivals. After the World Cup disaster, this team is in the reconstruction process and has yet to find the players to replace some of the big names it has lost. But a resounding victory with some fine football in front of a passionate support would prove that Italy intends to return to the top of the world game as soon as possible.
It will be a poignant night for Prandelli, and there may be a few tears along the way. However, he has been in football long enough to know that the goodwill towards him is not infinite and is probably not as plentiful in other parts of the country. A convincing triumph is needed, or those jeers which the Nazionale suffered nearly 20 years ago might well return sooner rather than later.
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