Fandom”Some people believe football is a matter of life and death. I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.”
The great Bill Shankly’s words may seem strange to those who deem the sport to be ‘only a game,’ but for me they couldn’t be more apt. 1210 miles from Stockport and yet I still felt perfectly at home on that early October evening as I approached the Stadio Artemio Franchi for the first time. Little did I know it would change my life in every way imaginable.
Florence’s graffiti-laden subways on the way to the stadium provided an artistic backdrop just as easy on the eye as the masterpieces hung in the famous Uffizi gallery, located in the historic centre. Yet there were no American tourists queuing to see these works of art, just an English girl completely unaware of what I was about to encounter. Nothing could have prepared me for the atmosphere and amazing choreography on display before the game.
The team put on a show that day, easily defeating Inter, a result which sent cheers from the open-ended Curva Fiesole into the night sky. The night marked the extension – but not yet the culmination – of feelings that began when I was just 11 years old when my dad took my to watch my home-town team Stockport County.
There, sitting close to the action, I became engrossed with the sound of the ball being kicked, the shouts of the players and the intensity of the action. Knowing little about the rules, I asked question after question and he patiently explained the game in detail, nurturing my enthusiasm even further.
As I went through my teenage years collecting programmes, recording highlights on VHS (it’s all we had before the internet kids!) and cutting out newspaper reports of matches, I was further feeding my obsession with European football. After religiously watching Football Italia on Channel 4, you can imagine my delight when one of my Dad’s customers returned from Florence with a shirt printed with the name of my goalscoring idol – Gabriel Batistuta – on the back.
A trip to the Bernabeu after success in my A Levels cemented my plan in my head. I would go to University to study languages in order to realise my dream of writing about European football. I had a clear idea of where I was heading.
But then everything ground to a halt.
Just one year into my University course, I decided that I could no longer continue. The method of teaching was not what I expected and opting to get a job instead, I embarked on an entirely different career path.
After unprecedented success through the late ‘90’s and early 2000’s, Stockport County entered administration in 2009 and slid out of the league to the sixth tier of English football. People deal with loss in different ways and whilst many continued to attend matches, I felt like the soul had been ripped out of my club.
Losing that feeling of excitement every time Saturday afternoon came around resulted in pain. It meant that – rightly or wrongly – I withdrew from my passion of watching live football. Then came Fiorentina.
“Is it because of the purple shirt?” I raise my eyes to the sky when I am asked this question over and over again. “Or maybe because of Batistuta? Or you like the player’s legs?” “No,” I reply firmly before explaining the reason why I continue to visit the Stadio Artemio Franchi to watch Fiorentina play.
After extensive research, my family found out that my great-grandfather – a largely reserve team footballer for Manchester City – played in a friendly match at that same stadium in 1934 and scored a goal with Italy’s World Cup squad watching on the sidelines.
After my dad visited Florence to see where his grandfather had played and relayed his stories of that incredible experience, I was eager to join him on the next trip. Maybe it was fate that my family connection to Fiorentina brought me there in the first place. But whatever it was, when I emerged from under the stand to a sea of deafening noise and colour in the Curva Fiesole for the first time, I knew that this was where I belonged, and nothing but good things have followed on from it.
Even two periods of hospitalisation following ill health were turned into positive experiences, as my gallbladder problem only meant that I ordered my pizza ‘senza formaggio’ (without cheese) and that I had the time and space to cultivate my passion whilst forced to rest. I seized this opportunity to immerse myself in all things Italian, watching films, reading books and teaching myself the language, all the while healing myself from the inside.
I have no Italian heritage but when I step off the train at Stazione Santa Maria Novella in Florence, I feel like I am home.
Before the Europa League semi-final with Sevilla, it was strange to see those Spanish fans eating on adjacent tables in Florence’s modern Mercato Centrale, a place which showcases a wide range of Tuscany’s best food and drink. We had something in common with them in that none of us were Italian natives, but they looked like tourists in comparison to us, who felt like seasoned professionals.
The beautiful Renaissance City stirs my soul in every way, and I never feel more at peace than when walking around it, admiring everything that it has to offer. It is a complete amalgamation of everything that I love in life, cumulating in that moment at the stadium when the whistle – almost inaudible over the noise of the fans – blows to start the match.
Standing in that Curva amongst the flares and the noise, with fans that have now become firm friends, is to see the game through the eyes of a native. This is something which I have been lucky to experience, as the current trend for so-called football tourism cannot provide for the keen visitors to foreign stadia. As the only team in the city, Fiorentina can seem a hostile place to outsiders, the fans fiercely upholding their identity.
To be accepted amongst this somewhat insular group is something incredibly special. But not only do I watch my beloved team in purple, but I have grabbed the opportunity to write about them and the rest of Serie A, realising my dream in a way which I could never have predicted.
Arriving in a foreign city only to meet people who not only know your name, but who are excited to share a meal or a drink when you arrive, or who shout ‘Stockport!’ when you turn up in the car park outside the stadium before the game is something that transcends sport, negating headlines of violence that inevitably surface at major events.
Now, whether at the stadium or watching at home, I become that 11 year old child once again – obsessively collecting information about the squad – only the difference now is that I have an outlet for it through my writing.
“This is your life,” read the Facebook quote, so often dismissed by many (myself included) as trivial or cheesy. But this one sparked my attention. “Travel often. Getting lost will help you find yourself. If you are looking for the love of your life, stop. They will be waiting for you when you start doing the things that you love.” I did. They were.
Fiorentina has become the love of my life, as it became a catalyst for enriching my existence with special people and new opportunities, the feeling of being at home in a foreign city exacerbated by the friends that I have made as a result.
My great-grandfather may have brought me to the Florence in the first place, but continuing to visit the city and supporting the team has helped me to realise my dreams and finally find my true place in this world. Bill Shankly was right. This is much more than life and death.