“Even a magnificent city such as Florence becomes more intriguing if there is a demon at work in the alleys.”
― Chris Bohjalian,
Every year millions of people travel to Florence, Italy but rarely do they do so to watch soccer. The major attractions are incredibly familiar – Michelangelo’s David, the famous churches, the food, and so much more. The largest city in Tuscany has been a major player in European history for centuries and its citizens are still influencing the world today. Case in point – the next time someone tells you it is better to be feared than loved, thank Florence’s Machiavelli.
Soccer history also runs deep in Fiorenzi. Unlike Rome or Milan, Florence is home to only one soccer power. That said, the rise of calcio would be impossible without Florence’s influence. This is where this article will start, not with a soccer club but with a tradition.
History records nobles in Florence playing a sport as early as the 15th century that would be familiar to many today. Florentine kick game (giuoco del calcio fiorentino) was a sport played by the nobility in the evenings. Although Florence is credited with originating the game, it spread throughout Italy to the point that historical records note popes playing the sport regularly. The game was more rugby than soccer. According to the rules published by Florentine Giovanni de’Bardi, players could use hands and feet to advance a ball. Each side had 27 players and after 50 minutes the team with the most goals won.
Despite its popularity in the Renaissance, interest in the sport died out for centuries. Mussolini brought it back into fashion in the 1930s as a show of Italian nationalism, but passion for the old game outlasted him in Florence. An annual Calcio Fiorentino tournament takes place today in the city with some significant rule changes.
Visitors wanting to see this famous sight should plan to travel to the city in June. The tournament takes place the third week of June and features four teams, each representing a different quadrant of the city. There are still about 27 players on each team and the game itself is one-third soccer, one-third rugby, and one-third UFC.
Now on to real soccer. What is most memorable about Fiorentina is their purple uniforms. The Viola stand out among the usual colors on the pitch. Rumor has it the purple kits came into use early on, when the club’s red and white kits were poorly washed in the river.
Fiorentina is far from a minnow, but it is the largest club in the city and best chance to see high-level soccer in the city. Mussolini ally Luigi Ridolfi merged two local teams in 1926 to create a more competitive club. While they won the Coppa Italia in 1940, they struggled overall staying in Serie A. In the 1950s the Viola found their stride and not only found success in Italy but in Europe overall. In 1956, Fiorentina lost the European Cup final to Alfredo Di Stefano’s Real Madrid. Five years later, they won both the Coppa Italia and Cup Winner’s Cup, the latter over Rangers from Scotland.
Without a true inter-city rival, Fiorentina had to look elsewhere in Italy to find a nemesis. In 1982, they found one. Tied with Juventus for first place going into the final game of the season, Fiorentina was denied a winning goal in their match while Juventus won their match and the scudetto on a disputed penalty. The rivalry intensified in 1990 when the two clubs met in the UEFA Cup final. The home-and-home series meant Fiorentina hosted the second match, but had to do so in the city of Avellino. The southern Italian city had a strong Juventus fan base, and the Viola played what they felt were two away games in the losing effort.
In recent decades, the club has seen a who’s-who list of managers come through the ranks, including Claudio Rainieri, Giovanni Trappatoni, and more recently Cesare Prandelli. However, the club’s most memorable moment in the recent past was its bankruptcy and falling into administration. The original club was dissolved and reformed in 2002, with only one player returning with the club to Serie C2.
The Viola have played at the Stadio Artemio Franchi since it opened in 1931. Originally named for a local fascist leader, locals called it the “Comunale” until it was renamed for a former Italian FA president in 1991. It holds over 45,000 people but is best known for its spectacular sightlines. Sitting at one end of the stadium allows you to watch the match as well as stare into the Apennine Mountains. Located northwest of the city, you can walk to there from the city center in about a half hour.
Centro Storico Lebowski
On the opposite end of the spectrum is CS Lebowski. If the name seems familiar, it should be. To our knowledge, it is the only soccer club named after a Coen Brothers movie character.
In 2010, three friends who were tired of the commercialism of modern soccer had an idea. What if there was a club that disavowed the modern money grab of big-time professional soccer but instead returned ownership to the fans? They purchased a local amateur club and rebranded it as Centro Storico Lebowski.
The model from the beginning is any fan who purchases an ownership share has a vote on major decisions. While fans in Italy primarily benefit from the sense of community, you can purchase a share anywhere in the world. If you do live in Florence, however, you can participate in fan activities such as pre-game meals or local charitable activities. The buy-in is incredibly affordable – you can purchase an ownership share for €25 and the club has a map showing where its owners are around the world.
Maybe it is the power of hive thinking or good karma, but Lebowski has seen success off and on the pitch. The club has won promotion twice in its six years of existence and has expanded to now include a women’s team, an amateur team, and a junior team. They also have received a ton of coverage in the media.
What has held the team back most, however, is its lack of a home stadium. From the beginning, the club paid rent to use a local field and was working to acquire a more permanent agreement with the owners. However, this summer the field outright rejected negotiations to convert the field into one for rugby matches (according to a team press release). Until Lebowski finds a better home, the success of their counter-culture football experiment is on hold. But, as the supporters say, “the dude abides”.