European Football Stories: The Early Exploits of Fiorentina in Europe

When it comes to Italian football, Fiorentina represent a very unique and interesting case study. If factors like the club’s administrative and financial status in recent years or for that matter its performances on the field (rather the lack of it) is taken into consideration, then the Florence-based club might as well be construed as an outfit that has been struggling for a long time. Even after Italian-American billionaire Rocco Commisso bought the club in 2019, and irrespective of the commendable passion that he has for it, it is not quite certain yet as to which direction the Viola are headed to.

If results are deemed as the key benchmark to success, then Fiorentina can be considered as anything but a successful club in the last couple of decades. Unless anyone is either a hardcore fan of the club or a football aficionado of sorts, the answer to the question below won’t come easy.

When was the last time Fiorentina won a trophy?

The club’s last piece of silverware came back in 2001, when Roberto Mancini’s side beat Renzo Ulivieri’s Parma over two legs to win what was their sixth Coppa Italia. To know about the Florentine side’s last league win one has to go back further in time, to the 1969/70 Serie A season – when Bruno Pesaola’s side held off Cagliari and Milan to secure what was only their second Scudetto.

As regards the European scene, suffice to say the club’s maiden success also happens to be its only continental silverware so far. That being said, it was a special victory not only for Fiorentina per se but also for Italian club football in general. It happened at a time when the Tuscan outfit was enjoying the best period in its history, in what is a stark contrast to its struggles of recent times.

Back in those days, Fiorentina were among the most consistent of Italian sides. While the Viola won regularly at a domestic level, they were also taking considerable and significant strides at the continental stage. More importantly, the Florence club happened to be the first Serie A club to make a significant impact in Europe, not once but on three separate occasions, in two entirely different competitions at that.

In the process, the Florentine side managed quite a few feats hitherto not achieved by clubs from the peninsula. Fiorentina were the first Italian side to make it to a European final and also the first Serie A club to win a European trophy. Besides, they were also the first team from Italy to make three forays to the final showdown in continental competitions.

Now that is not only some great history but also an enviable pedigree.

The late 1940s marked the onset of the most consistent phase in Viola’s history. This consistency peaked from the mid-1950s and continued through to the late 1960s. In a collective sense that period, spanning well over a decade, was the best ever for Fiorentina in terms of tangible success achieved (read trophies won).

Serie A journeyman Giancarlo Bacci, who played for as many as 10 clubs in a 16-year professional career, left Bologna after only a year to join the Tuscan side ahead of the 1953/54 domestic season. In what eventually turned out to be his only season with the Viola, the forward, born in the Peretola suburb of Florence, contributed 13 goals and helped his side finish fourth in the table. Giuseppe Virgili, his replacement who joined Fiorentina after leaving his boyhood club Udinese, made an even more significant impact to the club’s cause in what ended up as an immensely impressive four-season spell.

The Udine-born forward found the target on 15 occasions in his maiden season in 1954/55, finishing as Fiorentina’s top scorer for the season and helping them to finish fifth in the table. However, it was during his second season in Florence that Virgili made the most significant of his contributions.

His aggregate of 20 league goals was instrumental in ensuring Fiorentina the Serie A title in the 1955/56 season, the first ever in the club’s history. It is imperative to understand that the club’s maiden Scudetto was won in an emphatic manner, with Fulvio Bernardini’s side finishing eight points ahead of defending champions Milan in the final tally and losing only one of the 34 games they played during the course of the season. The reward for their impressive effort was a maiden shot at continental glory, courtesy of a direct qualification to the European Cup – now known as the Champions League.

What is at present Europe’s flagship event was then a fledgling competition, with the 1956/57 season being only its second edition. Milan had been the first Serie A side to participate in it the year before, losing in the semi-finals to the eventual champions Real Madrid. While the Rossoneri managed an impressive 2-1 win over Los Blancos in the second leg at the San Siro, a 2-4 defeat at the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu had put an end to any hopes Héctor Puricelli’s side had of reaching the final.

Unlike in its maiden edition where the European Cup was a pretty much straightforward 16-team competition, the second season was a more elaborate affair with 22 teams in the fray. As such, a preliminary round was introduced with a prior draw deciding the participants therein. Fiorentina were one of the nine teams to receive a bye, as was also the case with their first-round opponents from Sweden.

In the previous year, Milan had begun their campaign with a disappointing (opening leg) defeat at home against Saarbrücken – then representing the French protectorate of Saarland, which was subsequently (in 1957) unified into what was then the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) or West Germany (present day Germany) – but Fiorentina managed to avoid a similar plight. Even though Harry Sven-Olof Bild had put IFK Norrköping ahead early in the opening leg of their first-round encounter at the Stadio Artemio Franchi – referred to as Comunale back in those days, Claudio Bizzarri helped the hosts rescue a point.

The second leg, played at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome owing to the fact that it was winter in Sweden, was decided courtesy of an early goal by Virgili. The 2-1 aggregate win set up an encounter with Grasshoppers, the reigning champions of Switzerland. Armando Segato scored early and Romano Taccola helped himself to a brace to put the home team 3-0 up inside the first 12 minutes in Florence. The Swiss side could only get one back, forward Robert Ballaman finding the net.

The Italian champions were in complete control of the proceedings in the away leg at the Stadion Hardturm, Julinho and Miguel Ángel Montuori finding the net on either side of another Ballaman effort. While a late goal by Serbian midfielder Branislav Vukosavljević ensured Grasshopper a draw on the day, it was Fiorentina that booked a place in the last four match up against Crvena Zvezda – known as Red Star Belgrade to the English-speaking fans, courtesy of that 5-3 aggregate result.

A late strike by midfielder Maurilio Prini ensured an away win at the JNA Stadion in Belgrade. The result proved to be crucial in the final analysis, what with the return leg in Florence ending in the manner in which it began, as in without a goal on board. Bernardini’s side had made it to the tournament decider of a European competition on their maiden attempt. The reward for their impressive performance was a final showdown against Real.

The Madrid side, on the other hand, had only made it to the tournament owing to their status as the defending champions. José Villalonga’s side had had a disappointing domestic campaign, having not only failed to defend their La Liga title but also finishing a whopping 10 points behind champions Atlético Bilbao. In fact, the Spanish giants happened to be the only team in that year’s competition that had not won their league.

Worse still, Real began on an uncertain note, a clear reflection of their wobbly form at a domestic level. Two goals apiece by the legendary Alfredo Di Stéfano and Ramón Marsal Ribó ensured a 4-2 win over Rapid Vienna in the opening leg of the first-round tie at the Santiago Bernabéu.

However, a first half hat-trick by Ernst Happel – who would go on to manage both Feyenoord Rotterdam (1970) and Hamburger SV (1983) to European Cup titles – helped the Austrian tie win the return leg 3-1 at the Praterstadion (renamed as Ernst-Happel-Stadion since 1992) in Vienna, thereby tying the aggregate score at 5-5. Villalonga’s side albeit were comfortable 2-0 winners in the resultant playoff. The complications of their opening round match notwithstanding, Real’s route to the decider was fairly comfortable thereafter.

The fact that the Santiago Bernabéu was hosting the tournament final was inspiring enough for the Madrid side to ease past both Nice, 6-2 on aggregate in the quarterfinals with Joseíto on target in both the legs, and Manchester United in the semi-finals. The English First Division – precursor to the Premier League – winners were beaten 5-3 on aggregate, with Spanish striker Héctor Rial finding the net in each of the two legs.

Real were palpably the favorites heading into the final in Madrid. Besides being the home team, as also the reigning champions, it was also a star-studded outfit. Apart from Di Stéfano, the line-up included high profile names like Francisco “Paco” Gento – who till date holds the record of winning the most European Cup titles (at six) as also the highest number of La Liga crowns (at 12), captain Miguel Muñoz – who would subsequently manage Real to twin European Cup successes (both in 1960 and 1966) and Frenchman Raymond Kopa.

To their credit, Bernardini’s side put up a commendable display and held their own for well over an hour. However, Villalonga’s side did not intend to disappoint the thousands of fans present at the Bernabéu, and they did as much was required. A Di Stéfano penalty and a Gento strike, all in the space of six second half minutes sealed the fate of the Italians while ensuring a successful title defesce for the team from Madrid.

The Florence side could well have been forgiven for being disappointed rather crying foul over a few refereeing decisions, particularly when Dutchman Leo Horn ignored his linesman’s flag (Enrique Mateos was offside) and awarded a penalty – which Di Stéfano duly converted to put Real ahead. Despite of the obvious disappointment and all the related sympathy, it is only the result that counts in the final analysis. All the other aspect cease to matter once the initial brouhaha dies down. Unfortunately for the Viola, the result went in favor of Los Blancos on that fateful evening in Madrid.

That being said, it was Fiorentina who had claimed the honour of becoming the first Italian side to reach the European Cup, a distinction that will remain etched in the history books, as also in the minds of genuine football fans, for posterity. The Florence side recovered well from the disappointing defeat, and maintained their consistency thereafter, finishing second in the Serie A in each of the next four seasons – to Milan (in 1957 and 1959) and behind Juventus (in 1958 and 1960), even as they waited patiently for another opportunity to mount a second challenge at a European competition.

The patience ensured a well-deserved dividend. Despite of losing to Juventus in the final of the 1959-60 Coppa Italia, Fiorentina qualified for the inaugural edition of the European Cup Winners’ Cup owing to the fact that the Bianconeri had also won the Scudetto, thereby securing direct qualification to the European Cup in the following season. Nándor Hidegkuti, a member of the famed Hungarian Golden Team (the Mighty Magyars), took over as the new manager of the Florence-based club in November 1960.

The 1960/61 edition of the European Cup Winners’ Cup, designed as a competition for the winners of the domestic cup, involved only 10 clubs. As such, Fiorentina were directly positioned in the quarter-final draw, as opposed to a few teams who had to play in a preliminary round first up. Hidegkuti’s side made the most of their good fortune, starting their campaign with an emphatic 9-2 aggregate win over Lucerne.

An early strike by Italian forward Gianfranco Petris and a goal on either side of the break by Swedish winger Kurt Hamrin – who eventually finished as the tournament’s top–scorer with six goals, ensured a comfortable away win at the Stadion Allmend (Lucerne). Back in Florence the home team run riot, with Brazilian forward Antoninho scoring a hat-trick and Hamrin helping himself to yet another brace.

The semi-final against Dinamo Zagreb was, in the hindsight, decided in the first leg itself. Goals from Antoninho, Dino da Costa and Petris ensured the Viola a fairly straightforward 3-0 win in Florence. Despite of losing the return leg (1-2) at the Gradski Stadion Maksimir (in Zagreb) Hidegkuti’s side won 4-2 on aggregate and made it to their second European final, on what also happened to be their second ever participation in a continental competition.

For the uninitiated, the inaugural European Cup Winners’ Cup final remains the only one to be decided over two legs. Fiorentina’s opponents in the final were Rangers, the winners of the 1959/60 edition of the Scottish Cup. Unlike the Viola, the Glasgow side were required to play a preliminary round of matches. Scot Symon’s side managed to pip Hungarian club Ferencváros (5-4 on aggregate) before getting past Borussia Mönchengladbach – 11-0 over two legs in the quarter-finals, and English side Wolverhampton Wanderers (3-1 on aggregate) in the last four.

Rangers enjoyed home comfort in the opening leg of the final. The boisterous atmosphere at the Ibrox makes things difficult for a visiting club to this date. No points for guessing Rangers had not any of their three matches at home in that season of European competition. Moreover, that 11-0 aggregate result over Mönchengladbach was inclusive of an 8-0 hammering of the Germans at the Ibrox Park. Spare a thought for Fiorentina’s plight then.

Not that the team from Florence needed any sympathy, far from it. They had headed to Scotland with an objective and were willing to do rather did everything required to achieve the same. Despite of an expectedly dogged performance by the home side, Luigi Milan’s brace gave Fiorentina an encouraging result in the first leg at the Ibrox. Milan was on target again in the return leg, and even though Alex Scott got one back, Hamrin added a second to ensure the home side a 2-1 win on the evening and a 4-1 result on aggregate, ensuring the Florentine fans what remains till date their lone moment of continental glory.

Fiorentina had secured a maiden continental crown on their second attempt. There was albeit a minor glitch, one that pertained to the unofficial nature of the inaugural edition of the European Cup Winners’ Cup. It was only in 1963, following an official request made by the Italian Football Federation (FIGC), that the UEFA – the sport’s governing body in Europe, officially included the backdated first edition (of 1960-61) in its records, giving the tournament all official UEFA event rights, thereby allowing Fiorentina to claim the status of the first Italian team to win a UEFA competition.

The club from Florence added further glory to their continental achievement by winning their second Coppa Italia title a fortnight later. Having taken out Roma in the last eight, in a high-scoring match (6-4) and defending champions Juventus – thereby avenging their loss in the final of the 1959/60 edition – in the semi-finals (3-1), the Viola faced Lazio in the decider. Petris – who finished as the tournament’s top scorer with five goals – and Milan were on target, on either side of the interval, as Enrique Flamini’s side were comfortably accounted for at the Stadio Comunale.

The Coppa Italia success of 1960/61, coupled with their status as the defending champions, ensured Fiorentina direct entry to the 1961/62 European Cup Winners’ Cup despite of the club finishing seventh in what was a disappointing league campaign in the previous season as also an early end to their Coppa Italia – following a humiliating 1-4 Round of 16 defeat at the hands of Mantova, an unheralded outfit from Lombardy. Ferruccio Valcareggi, who would go on to lead the Italian national team to their maiden UEFA European Championship title in 1968, had taken over from Hidegkuti as the new manager at the Tuscan side.

Besides, in the close season the club from Florence made some smart acquisitions. Can Bartu, a high-scoring midfielder, was bought from Istanbul outfit Fenerbahçe. The player became popular over the course of the 1961/62 season, and was nicknamed Signor (Sinyor in Turkish) by the Italians due to his technique and gentle manner on the field as also the chic outfits he wore off it. In what turned out to be his only season in Florence, Bartu became the first ever Turkish footballer to play in a European final.

Also, Lucio Dell’Angelo joined from Tuscan club Prato while Amilcare Ferretti came from Catania. Most importantly, Fiorentina also acquired prolific forward Aurelio Milani from Padova, the Italian going on to score 22 league goals in his maiden season while also helping the club in Europe. In fact, all of the players that joined in the summer played their parts in not only ensuring the club a third-place finish in the Serie A also in Viola’s run to a second successive European Cup Winners’ Cup final.

Coincidentally, the second edition of the tournament happened to be the first directly organized by UEFA. As such, there were more than double the number of teams (23) as compared to the first season. There was a preliminary round, which Fiorentina was again fortunate to avoid. That being said, the Viola had to play an additional round of matches on this occasion.

Milani, Hamrin and Torbjörn Jonsson, another Swedish midfielder, were on target as the home team made light work of Rapid Vienna in the first leg of the opening round tie in Florence. The trio were among the goals again, with Milani helping himself to a hat-trick, as an emphatic 6-2 win was achieved away in Vienna, thereby ensuring a 9-3 aggregate result.

Fiorentina lost the first leg of their quarter-final, 2-3 against Dynamo Žilina – in what is modern day Slovakia – but first half goals by Ferretti and Hamrin, scored in quick succession, made sure of a 4-2 verdict over two legs. Hungarian side Újpest Dózsa were comfortably accounted for (3-0 on aggregate) in the semi-final, with Hamrin scoring a brace in Florence and Bartu scoring the winner in Budapest, and a second straight final was guaranteed. Standing between the Viola and a successive European title was the 1960/61 Copa del Generalísimo (now Copa del Rey) winners Atlético de Madrid.

The title decider was meant to be the first European Cup Winners’ Cup final to be played as a one-off match. The intended purpose albeit was not served and it ended up as a two-legged tie, akin to the previous year. Joaquín Peiró put the Spanish side ahead early in the final at the Hampden Park in Glasgow. However, Hamrin helped Fiorentina draw level within minutes. It stayed that way, forcing a replay.

The replay was scheduled almost four months after the playing of the original game, in September, with the Neckarstadion in Stuttgart serving as the new venue. José Villalonga’s side dominated the Italians from the start on this occasion, goals from the Spanish midfield duo of Miguel Jones and Peiró, and Portuguese forward Mendonça ensuring them a maiden piece of continental silverware. It was a second defeat in three European finals for the club from Florence.

That being said, the disappointment of the result notwithstanding, it was nonetheless an impressive effort overall from Fiorentina. It had not only become the first Italian club to play in three continental finals but also the first to have done so on its first three attempts. This third straight final, coupled with the runner up finish in the 1956/57 European Cup as also its triumph in the inaugural European Cup Winners’ Cup ensured the Viola a lasting legacy in Italian football. That the club has failed to add much to it, either in terms of performances or results, is a shame.

While the club from Florence continued to remain consistent in terms of performances till the early 1970s, in the period that followed there has been a stray success or two before it gradually trickled down to absolutely nothing. In the recent years Fiorentina seem to have taken the Darwinian principles of struggle for existence and survival of the fittest quite seriously. Truth be told, the current squad is not exactly fit to compete in major competitions but it is still good enough to win a battle for survival, something it has been forced to do more often than not of late.

Their recent struggles notwithstanding, the Viola’s early impressions in Europe continue to remain an everlasting memory, and keep encouraging the club’s many fans as also their players and the non-playing staff alike to continue with their claims of being the first club from Italy on not one but three counts. It is time the powers that be at the club give a serious thought towards adding a fresh chapter or two to this enviable history, and further enrich it.