Fiorentina: Stendhal Syndrome

14 min read
Cover Image for Fiorentina: Stendhal Syndrome
Chris McMenamy
Chris McMenamy

Few places take hold of you like Florence, and that’s before you get as far as football. The city centre is a UNESCO heritage site, which says it all. It’s home to football hipster favourites, Fiorentina, a club that has something for everyone. Like cool jerseys? They wear purple. Love the 90s? Batigol on Channel 4. Like weird stadiums? There are mazes easier to navigate than Stadio Artemio Franchi. Or, like me, do you tend to back a team fuelled by nostalgia, living in constant hope of a return to glory? If so, then Fiorentina are the team for you. This is the story of my first time experiencing this weird and wonderful club live.

This trip begins on a Saturday morning, hurtling at 300km/h through the Italian countryside from Venice to Florence. It’s the second leg of a holiday I’ve been looking forward to for almost a year. I’m too ginger to go away in the summer, so it makes sense to get away in October. It’s nothing to do with football, of course. I certainly haven’t carefully timed the trip to coincide with scheduled fixtures.

As the train rolls into Firenze Santa Maria Novella, I can’t help but smile. A year earlier, I visited Florence for the first time and immediately fell in love with it and its incomparably rich history. Walking out of the station, you’re greeted by the majesty of the Basilica from which the station borrowed its name. It’s a Renaissance-era church of incredible beauty that becomes an entrée into an artistic, cultural, historical and culinary experience that must be seen to be believed.

After all, what other city has its own syndrome? Well, one that doesn’t involve kidnapping. Stendhal syndrome, or Florence syndrome, came into being when the 19th century French writer Stendhal wrote of his time here. While visiting the Basilica at Santa Croce, the burial place of greats like Michelangelo, Galileo and Macchiavelli, Stendhal was overcome with emotion, writing “Absorbed in the contemplation of sublime beauty…I reached the point where one encounters celestial sensations”.

The syndrome is informally diagnosed to individuals who are overcome when exposed to great beauty or antiquity. It can even cause heart palpitations. Sounds ridiculous if you haven’t been to Florence, but it starts to make sense when you amble through its historic streets and piazzas.

It’s late October and Fiorentina host Inter at Artemio Franchi. Thankfully, tickets are secured easily enough for myself and my other half, and the excitement starts to build. Saturday night under the lights provides perfect conditions for a typically vibrant performance from the Curva Fiesole, a purple beating heart that plays the role of composer in creating that famous atmosphere.

We arrive in the city on matchday, where it feels just like any other day in Florence, with tourists gazing upwards at the magnificence of the Duomo, viewing Botticelli at the Uffizi Gallery or dandering across the timeless Ponte Vecchio. But, as the day cracks on, football jerseys sightings begin to multiply. Fiorentina here, Inter there. After devouring a salsiccia and friarelli Neapolitan pizza in O’ Vicariell, surrounded by Napoli jerseys, this day of calcio is truly underway.

Visiting the fanshop, Viola Store, on via del Corso has been a recurring theme of my two trips to the city and the owner, Claudio, is straight over to show us what’s on sale. He asks if we’re going to the match, he’s happy it’s a late kick off because it means he can shut up shop and get over to Campo di Marte, the station beside the stadium, in time for kick off.I buy a sweatshirt and he throws in a few Luca Toni stickers on the house, the personal touch that differentiates a fanshop from a superstore. While stopping for a quick drink before our train to the match, we encounter one of Salernitana’s youth teams. Surrounded by a horde of teenagers draped in granata and perplexed by an Irish accent butchering the Italian language, we finish up and begin the long walk to platform 18, which seems to have been purposely built for football fans, as it’s a ten minute walk from the rest of the station. Out of sight, out of mind.

After a short journey in a sweaty carriage full of teenagers with fantasies of being ultras, we arrive in Campo di Marte in full tourist mode, heads darting from side to side so we may fully breathe in our surroundings, only to hear a heavy thud against metal behind us. A reasonably well-oiled fan has walked straight into a pole and is stumbling around like a tranquillise animal as we cross the bridge down to via Manfredo Fanti, at which point a number of fans send playful insults in the direction of the police standing on the street corner. At least they seemed playful to my untrained ear. The drunk and dazed fan passes the uniforms and he’s off into the Tuscan night along with the rest of us.

Now, we’re on the long streets leading to the stadium and the smell of lampredotto fills the air. What’s that? It’s the final stomach of a cow, cooked in vegetable broth and herbs, a tripe dish best served in a bread roll with a spicy sauce. Sounds mad. It is mad. Tastes great. Well, if that’s your thing. It’s a Florentine dish, so I had to have some in order to consider this a fully immersive Fiorentina experience. It resembled a pulled pork bap and sets you up nicely for a long evening of football. With a stomach full of stomach, it was time to make our way into the stadium.

Following a purple horde, we make it to our gate at the far end of the Tribuna Coperta, just beside the main curva and quickly make our way into the ground. The stadium finds itself in that strange middle ground where it holds a historic beauty and plenty of character, but it’s an and is, shall we say, different.

The concourse in the Tribuna Coperta is an architectural marvel. The upper tier is almost at head height when you’re standing underneath it. Taking in the view of this great arena from the perspex lined promenade where (I think) they seat the tifosi with alternative needs, I quickly realise this place has me in its grip.

After all, not only am I one of those annoying football tourists, I’m a hopeless romantic. I’ve been to the Emirates, I know what a concrete jungle looks like. Sure, Fiorentina have this wonderfully imperfect stadium, but I’m sure there’s a way of modernising through small cosmetic changes rather than total upheaval. There must be a movement for the preservation of antique stadiums I could join.

Along the concourse there’s a bar showing the tail end of the Milan-Monza game, so I stop for an espresso and watch a few minutes of inaction, having missed all five goals. After the bar, a little more curious discovery leads us to stumble upon the hospitality suite, where a woman plays the harp while people mill around, presumably chatting about whatever rich people discuss at a football match. At the Curva Ferrovia end of the Tribuna, we watch the Inter fans across from us and try to work out what the thinking behind the open areas in each corner of the ground are. It’s along the lines of a pub smoking area meets driveway, but plenty of Fiorentina fans seem to be milling around each of them. This really is a strange stadium and I love it for its quirks; although I can see why some regular fans might find those quirks increasingly irritating as the years pass.

We get to our seats, these small chunks of plastic that appeared to have been plopped into the concrete as it was still drying. It’s comfortable enough for 90 minutes of football, but luxury is irrelevant in this situation anyway. We’re here for the football, for the intensity of the curva and also the impromptu kids’ match that’s broken out in one of those strange little concreted areas. There’s a kid running rings around the rest, who are all kicking the space that mini-Messi had just danced through. It’s arguably more entertaining than watching the players warm up as we’re a good 25 yards back from the Fiorentina goal, despite being a mere couple of yards from the sideline, such is the peculiar design of this stadium.

The first signs of life in the crowd appear when the Inter players head down the tunnel near the Curva Fiesole, met with vociferous whistling and chanting. As kick off approaches, it seems that the sight of Nicolo Barella and co has ignited the fire in the curva, as the banners start to unfurl. An impressive tifo referencing the Siege of Florence is displayed before kick off and the atmosphere really starts to ramp up.

Giving Inter a two goal head start only makes the curva sing louder, the drum beat harder and the pyro burn brighter. Maybe it’s the rational thinking in seeing Fiorentina start well only to be two goals down, or maybe it’s just the unconditional love for the purple jersey, but the curva drives life into their team.

Inter’s Dimarco almost takes Bonaventura’s leg off at the knee and gives away a penalty but isn’t sent off, much to the disgust of the crowd. Arthur Cabral scores from the spot and the smoke grenades start to go off. With the combination of espresso and being used to a football experience where carrying so much as a water bottle to your seat is a no-no, the smoke grenades have increased my heart rate to the point where it might be higher than some of the players. We get to half-time at 2-1 and, despite the early signs, have a game on our hands.

The second half starts by mimicking the first, minus the two Inter goals. Fiorentina in the ascendancy but only creating one real chance when Cabral fails to slide in from Christian Kouamé’s cross. It’s 2022-23 Fiorentina, plenty of possession and promise, but a lack of substance. On the hour, just when it seemed that Inter might have weathered the purple storm, a moment of genius levels the game. Jonathan Ikoné runs on to Kouamé’s diagonal pass and his dancing feet bamboozles the Inter defenders before he curls one in from an unlikely angle.

We’re right in line with Ikoné’s effort, unable to comprehend how he’s managed to lift it over Onana and into the top corner, but it doesn’t matter. The stadium erupts, the smoke grenades are going off, the flares are lit. It smells like Halloween, all gunpowder and smoke as the full ground explodes into life. The Inter fan beside me is getting both barrels from his Fiorentina-supporting partner as she celebrates wildly and he knows better than to react and blow his cover. Half an hour to go and this contest that seemed dead after just 15 minutes is well and truly in the balance.

That Ikoné goal angers Inter and Barella almost scores moments after the restart. Ten minutes later, Martinez is through on goal and tries to round Terraciano, who brings him down and the referee awards a penalty, having consulted with VAR. It’s soft and the ‘keeper looks to have nicked the ball before taking the man, but this is Serie A. Don’t come around here expecting things to make sense. Martinez smashes the penalty in and runs to the Inter fans in celebration.

It’s hard to see Fiorentina dragging themselves back level again and heads are down as they walk back to the centre circle. The curva are either unaware or unbothered, continuing to inject life into this concrete bowl with their choreography and well-composed singing. The kid’s match in front of us rages on, with some new faces having joined, perhaps having lost interest at seeing another decision going the way of the big boys.

The final act of this game is a frenzy of new faces, half-chances and exasperation, right until Fiorentina win a corner in the last minute of normal time. The towering Nikola Milenkovic heads down to Luka Jovic, who has done very little since coming on early in the second half. Jovic’s pivoting volley is too powerful for Henrikh Mkhitaryan to clear off the line and it’s 3-3. Bedlam ensues. The usual pyro, screaming and flag waving, but there’s fans on their way home pouring back into the curva. People are falling over each other in the seats behind us. The Inter fan beside me is apoplectic, but manages to kick the chair in front of him subtly enough not to attract attention. They’ve come back again. Surely, surely that’s it.

But it’s not. It starts with a long ball upfield in the 95th minute towards Edin Dzeko, who pulls Milenkovic’s shirt before pushing the defender in the back, causing him to miss the header on halfway. Inter break through and Barella’s cross is cleared by Lorenzo Venuti, or so he thinks. Actually, it cannons off Mkhitaryan and in. 4-3 to Inter with almost certainly the last kick of the game. A short VAR check bizarrely concurs with the referee’s decision to give the goal and you can feel the effect that gut punch has had in the crowd.

The game ends, players crowd the referee while some Inter fans celebrate a little too much in the home end and fights break out. As we’re leaving the ground, stunned by what we've seen, an away fan in the Tribuna Coperta is instructed to put his jacket back on so as to cover up his Inter shirt. Basic common sense, one might think, but not for this guy. Another Interista is trading insults with a Fiorentina fan as emotions run high, but we pile on to the street and the aggro turns to debate around what happened on the pitch.

Men and women pile onto scooters while we embark on an evening stroll back to our accommodation in San Marco. It’s almost certainly the nicest journey home from a football match we’ll ever have, with the ripple of what seems like thousands of Vespa engines the only thing that breaks up conversations on the goals, Dimarco, the ref, red cards and whether or not Venuti should ever wear the purple shirt again. The latter seems a bit harsh, everyone makes mistakes.

As the Vespas scoot past and the great arch of the Piazza della Libertà comes into view, we’re almost home. It’s near midnight on an unseasonably warm October night and I know I’m not getting to sleep for a while, given the adrenaline still pumping through me. The match had it all. Seven goals, refereeing controversy, a last minute winner and plenty of angst. Value for money indeed.

I’ve got another four days in Florence, which is slowly becoming my favourite place on earth. It’s got excellent, cheap food and there’s so much culture and history that it’s (metaphorically) overflowing into the Arno. Fiorentina is an added bonus, even if they flatter to deceive at almost every given opportunity. They didn’t deserve to lose to Inter, and they’ve started to trend upwards in the weeks since, but they’ve got ways to go before they can mix it with the big boys on a regular basis.

Still, it’s a special club in a special city. After all, greats like Batistuta, Dunga, Hamrin, Rui Costa and Passarella all walked those cobbled streets, just like Michelangelo, Da Vinci and Botticelli did. Maybe, someday, La Viola will see such greatness again. Batistuta, that is, not Michelangelo. Batistuta probably couldn’t have painted the Sistine Chapel, but I doubt Michelangelo has 200 goals in him.

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