Fiorentina-Bologna: Derby dell'Appennino
Ragú v Ribollita. Marconi v Michelangelo. Baggio v, eh, Baggio. It’s Bologna v Fiorentina in the Derby dell’Appennino this Sunday, and everyone is excited; or at least they should be.
There are few derbies between cities with as much history and beauty as the Derby dell’Appennino, named after the Apennine mountains, which separates its two teams. Bologna in Emilia-Romagna to the north, and Fiorentina of Florence in Tuscany to the south. Two cities that have provided the world with more than you could ever expect from a ‘provincial’ city, and both home to successful football clubs.
It feels as though the mountains are merely a moniker, much like the Pennines are for Leeds United and Manchester United. While the derby dates back to 1928, both sides’ sporting success in the 1960s culminated in a competitive rivalry and, like many derbies, a regrettable incident in June 1989 gave it a more volatile edge.
A train rolled into Firenze Rifredi station when a petrol bomb was thrown into a carriage full of Bologna fans, causing injury to several people, including 14-year-old Ivan Dell’Olio who was left with permanent facial disfigurement. An utterly ridiculous thing to happen over football made even worse by the fact the person who threw the petrol bomb was only seventeen.
Thankfully, this is a derby that has almost always taken inspiration from what happens on the pitch. Double scudetto winning coach Hermann Felsner’s decision to leave Bologna for Fiorentina in 1930 could be seen as the birth of the rivalry, but it was the 1960s that made the Appennino the game it is today.
Cup wins, relegations, stolen titles; Bologna even ended up in Serie C1 at one point.
In the post-war economic boom, Fiorentina and Bologna emerged as worthy adversaries of Grande Inter and Nereo Rocco’s Milan, as well as Juventus. Fiorentina won their first scudetto in 1956, thus challenging Bologna’s status as the premier team in the region; although the Rossoblù already had six titles before their rivals broke their duck.
The battle for Apennine supremacy played out in the sixties, with Bologna winning their seventh (and most recent) title in 1964 under Fulvio Bernardini, who was Fiorentina coach in 1956. Revenge for Felsner in a way. The Viola won in 1969, losing only once all season to…Bologna. Both sides were powered by Scandinavian goalscorers, Harald Nielsen at Bologna and Kurt Hamrin at Fiorentina, though the latter had left Florence for Milan by 1969. It was the Derby dell’Appennino’s golden age, punctuated by the next two decades during which both sides’ fortunes fluctuated wildly. Cup wins, relegations, stolen titles; Bologna even ended up in Serie C1 at one point.
Bologna are only entering their hipster favourite era now.
While the scudetto is almost certainly out of the question, the derby today is at its healthiest since the late nineties. The nadir came when Fiorentina, who had recently recovered from a life-threatening bankruptcy, won on the final day of the 2005 season and escaped relegation, with Bologna sliding into a relegation play-off in their place. It would take three years for Bologna to recover from losing the playoff with Parma, while Fiorentina regularly qualified for Europe during that period.
Both sides entered this current decade as underachievers, and while Fiorentina have enjoyed a resurgence of late, Bologna are only entering their hipster favourite era now. A cool young manager (Thiago Motta), a few exciting prospects (Ferguson, Calafiori, Zirkzee) and a sporting director with the magic touch. They are almost Italy’s answer to Brighton, but with more porticoes than beaches.
The derby’s revival is real, with Fiorentina pipping Bologna to the final European spot in 2022-23. That Motta’s team look like genuine challengers for the top six this year is a testament to the rebirth of Bologna under their new coach and the transfer wizardry of sporting director Giovanni Sartori, but also an indication of how competitive Serie A is today. While it may lack the star power of the nineties, we have had different champions across the past four seasons and seven sides chasing the top four, as well as the Appennino clubs in the mix for the top six. Basically, it’s the most fun league in the world and to hell with those who disagree.
Much like Ancelotti regrets not signing Baggio in ‘97, Bologna surely regret not expelling Ulivieri from the city limits in order to keep the star man happy.
Perhaps we need another Roberto Baggio-esque player to add a new layer of complexity to the derby. When Baggio moved to Bologna in 1997, having been cast aside at Milan and rejected by then Parma coach Carlo Ancelotti, he became one of those rare players to capture the hearts of both sides; a man that you could not hate if you tried. Unless you were playing against him.
Baggio, an adopted son of Florence, joined a Bologna side that had been playing in Serie B 18 months earlier and his one season at the club ended with him winning Serie A Player of the Year as the club qualified for the Intertoto Cup. Still, fallouts with coach Renzo Ulivieri ensured Baggio’s stay only last a year. He considered his manager to be jealous because the media gave him, and not coach Ulivieri, the plaudits for Bologna’s success. Imagine the credit going to one of the best players to ever do it and who had scored twenty-two times in Serie A that season, rather than Renzo Ulivieri! Much like Ancelotti regrets not signing Baggio in ‘97, Bologna surely regret not expelling Ulivieri from the city limits in order to keep the star man happy.
The upcoming derby should be fiercely competitive; a match between two sides with lofty ambitions and impressive young coaches that play attractive football. Bologna have not lost since they hosted Milan on the opening day, going ten games without a defeat, while Fiorentina have played like a top four side until it comes to putting the ball in the net; plagued by profligate strikers since Vlahovic left for Juventus.
It may well be that a single spot separates the two sides again this year. An increasingly volatile Serie A season in which nothing seems certain beyond Inter’s status as favourites means that all it takes is a semblance of consistency to shoot up the table. There are ‘better’ teams with greater players, but both Appennino clubs can ruffle feathers among the top six if they can make it click. They have the players; they have the managers, and both clubs are trending upwards; so why not make the most of it?