For the unsuspecting football supporter, the prospect of a European away trip to Italy is usually accompanied by a detailed health warning. As Mirror columnist Brian Reade noted recently: “Spend a night as a football fan in Italy and there’s a good chance you’ll end up eating hospital food. Usually after being stabbed in the buttocks by a youth wearing a crash helmet who does you from behind and then scarpers.” Given their history with Italian clubs, the threat is particularly evident for Liverpool supporters.
AS Roma’s only appearance in a European Cup final resulted in defeat at the hands of Liverpool. In Rome. On penalties. In excess of forty Liverpool fans were subjected to serious knife wounds before and after the match, and the event did little for Anglo-Italian relations. Twelve months later the pinnacle of club football was once again dominated by the men from Merseyside. Although the 1985 final saw Juventus crowned continental champions, the result was rendered insignificant by the events that unfolded in the stands of Brussels’ Heysel stadium. The dilapidated ground was more than sixty years old and proved unable to withstand the fatal stampede by Liverpool supporters towards their Juventus counterparts in the ‘neutral’ section before the game. A wall collapsed under the pressure of fleeing fans and many were crushed, resulting in thirty-nine deaths. It remains the worst hooligan-related tragedy in the history of European football.
The spectre of disorder overshadowed the reality of inadequate, dangerous terraces, ineffective policing and flawed crowd management, as throughout the continent (and particularly in Italy) the supporters of all-conquering Liverpool became synonyms for ‘murderers’. A resultant legacy of antagonism has since developed between many Italian and Scouse supporters. Two decades later in Liverpool’s first post-Heysel European Cup final appearance, the opposition were predictably once again Italian. This time it was the turn of AC Milan to face Liverpool, with the latter miraculously overturning a three-goal deficit, securing the club its fifth trophy in the process. As a consequence supporters of Italy’s most influential clubs typically share strong feelings (with varying degrees of intensity and direction) towards everything connected with Liverpool Football Club.
This argument was validated during recent trips to Roma, Juventus and Milan, experiences which led many Liverpool fans to wonder whether or not their latest European tie in Italy would represent a similar threat to collective safety. However, contrary to previous episodes on Italian soil the venture into the largely unknown territory of Florence proved anything but intimidating for the supporters. The Fiorentina fans seemed to almost hold the Merseyside club in higher regard than they do their own. So keen were they so impress a sense of friendship that they erected a fan zone outside the Stadio Artemio Franchi to mark the official twinning of two Anglo-Italian supporters organisations. A spokesman for the Collettivo Autonomo Viola fan group issued a statement for their Liverpudlian counterparts saying: ‘Florence has always had a strong admiration for Liverpool and their fans. This is our opportunity to create a beginning of a friendship that will last and grow stronger over time.’ Call me cynical, but I was more than a little suspicious as to why.
On the pitch Liverpool’s defence proved similarly accommodating, allowing the hosts to dominate first half possession. A double strike from Jovetic before the interval provided Fiorentina with a well deserved and ultimately significant two-goal advantage. More intriguing than the build up play to the goals however was the response of the home supporters to taking and then doubling their lead. The noise was loud, the flares atmospheric, but the attitude attached to the celebrations was not in the least confrontational. Throat slicing gestures and invitations to engage in sexual encounters with one’s immediate family usually accompany such a reaction from Italian fans. On close inspection the only supporter I saw illustrating a loathing of Liverpool was immediately, forcibly and publicly humiliated by a commanding ultra in the most notable case of self-policing I have ever seen at a football match. The away end just stood and stared in disbelief. No interpretation was required.
With an ostracized American ownership and a growing marginalisation of local support dampening the Anfield mood, increasingly the working class subcultural rump of Liverpool supporters nostalgically wish for the return of a participatory democracy, where fans sensed an ownership or belonging to the club. Conversely Italian ultras continue to demonstrate their influence over their own clubs and those who follow them. The most compelling evidence to substantiate this argument last night presented itself immediately after the players had vacated the Florentine turf following the conclusion of a disappointing night for Liverpool. In an act that would have earned a lifetime stadium ban in England, a huge banner was unveiled at the far end of the ground. Not content at its initial position dominating an entire row of advertisement boards, the ultras holding the banner then proceeded to ignore the ‘advice’ of the stewards and march onto the pitch.
They stopped only when they reached the Liverpool supporters, where they took an almost regal bow and received a bemused applause by an away end clearly adopting a variety of interpretations of the text. The ultras then presented the banner to a Kopite. It read: ‘WELCOME REDS - YOUR STORY IS FOR US A LEGEND’. It may well have said: ‘thank you for killing 39 Juventus fans. The enemy of our enemy is our friend.’ Conversations with a number of Fiorentina fans before the game, including one I exchanged scarves with, concluded with their personal expression of gratitude for Liverpool’s behaviour at Heysel. My memory of a disaster that unfolded when I was barely four-years old is far from clear, yet I know enough to realise it is a source of nothing but regret and shame for any Liverpool fan worth his salt.
The ritual exchange of pleasantries that follows most European ties Liverpool are involved with, singing one another’s team names in a regular show of sportsmanship rarely exposed by journalists, is something I am usually the first to join in with. But with La Viola I was far less enthusiastic, given their rigid and bitter representation of Scouse footballing culture. Using the Scouse trademarks of songs and banners to do it only served to heighten my sense of disapproval. Liverpool’s collection of both are among the most famous in world football, and yet during a strange night in Florence, among the catalogue of carefully considered and crafted Liverpool banners on show, the winner has to be: ‘YER MA’. Only a Scouser could represent the collective attitude towards Fiorentina and get a laugh at the same time, using only five letters. Sound.