Angelo di Livio
How the midfielder's loyalty inspired Fiorentina's return from bankruptcy
In the summer of 2002, Angelo Di Livio was competing at the World Cup in the shiny new stadiums of Japan and Korea. A couple of months later, he was playing in the Italian fourth division at grounds that held barely 4,000 people. This was not a dramatic fall from grace, however — this was his choice.
Just a year after winning the Coppa Italia, Fiorentina were declared bankrupt. Their miserable final season, 2001-02, ended in relegation from Serie A, which had seemed likely from the moment in September that Enrico Chiesa suffered a season-ending knee injury. With financial problems obvious, Di Livio, the captain, spent most of the season acting as an intermediary between the club's directors and the fans.
"I would still like to be assured that every possible route out of this was explored," a distraught Di Livio said when the news of Fiorentina's demise was announced. "I don't know what I will do next. To be honest, I am beginning to think I should retire. But we have all been freed, and everyone will have offers to consider." There had been quality in the squad, as shown by the destinations of Chiesa (Lazio), Nuno Gomes (Benfica), Ezequiel González (Boca Juniors), Emiliano Moretti (Juventus) and Daniele Adani and Domenico Morfeo (Internazionale).
Di Livio was another approached by Inter. He also had firm offers from other Serie A clubs, including Torino, as well as an attractive proposition from his old friend Franco Baresi, then in a brief spell as Fulham's director of football.
But Di Livio made an amazing decision — to stay with Fiorentina, the club he had joined three years earlier after his previous club Juventus had reneged on a verbal agreement to extend his contract. Except he wasn't staying with them, as such, as the club no longer existed. And he wasn't with Fiorentina, because the new club was not legally entitled to use that name. Therefore, despite offers from top-level clubs in Italy and England, Di Livio became the first captain of the newly formed Florentia Viola, starting life in Serie C2/B. "I didn't want to be remembered as the captain of a team that was relegated, and a club that went bankrupt," he said.
At the time of his signing, Florentia Viola didn't have 11 players, a board of directors or even a kit. They had a coach — Pietro Vierchowod, whom Di Livio knew from Juventus. "This city has shown me so much affection, and I have decided to repay this by remaining in Florence," he declared. "I didn't want to turn my back on this city."
He accepted a startling drop in wages — 85%. "It has not been a difficult decision. In life, there are values that are more important than money," he continued. "I really hope that now my wife is happy. She said, ‘Stay here. You owe it to the city, to the fans. You must fight with them.' I got some calls even from some of the fans… I did it because of the love the city has shown towards me." He continued to live in the centre of Florence, about 25 minutes' walk from the Artemio Franchi stadium. An expensive Porsche parked in an underground car park was the only thing that made him stand out.
Without his commitment, it is impossible to know whether Florentia Viola would have taken off. The club had the support of the city, but they had to assemble a side from scratch in the twenty days between their formation and their first match — a Coppa Italia tie against their Tuscan rivals Pisa.
Most of the squad arrived on free transfers. Some of these, even the ones in their mid-20s, were considering retirement from the game because they couldn't find a club. The approach from Florentia Viola was a lifeline, with the bonus that instead of playing in front of a couple of hundred fans for another Serie C2 club, they had the support of around 30,000 for home games. Records were broken for attendances at that level — on many weekends, only three Serie A fixtures bettered their gate.
Di Livio was a grafter: his nickname was il soldatino, originating from a Roberto Baggio post-match remark that "he ran like a little tin solider." He'd always been a modest player, aware of his limitations. Recalling joining his hometown club Roma as a teenager, he said, "I could run a bit, so they gave me a trial." This talent for running meant he was deployed as a wide player at the top level, but in the early days of Florentia Viola he was at the heart of the side, conducting the game. "I'm the older brother of these kids," he said after the Pisa game, which ended in a spirited defeat.
He was an obvious reference point for the fans at a time of mass confusion and he helped the other players develop. After a couple of months there were other fan favourites — Raffaele Longo, the Neapolitan box-to-box player; Christian Rigano, a predatory number nine with brilliant heading ability; and Andrea Ivan, a Florentine goalkeeper capable of fantastic saves, who would have played in Serie A were he taller than 5'11". Claudio Bonomi, the left-sided midfielder who featured in Joe McGinniss's The Miracle of Castel di Sangro, was another brief star. Rigano's first partner was a young Fabio Quagliarella, who went on a goalless run and admitted he couldn't sleep before matches as he was so desperate to repay the faith of the fans with goals.
With a side cobbled together at short notice, Florentia Viola took a while to get into their stride. Vierchowod was dismissed at the start of November and replaced by the more experienced Alberto Cavasin. Momentum gathered throughout the campaign and a brilliant counter-attacking 2-0 win away at Rimini, the favourites for the title, took them top in February, where they remained.
Di Livio, however, was not there. A cruciate ligament injury suffered the previous month at Gualdo ended his season and he admitted that it could be the end of his career. "It won't be easy starting again, and the recovery won't be easy either," he sighed. "I've really not got a positive morale." Retirement beckoned.
Yet by the following September, Di Livio was back on the field. That summer, the club had bought the right to be known as ‘Fiorentina' at an auction. They had also won the right to play in their famous viola shirts, perhaps the most distinctive colours of any European club — ludicrously, Florentia Viola had been legally unable to play in purple during their first season, as it was regarded as a trademark of the old club.
A controversial decision linked to a slight reorganisation of the Italian league system saw Fiorentina bumped up from Serie C1, their expected division for 2003-04, to Serie B. Consequently, it was a ridiculously fragmented season in terms of playing staff — it's not easy to build a squad for the second division when you've come from the fourth division, had been preparing for the third division, and are building long-term for the first division. An astounding 37 players featured, but Di Livio remained a regular, playing in 43 of the 48 games, including the play-off against Perugia that sealed another promotion and a return to Serie A. Having dropped three divisions to stay in Florence, and having had his career written off while in Italy's lowest professional division, Di Livio was now a Serie A captain once again.
A difficult situation arose when Di Livio asked for a pay rise after Serie A status was achieved. A sell-out? Hardly — the amount he was asking for was still only one-quarter of what he was earning before the bankruptcy. After initial hesitation, the board took the wise decision of giving him another contract.
At the age of 38, his contribution was mainly off the pitch. Fiorentina had three managers that season — Emiliano Mondonico, Sergio Buso and Dino Zoff — all of whom struggled. Di Livio was the key man at the club, though he only started six games.
Typically, he still proved crucial on the field. At the end of a difficult first campaign back in Serie A, Fiorentina went into the final day needing a win over Brescia to stay up. Di Livio was drafted in to provide a calming influence and guided the side to only their ninth win of the season, being involved in two of the goals in a 3-0 win. Fiorentina survived, and Di Livio was substituted to an emotional standing ovation in the 88th minute. He took off his purple shirt, kissed it and held it up to the Curva Fiesole as he walked off. It was his last game as a footballer.
When Di Livio had left Juventus, he was "bitter and disappointed". "In football," he said, "there really is no such thing as gratitude." He went on to prove himself wrong. Florentines will always be grateful for his loyalty.