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Rewind to Boxing Day 1963

Barclays Premier League
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Indifference ball game

Relegation battles aren't what they used to be. They're better, perhaps, but obviously different. And some derbies, too, aren't the real thing anymore.

You'd think with Fiorentina sitting in the last relegation place, within one point of Parma and Chievo and five points above bottom club Atalanta, and Bologna needing to make hay after a streak of five winless games had left them only six points above the relegation zone, the Stadio Dall'Ara would welcome a decent crowd for one of Serie A's most tradition-laden clashes.

For lack of a better definition, it's been known for decades as the 'derby dell'Appennino', the derby of the Apennines, the stretch of mountains which in some ways divides North and Central Italy running east-west from the French border to the Adriatic Sea before - er - turning South and constituting some kind of backbone to the peninsula right down to Calabria.

This of course makes Bologna-Fiorentina a spurious kind of derby, as they're basically in two different parts of the country, but some sort of familiarity has grown out of seeing the two teams play each other so many times in all those who have travelled up and down the perilous stretch of the A1 highway that connects the two cities passing through the aforementioned Apennines. As the old saying goes, that familiarity bred contempt, which grew throughout the years until it reached its zenith - rather, its nadir - one fateful day in 1989.

There had been some instances of crowd trouble and other less serious incidents in the history of the fixture, including the 1978 edition in Bologna which was played a few hours after a heavy snowstorm which made the terraces virtually impassable. The few thousand brave souls who dared face the elements and the added danger of snowballs being thrown around were treated to a mildly entertaining game, which the visitors won 1-0 with a goal by Andrea Orlandini.

Then, on June 18 1989, a petrol bomb was thrown through a window of a train - a 'soccer special' - carrying Bologna fans to the match in Florence (Firenze). A 14-yr old fan, Ivan Dall'Olio, was severely burned and had to go through years of plastic surgery and rehabilitation: he was later given a hefty check by the mayor of Florence but the memory of that horrible experience will probably never leave him.

The reasons for this rivalry are not clear, unless you go back to the fact Bologna and Fiorentina were frequent rivals for the Scudetto, or at least the top five places, in the late Fifties and Sixties, with Bologna winning the title in 1964 - their last Serie A championship, ever, judging by how the big clubs have hijacked the game and neutered all competitors here - and Fiorentina in 1956 then 1969. There was truly a time when Bologna-Fiorentina, or the corresponding fixture in Firenze, was a match whose result all neutral fans would be looking out for.

Now, going back to the beginning of this column, where has the derby dell'Appennino gone? The league table suggested it may turn out to be a key game for both clubs, but for some reasons the fans did not buy into that concept - nor many tickets - as the less than half-empty 39,000 capacity Stadio Dall'Ara gave a depressing sight at the dear old 3pm kick-off time last Sunday. Which it itself is a good thing borne out of another sign that Bologna-Fiorentina's pulling power has all but vanished: any Serie A tie worth its salt is now either played on a Saturday or Sunday evening; which in turn makes the real fans of the competing teams angry at the disruption of the traditional times.

Dario Dainelli, sent off at the weekend, gets to grips with Claudio Belluci in December's derby.
Dario Dainelli, sent off at the weekend, gets to grips with Claudio Belluci in December's derby.

Less than one thousand Viola fans made the trip up north, and they did not even fill the section reserved for away supporters, while large swaths of the East stand, beneath the so called Tower of Marathon, were empty. That's usually a good indicator of what the Bologna public thinks of each match, as tickets are relatively cheap and the discomfort of sitting in an uncovered part of the ground - only the main stand has a roof here - is partly made up for by a great view of the pitch; if it weren't for the useless athletics track.

Fiorentina arrived on the back of a five-match winless streak: they'd lost the regional derby at Livorno on the Sunday and conceded an injury-time equaliser at home to Messina three days later, as the fans had started to turn on coach Dino Zoff. Bologna had lost their previous two home matches, to Inter and Lazio, and had managed a draw at Lecce in midweek, which had alarmed the local fans as the relegation zone grew nearer and any prospects of a late season surge towards a Uefa Cup place was again missed. Not that the owner, Giuseppe Gazzoni Frascara, one of the strongest campaigners for responsible spending among soccer clubs, will regret missing out on the additional expense an European campaign entails.

No flares or firecrackers in the home or away ends and a subdued atmosphere throughout were the result as much of the sudden apathy felt towards this fixture as of the new, stricter - until proven otherwise, this being Italy, after all - regulations regarding crowd control. But since those usually constitute some of the meatiest elements of the so-called choreography in Italian football grounds - again, a quick portrait of Italy: a lot of flash and little substance - that the afternoon passed with little to cheer about was not surprising; although I'd take this all life instead of those show-offish, stinking flares and the heart-stopping blasts of what sound more like artillery shells than home-made firecrackers.

That the subject of the relationship between clubs and fans is still a sore point had been proven a few days before the match by Fiorentina themselves, by the way: right after the home match against Messina a couple of fans belonging to the Collettivo, the more prominent Ultra group, confronted Zoff and the players inside the dressing rooms. Another example of the fans' pretence of interfering with club affairs? No, it was even worse: the two supporters had not sneaked in, but had been given permission by the club itself to meet the team, which is why one feels the lessons of the recent Milan derby troubles will never be fully absorbed.

As the local press duly reported - fans know the journalists after all and you don't want to get on the wrong side of the Ultra groups, at least not if you care about the windows of your car - the Collettivo leaders told the assembled players that it was time to get down to real work and those who didn't feel like being part of the struggle had better pack their bags and leave. Which sounds good enough but horribly rhetorical, as you wouldn't expect any self-respecting soccer player in the world to heed this kind advice and ask for his one-way ticket the next morning, declaring to all and sundry that he's a quitter.

Whether more fight was in Fiorentina against Bologna is arguable. It ended 0-0, the first time in 17 matches the Viola had not conceded a goal, and it looked suspiciously like one of those end-of-season matches on which betting companies refuse to take bets, as will happen with all fixtures in Italian soccer in May, when the number of - er - 'unusual' results is enough to make every decent man cringe. Not that some of the directors helped: when you hear Fiorentina owner Diego Della Valle say, tongue-in-cheek, 'I hope Bologna will give us all three points, we'll give them back to them next year' you know he was joking, but then he'd never say that seriously, would he?

Dino Zoff: Target of the Viola boo-boys.
Dino Zoff: Target of the Viola boo-boys.

The only friction during the match was shown by Fiorentina defender Dario Dainelli, who punched Bologna central defender Stefano Torrisi while waiting for a corner kick and has been subsequently banned for two matches. Fabrizio Miccoli, the Viola's diminutive forward whose status among the fans had grown immeasurably after he'd joined millions of Italians in expressing delight at Juventus' - the club who loaned him to Fiorentina - failure to progress in the Champions League was perhaps the only one who tried to break the deadlock and Bologna's watchful defence.

But when Zoff took him out in the 61st minute, inserting Bulgarian prodigy Valeri Bojinov who'd been out with an injury, you knew this had 0-0 written all over it, if you hadn't before by seeing how Bologna had put nine men behind the ball and kept Albanian striker Igli Tare alone up front, while the visitors were playing a 4-4-2, which looked more adventurous until you actually saw it.

You could tell both teams could have done more and some of the players looked like they had their brakes on. But you wonder how the tall, stylish - too many ponytails for my liking in both sides - Viola will cope with a fixture list that begins with Milan at home next weekend.


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