Always attacking football; always some of the best players; always a few steps short – this is what unites two top table outsiders
Regular readers of this blog will know of my affinity for Spurs. So deep is it, in fact, that I actually enjoy periods like the current one, where hope and expectation collide with the reality that is, and has for my entire life been, Tottenham.
The side that I first came to support was that of Gary Lineker and Paul Gascoigne; fresh from my footballing consciousness having been waken by Italia ’90, and having just moved to the UK that summer, it was natural that as I cast around London clubs, Spurs were one of the obvious choices. Then came the highs – the FA Cup in 1991 , the arrival of Jurgen Klinsmann, the dazzling play of David Ginola – and the lows. The FA Cup in 1992; the 1995 FA Cup semi-final against Everton and Klinsmann’s departure; eventually the slow, excruciating 2000s. Cutting one’s football teeth on the Spurs of the 1990s was … interesting.
But another thing happened in that decade: my first ever live football match which was an astonishing 7-1 victory that Fiorentina chalked up against lowly Ancona during the 1992-93 season of Serie A, and it is a match worth revisiting for a number of reasons:
Because in a season when Tottenham, with Lineker and Gascoigne gone, were the team of Dean Austin and Vinny Samways, Fiorentina were a world apart. I knew none of these names at that age, but I was watching Gabriel Batistuta, Stefan Effenberg and Brian Laudrup. The season was worth noting too, for Fiorentina were second in Serie A at Christmas that year, only to suffer the ignominy of relegation five months later. Batistuta, some may know, heroically stayed on in Serie B.
And for all the discussion that circulates occasionally about which team is the Spurs of Serie A – and in recent years, that has been Inter and more recently Napoli – I believe Fiorentina offer the best parallel. Not just because I happen to support both, of course, but because of the very real historical similarities which lead, in many ways, to fans with the same mindset. Below are a few reasons why.
The first is the alarmingly similar timelines between the two clubs. To put it bluntly, despite always being amongst it, both saw their glory days in the 1950s and 1960s. Fiorentina won their two Scudetti in 1956 and 1969; in between they reached a European Cup final in 1957, losing to the great Real Madrid side, before winning the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1961. Spurs, meanwhile, managed the first ever Double in 1961, and two years later also won the Cup Winners’ Cup. Both teams also made something of a habit of winning their domestic cups, two for Fiorentina and three (including that Double) for Spurs.
Both clubs then had unremarkable 1970s, before making staggered comebacks in the 1980s for Spurs and 1990s for Fiorentina. But it cannot mask the most basic point that both clubs saw their glory days, in absolute terms, many eons ago. To an extent therefore, both clubs’ fan bases live disproportionately off the hero figures of a very different era, the Blanchflowers and Hamrins, the Greavesies and Antognonis – the curse of being a club with long traditions.
Secondly, despite meaningful success being rather long ago, both clubs frequently occupy a status that is considered at or around the top group within their league. Serie A aficionados will remember the era, in the 1990s, of the so-called ‘Seven Sisters‘, when Fiorentina ranked alongside Juventus, the Milan and Rome teams and agricultural powerhouse Parma in being considered perennial challengers for lo Scudetto.
Tottenham have for some years now been considered part of a Premier League Big Six of course; but the inception of the competition in 1992 is perhaps more telling. Spurs were part of a ‘Big Five’ then, large enough in terms of support and brand to be founders of the Premier League itself, alongside Liverpool, Manchester United, Arsenal and Everton. This confluence of long-running status with mixed recent success is a particularly curious one, and both clubs are to an extent, disliked for it.
Thirdly, a feature of both clubs’ mixed success is the perennially favourite issue of what others often referred to as “Spursiness”, the inability to get across the line despite fairly regular progress in competitions. This needs definition, of course, but it basically means failing at the final hurdle or losing matches we really should not, and often based on random things outside of our control. Lasagna-gate and Sissoko’s hand-ball after 22 seconds of the 2019 Champions League Final are marks of this for Spurs, or in my mind, losing the FA Cup semi-final against Manchester United in 2018.
Fiorentina have also lost a European Cup Final, but greater similarities lie in the failure of the side in the 1990s to capitalise on a once-in-a-generation squad to do better. Taking the Champions League by storm once or twice is all very well, but the side of Batistuta and Rui Costa always found themselves against Juventus and Milan who had a touch more, reminiscent of Tottenham’s 2015-2017 period where Kane and Dele consistently came second to Leicester and Chelsea.
Batistuta had to leave Fiorentina to fulfil his ambition of finally winning Serie A, with Roma in 2001. Hopefully not a portend of things to come with Kane.
This leads us nicely to the last point: players and style. Because more than anything, what unites Fiorentina and Tottenham is that regardless of how well we are performing, we often have some of the absolute star talents of the age, punching well above our station. Fiorentina are, above all, famous for a line of fantasisti including Giancarlo Antognoni, Roberto Baggio and Manuel Rui Costa. It is difficult to identify three greater creative talents, certainly in the history of Serie A. Even when Fiorentina were not winning trophies, they were still had game-changers.
Tottenham share this heritage too, since like Fiorentina, the club is known for a style of attacking football and the fans demand authentic entertainment even at the expense of winning (the Spurs side of this is well known, but it takes a lot to maintain this mentality in Italy.). Over a similar period, Spurs was the platform for talents like Glenn Hoddle and Paul Gascoigne – both arguably the last examples of game-changing creative talents in English football. Certainly the England team have not seen their like since.
This is not just a cheap point about both teams having good players from time to time. It is about consistently showcasing players who are amongst the very best in the world, in a system that shows them at their best, even when we are not commensurately successful. ‘Spursiness’ disparagingly refers to the lack of success, but surely the most notable thing is that even when we are not winning, we still have great, memorable players that everyone else wish they had.
What’s the point of all this? Well mainly, it’s to satisfy myself that there is some poetic link between the two teams in my heart. But were I to be more pretentious, I would say that the two fan bases are similar and should consider themselves so because of being united in the greatest frustrations, and greatest beauty, of the game. Both clubs’ fans are committed to a side that does it ‘right’, and that does not sacrifice style for the heartless wins. Does it mean we have a weak mentality? Perhaps. But it also means we can continue with a sort of righteousness which, if nothing else, drives other fans up the wall. That is worth celebrating.