For a club with such a lofty standing in the Italian game, Fiorentina are a little short on silverware. Lodged between the powerhouses of the north and the giants of the Italian capital, the Florence outfit nevertheless blazed a trail in Europe, becoming the first Italian side to win a UEFA competition when they lifted the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1961.

Continuing its Classic Clubs series, tells the tale of a club overshadowed by its rivals to the north and south, but which has made regular appearances in Europe, contested three major continental finals and survived a brush with extinction.

Birth of an institution
Associazione Calcio Firenze, which quickly became known as Associazione Calcio Fiorentina, officially came into being on 26 August 1926 following the merger of the clubs Palestra Ginnastica Fiorentina Libertas and Club Sportivo Firenze.

Fiorentina’s origins can be traced back, however, to 1898 and the foundation of Florence Football Club, a distant predecessor patronised by the city’s aristocracy. In the years that followed a string of sporting associations came and went without ever breaking onto the national scene. It was only with the installation of Italy’s fascist regime in the 1920s, which encouraged teams from the same city to merge, that Fiorentina saw the light of day, the new club setting itself the objective of forcing its way into the national elite.

Fiorentina’s distinctive purple strip and red fleur-de-lys badge was introduced by their first president, Marquis Luigi Ridolfi Vay da Verrazzano, who would stay in the post for 15 years. The choice owed nothing to the popular tale that the colours of the original red and white strip, derived from the city’s coat of arms, had run on being washed in the River Arno one day.

La Fiore, as the institution came to be known, took a few years to find their feet before finally pipping arch-rivals Bari to the Serie B title in 1931 and moving up to Serie A, where they played their first game on 20 September that year, drawing 1-1 with AC Milan.

The making of a legend
Exactly a quarter of a century later, Fiorentina would embark on their golden era, one that lasted through to 1969. Under the presidency of the industrialist Enrico Befani, La Viola won their maiden Italian championship in 1956, suffering just one defeat all season. Their star act was the livewire Brazilian right-winger Julinho, who had made his international breakthrough at the 1954 FIFA World Cup Switzerland™. In 1957, Fiorentina became the first Italian club to reach the final of the European Cup, where they lost 2-0 to the continent’s undisputed kings, the Alfredo Di Stefano-inspired Real Madrid.

European glory would come their way four years later, though, when they won the inaugural Cup Winners’ Cup by beating Glasgow Rangers 4-1 on aggregate in the final. They returned to the final the following year, this time losing out to Atletico Madrid by the same overall scoreline.

La Fiore were a force to be reckoned with on the domestic front for the rest of the decade, finishing runners-up four seasons in a row and winning a second Serie A crown in 1969. Strong in every department, that side featured players of the calibre of Giancarlo De Sisti, Amarildo, Salvatore Esposito, Mario Maraschi, Francesco Rizzo and Ugo Ferrante.

The club would spend most of the next three decades mostly out of the limelight, making occasional reappearances to win the Coppa Italia three times and reach the final of the UEFA Cup in 1990. This relatively undistinguished spell in Fiorentina’s history was nevertheless illuminated by three of the greatest players ever to pull on the purple shirt.

The first of them was the graceful Giancarlo Antognoni, who scored 87 goals in 412 appearances for Fiorentina between 1972 and 1987. Picking up his mantle was Roberto Baggio, whose stunning performances for La Viola would earn him a move to Juventus in 1990. The final member of this esteemed trio was Gabriel Batistuta, who etched his name in the club’s record books by scoring 168 goals in 269 matches between 1991 and 2000.

Sadly for Fiorentina, they failed to capitalise fully on the contributions made by these great names, the men in purple flattering to deceive on several occasions.

The present
The early years of the new millennium were nothing short of catastrophic for the club as it spiralled into debt. Relegated to Serie B in 2002, Fiorentina went into administration shortly afterwards and virtually ceased to exist. Refused a place in Serie B due to its financial woes, the club found a saviour in the city mayor and was eventually re-founded and re-admitted to Italy’s fourth tier under the name Fiorentina Viola.

By this stage it had come under the ownership of the influential entrepreneur Diego della Valle, who would engineer their miraculous rise back to the Italian top flight within just two seasons, the club buying back its name in the process, becoming known as ACF Fiorentina.

Under the tenure of current Italy coach Cesare Prandelli, La Viola capped their rise from the ashes by returning to Europe, reaching the semi-finals of the UEFA Cup in 2008 and appearing in the UEFA Champions League in the following two seasons, advancing to the last 16 of the competition in 2010. Though still some way short of the pinnacle they reached in the 1960s, La Viola have, under Della Valle’s watchful eye, restored their pride and standing following the most turbulent period in their history.

The stadium
Fiorentina’s arrival in Serie A at the start of the 1930s prompted Marquis Luigi Ridolfi to build a new stadium in the Campo di Marte district, closer to the city’s rail links. Chief architect Pier Luigi Nervi came up with an innovative design, widely regarded as a masterpiece of 1930s Italian architecture, with its spiral staircases and Tower of Marathon.

Known initially as the Stadio Giovanni Berta, in tribute to a militant fascist, it was renamed the Stadio Comunale after the second World War. In 1991, it changed its name again, this time in honour of Artemio Franchi. Born in Florence and a former president of the Italian Football Association, Franchi also held office as UEFA President and a FIFA vice-president. He was killed in a car crash in 1983.

Though the stadium’s official capacity is 45,809, its attendance record is the 58,271 crowd that turned up for the visit of Inter Milan on 25 November 1984, when spectators were still allowed to stand.

The Artemio Franchi hosted FIFA World Cup matches at Italy 1934 and 1990, featured among the venues for the 1968 European Championship and the 1960 Olympic Games, and staged the second leg of the final of the European Cup Winners’ Cup a year later.