Purple Reign: Fulvio Bernardini and the glory of Fiorentina

Purple Reign: Fulvio Bernardini and the glory of Fiorentina

Sacking managers and head coaches may feel like a particularly modern phenomenon, but as the old adage goes, ‘there’s nothing new under the sun’. That’s especially the case in football. 

Way back in January 1953, the football club representing the capital of Tuscany was having a bad time of it. After finishing in fourth place the previous season under manager Renzo Magli, newly arrived from neighbouring Empoli, Fiorentina and club president Enrico Befani were expecting an improvement in fortunes, with even a run at lifting the Scudetto. By the turn of the year, however, things were looking anything but positive. 

The season was halfway through and the previous ten games had brought five defeats and five draws. Any hopes of glory had disappeared, and the club was heading in a downward spiral towards the foot of the table. It was time for action. Befani removed Magli from office and did what anyone would do when caring for an ailing body: he called for the doctor.

Befani was a wealthy industrialist from Prato with a successful textile business and had taken over the club presidency in 1952 with a self-imposed commitment to take Fiorentina to the top of the domestic football scene. He was blessed not only with substantial wealth, but also sound organisational approach and a trained eye capable of identifying emerging talent and harnessing it for his own enterprises before anyone else had spotted it. When he removed Magli, the man he chose to replace him, Fulvio Bernardini, had been defined as such a talent. The doctor will see you now. 

Bernardini had been nicknamed by fans as “Fuffo” (‘professor’ or ‘doctor’). The incoming coach for La Viola, however, no medical practitioner. His qualification was in economics. In the following years, deploying dynamic tactical innovations centred around an ‘Elastic WM’ system of play, he would transform Fiorentina into a championship-winning club – the first non-Turin or non-Milanese clubs to acquire the Scudetto in the post-war period – and take them close to being crowned champions of Europe. 

Bernadini had long been regarded as the thinking man of the Italian game, with ideas of how teams should play to extract the maximum benefit from the assorted talents available. Legendary Azzurri manager Vittorio Pozzo had even felt compelled to leave Bernadini out of the national team, considering at times that he was simply too good for the other players to combine with. He could see moves and opportunities that were beyond the comprehension of others. 

As such his talent was wasted, sacrificed on the altar of lesser players’ abilities, with his 26 caps for Italy scant reward for such artistry. Having the opportunity to coach would offer a much freer rein to develop his ideas, and educate players to be in tune with his thinking. In Befani, he found a man sufficiently convinced of his talents to allow them to flourish. It was the perfect partnership – and Fiorentina benefited greatly from it. 

After retiring from a distinguished playing career, Bernardini launched into coaching with Roman club MATER, taking them into Serie B, before being given control of his former club, Roma, in 1949. The new coach had spent more than a decade with i Giallorossi in the pre-war years, playing almost 200 league games and scoring 47 goals. Inevitably the club was in decline – managerial openings rarely arise when a club is performing well – at the time of Bernardini’s appointment and the hope was that the former star could turn around its fortunes. 

The medicine prescribed by Fuffo was both drastic and, in his opinion, necessary as he sought to revolutionise the club’s tactical approach by deploying his own system of play. The patient rebelled, however, and after a series of disputes with club president Renato Sacerdoti, a situation that could only lead to conflict and an eventual parting of the ways, Bernadini gave up the uneven and increasing futile struggle, walking away from the club. 

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As things transpired, rather than a defeat, it proved to be a moral victory for him as Roma, now deprived of the prescribed action, continued to spiral downwards and were relegated at the end of the 1950/51 season. The less than eternal job in Rome led to other brief journeys, first to Reggina and then Vicenza, both in Serie B. The opportunity to join Fiorentina, despite their perilous situation, was therefore an opportunity that Bernardini was not going to pass up. The effect was both immediate and highly beneficial. 

After that run of ten games without recording victory, and seemingly heading into a relegation battle, La Viola’s fortunes took a dramatic turn for the better. The next four games brought three victories and a draw, and although an embarrassing 8-0 defeat to Juventus, followed by a 2-0 home loss to Sampdoria, put a stumble into the team’s recovery, a run of only one defeat in the next seven games brought equilibrium back. At the end of the term, Fiorentina were in a highly impressive seventh position and, if not quite in robust health, were certainly out of intensive care and on the way to recovery.

A quick look at the club’s record during that season highlighted the areas requiring action. Aside from that mauling in Turin, the defensive side of the team was in rude health. At the other end of the field, though, Fiorentina had managed a mere 31 goals across the Serie A season. It was the lowest in the league. Even Como and Pro Patria, the two relegated clubs, had scored more. The club’s top marksman, Mariani, had notched a mere half-dozen goals. The target area for surgery was clear, and Bernardini wielded his scalpel with incoming transfers for the new term.

The Swede Gunnar Gren had been plying his trade with AC Milan for four years, but now approaching his mid-30s, the Rossoneri had deemed that his best days were behind him. He’d also spent a brief spell as head coach of the club, emphasising his knowledge of the game and tactical awareness. Although Bernardini had a plan to deploy, he was also committed to the belief that “good feet” were an essential part of any squad, regardless of the system. A player with the experience and game intelligence of Gren was, therefore, an ideal acquisition.  

The club also reached out across the Atlantic to bring in a legendary player from South America, Ernesto Vidal. The winger had been an influential part of the Uruguay team that had won the World Cup in 1950. Two other members of that same team were already playing successfully in Italy – Alcides Ghiggia at Roma and Juan Alberto Schiaffino at Milan – so there seemed little reason to assume that the talents of Vidal would not also transfer effectively to the different demands of calcio. As things turned out, despite the fact that Vidal was actually born in Buie d’Istria, now part of Croatia but at the time included within the borders of Italy, he struggled to adapt, and his time with La Viola was both brief and disappointing. 

Two younger players were also added to the roster. The raw but promising Guido Gratton was brought in from Como and striker Giancarlo Bacci arrived from Bologna. Both players were in their early-20s, and although the latter would only be with the club a short time, each would contribute significantly to the development of Bernardini’s team. 

At the end of the term, the progress was palpable. Despite the comparative disappointment of Vidal, Gren and the other acquisitions knitted neatly into the coach’s plan and a joint third-place finish in the league, alongside Milan, illustrated the upward swing of the club, as the squad became accustomed to the demands of the coach’s system, and duly reaped the benefits.

The goal tally was also encouraging: after the paltry return of the previous season, the new term’s total increased to 45. Bacci justified his transfer, scoring 13 times and finishing in joint eighth position in the Capocannoniere race in his one and only season with the club before a move to Torino. 

Adding goals at the expense of conceding more can be an easy trap to fall into, but Bernardini’s tactical plan was astute enough to avoid such pitfalls. Fiorentina conceded a mere 27 goals in the league, far and away the best defensive performance. Even the Scudetto winners, Internazionale, conceded five more. It was progress, but hardly tangible success. More was to come.

The 1954 World Cup was particularly important for Fiorentina and their coach. Although the tournament would be won by a West Germany team inflicting the only defeat that the Magical Magyars of Hungary would suffer over a prolonged period, it was a Brazilian player who won the attention of Bernardini. 

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Júlio Botelho had made his debut for the Seleção two years earlier, but in the World Cup tournament of 1954, his football impressed the Fiorentina manager so much that he resolved to add him to his squad. He would play in both of Brazil’s first-round group games, netting the final goal of a 5-0 rout against Mexico. In the quarter-finals, they would fall to Hungary 4-2, but Julinho, as he was known, would score again. 

Whilst other coaches looked at the Hungarians and eulogised about Ferenc Puskás, Sándor Kocsis and Nándor Hidegkuti, Bernardini was convinced that the key to taking Fiorentina to the top was Julinho. “If we can take Julinho,” he insisted at the time, “we win the Scudetto.”

Despite Bernardini’s desire to bring the winger to Italy, the transfer would have to wait until the following summer. Negotiations with his club, Portuguesa, were complicated and elongated, not being helped, of course, by the distance and the lack of efficient communications available at the time. Even after such matters were addressed, there was still the small matter of convincing the player to move from his native country, together with his family, and relocate to Europe. It was inevitably a hard sell and would take patience. In the interim, together with club president Befani, the coach continued the progress. 

Although the defensive record had been admirable the previous term, Bernardini was less than satisfied and brought in goalkeeper Giuliano Sarti from Bondenese. Then just into his early-20s, Sarti had already earned himself a growing reputation for his no-nonsense technique. Bereft of the drama of highflying saves that impressed photographers more than coaches, he relied on positional sense and anticipation to minimise the requirements for such drama. It was the sort of approach that Bernardini warmed to. 

Sarti had played a mere four games in the season before his move to Fiorentina, but such details would hardly bother his new coach. Given the performance last term, the incumbent number one, Leonardo Costagliola, may have felt relatively secure in his position. It took little time for Sarti to usurp him, though, and the new man quickly acquired the confidence and admiration of his defence. By the end of the 1955/56 season, a glorious one for Fiorentina, he would have conceded a miserly 20 goals in 34 league games. The next best return was almost double that. Bernardini’s decision had been emphatically justified.

Giuseppe Virgili was a young striker who had performed well, if not outstandingly, for Udinese, bagging nine goals in 35 league games. He was young and powerful, but still crude and in need of refinement. Playing in Bernardini’s system, however, he would flourish during his four seasons in Florence, scoring 55 league goals in just one more than a century of games. It’s a more than impressive strike rate and again showed the coach’s ability to both spot the players who could work within his tactical regimen and ensure that they delivered. 

In his time with La Viola, Virgili would also gain international honours with the Azzurri, scoring twice in seven games. 

Alberto Orzan was acquired from the same club and would stay in Florence until 1963, clocking up well in excess of 200 appearances across all competitions. The final piece added to the jigsaw for the new season was Vicenza wide player Claudio Bizzarri. Although not a prolific goalscorer, he had that invaluable knack of finding the back of the net at important times in big games. 

Another fifth-place finish at the end of the season may have suggested little progress for the investment, but the foundations had now been built. The next season would see Befani reap the dividends form the trust he had put in his coach. 

The summer of 1955 saw the long-awaited arrival of Julinho from Brazil. The key feature of the winger’s play would be the ability to reach the byline and deliver crosses for Bernadini’s strikers to feed on. The coach would remark about his new signing that the play never ends when Julinho has the ball; it is merely a transitional period from having possession to creating a chance to score. In modern parlance, he was the ultimate in providing assists.

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The other acquisition for the 1955/56 season was Miguel Montuori, an Argentine who, at the time, was playing for a Chilean club, Universidad Católica. If the arrival of Julinho had been trumpeted, the reception for Montouri would be considerably more muted. To say that the forward was an unknown quantity for the fans of the club – certainly compared to Julinho – would be putting it mildly. 

Chilean football was hardly big news in Italy and rumour had it that he had been recommended to the club by a priest, Father Volpi. Whether that was true or not, he quickly showed his worth and became a firm favourite of the fans – and Bernardini. He would also earn affection and the nickname of ‘Pecos Bill’ for his apparent addiction to cowboy comic books. 

Gunslinging aside, his spontaneous and often unpredictable play proved to be the perfect foil for Virgili, and the two created a prolific partnership. The stage was now set, and if Bernardini was going to deliver on his charge to take the title to Florence, this would be the year to do so. 

If the coach was hoping for a winning start to the season, his hopes would be thwarted. The visit to Pro Patria on the opening day saw a two-goal lead – built thanks to strikes by Virgili and Julinho – squandered, with the game ending in a draw. Even worse was the injury sustained by Bizzarri. It meant that, moving forward, there would need to be a shuffling of his forces, with Mazza drafted in and Gratton moved out to the wing. 

Victory over Padova, and a particularly satisfying four-goal drubbing of Juventus in Turin, suggested the move had worked, but Bernardini considered it somewhat less than the ideal prescription, and, after a goalless draw against Inter, decided on further changes before the Derby dell’Appennino with Bologna.

Demanding the tactical and positional flexibility he thought was essential for his system to work, Bernardini brought in Prini on the wing, a move that allowed Cervato, and his powerful shooting, to venture forward from his defensive position without leaving the back line exposed. The move was designed to create both space and confusion in the opposition ranks, but required elaborate planning to make it feasible. Whenever Cervato drove forward, centre-back Rosetta would need to cover the left flank, Magnini would come into the middle from the right flank and Chiappella would drop back to cover the absent right-back. To complete the circle, Gratton would then cover for Chiappella. 

At the time, Italian football had a more than firmly rigid structure to its play. Defenders defended and full-backs played on the flanks of the defensive back line. Bernardini’s ploy changed all that, throwing such strictures to the four winds and reaping the tornado of confusion that it wrought in opposition defences. As his players moved fluidly and efficiently between positions, depending on the phases of the game and the role of Cervato, opposing defensive patterns were torn asunder. The doctor’s medicine worked. 

The Derby dell’Appennino at the Stadio Renato Dall’Ara proved to be a reliable herald for the remaining games of the season. A 2-0 victory with goals from Virgili and a spot-kick from Cervato catapulted Bernadini’s side into a run where their flexibility and complex play proved to be the sort of inscrutable problem that had other coaches bewildered. Some were even moved to compare Fiorentina’s play to that of the brilliant but tragic Grande Torino side lost in the Superga air disaster of 1949.

The next 29 games saw 18 victories and 11 draws as La Viola went on an unbeaten run stretching from the October victory over Bologna to the last game of the season where, with the title already secured by a comfortable margin, they stumbled to a 3-1 defeat against Genoa at the Stadio Luigi Ferraris. After Gratton had given them a lead, Fiorentina were overcome by three goals in the final 15 minutes of the game. It was their only loss of the league campaign, and even though Bernadini had driven his club to the Scudetto by a clear 12 points, the defeat must have rankled with him. 

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There may have been something about the Genoa club, however, that made the result less of a surprise, and perhaps offered the coach cold comfort. At the time, the Rossoblu were coached by Gunnar Gren, one of the first players Bernadini had brought to Fiorentina. The doctor had taught the student well. 

Bernadini’s team topped the league after the eighth round of games and stayed there, with a steadily increasing points lead until the title was secured after a 1-1 in Trieste on 6 May 1956 with five games still to play. It was the club’s maiden Scudetto. The following term, they would go agonisingly close to topping that achievement.

For the 1956/57 Serie A season, Fiorentina would relinquish their title, finishing in second place, six points behind Milan. It was a position they would occupy every season until the end of the decade. Before that, however, with the league title safely ensconced at the Stadio Comunale – it wouldn’t adopt its current name of Stadio Artemio Franchi until 1961 – La Viola eyes were on continental conquest. 

The inauguration of the European Cup had taken place the previous year, and whilst a number of national associations – the English FA included – had decided to opt out of what was thought to be somewhat of a gimmicky and inevitably short-lived enterprise that may impinge on the domestic programmes, most had now relented and allowed their champion clubs to participate. Real Madrid had triumphed to become the first club champions of Europe, and after climbing the Apennine mountain to win the Scudetto, Bernadini and Fiorentina went in pursuit of reaching out to touch the sky by taking the Spanish club’s title. 

Granted a bye in the preliminary round, Fiorentina entered the competition in the first round, paired with Swedish club Norrköping. Although gaining more prestige and acceptance than in its first tournament, the European Cup still hadn’t truly found a place in the hearts of some fans, at least not in the early rounds anyway. 

Only 6,000 fans were at the Comunale for Fiorentina’s first steps into the tournament on 21 November 1956. Eight minutes into the game, the absent tifosi looked to have made a wise decision when 19-year-old forward Harry Bild, who would later go on to find fame and fortune with FC Zürich and Feyenoord, put the visitors ahead. 

Bizzarri would equalise on the quarter-hour mark but the Swedes were perceived to be in the driving seat and Bernardini’s European expedition was looking likely to be a short one. Fate would lend Bernadini and his players a helping hand, though.

The Swedish winter, and the contemporary lack of modern techniques to ensure an acceptable playing surface, meant that Norrköping’s home leg was anything but. It took place a week later at Rome’s Stadio Olimpico, offering the Italian club a quasi second home leg. Despite Sarti being absent, a goal by Virgili without reply saw them progress. Into the quarter-finals, Fiorentina faced Swiss champions Grasshopper, with the first leg again at the Comunale. 

Following the winter break, the competition started up again in February and on the sixth day of that month, European football returned to Florence for the visit of the Swiss giants. This time the attendance had risen to more than 10,000 fans, and they were treated to an exhilarating first dozen minutes of football, as the home team raced into a three-goal lead. Midfielder Amando Segato opened the scoring on three minutes, before forward Romano Taccola netted in the tenth and 12th minutes. 

It would always be a tough assignment for the Swiss side from there. Even when Robert Ballaman cut the arrears just after the half-hour mark, the return leg would require an outstanding performance to turn things around. Back in Zürich’s Stadion Hardturm, any such thoughts were largely extinguished when a rare strike from arch-assister Julinho increased the Italians’ aggregate lead after just seven minutes. 

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Ballaman would equalise midway through the first period, but Montuori’s goal early in the second half effectively killed off any lingering doubts and the late strike by home forward Branislav Vukosavljević was merely a consolation. Bernadini had guided his team into the last four of the European Cup.

Even at this early stage in the tournament’s history, when you reach the semi-finals it’s difficult to plot an easy course. This was no different. Alongside Fiorentina were holders Real Madrid, Manchester United and Red Star Belgrade. When Los Blancos were drawn to play the English champions, Bernardini would probably have been relieved to be facing the Yugoslavs. It would be a tough encounterm though. Whilst Real Madrid and Manchester United would share eight goals across both legs of their encounter, a single strike would decide the other semi-final, seeing La Viola into the European Cup final.

Playing the first leg in Belgrade, with time ticking away, it looked like Fiorentina would earn a highly valuable 0-0 draw. Sarti was back in goal and, with the defence being well marshalled in front of him, the Yugoslav efforts were producing nothing but frustration for the home team. Then, with just two minutes remaining, Maurilio Prini notched the all-important goal. A shut-out back at the Comunale, where 70,000 fans had now become interested in the tournament, completed the job. 

Real Madrid completed a 5-3 aggregate triumph over Manchester United, meaning that if Bernardini’s team were to become European champions, they would need to defeat the holders in the final. The difficulty of the task was increased by the fact that the game would be played at the home of the Spanish club. The match would be shrouded in controversy and leave a bitter taste in Italian mouths that still lingers to this day. The disputes began even before a ball was kicked.

Real Madrid had invested a sum reported to be in the region of £100,000 to install a state-of-the-art floodlight system at the stadium precisely for the match and were keen to demonstrate their new assets, meaning an evening kick-off. Fiorentina, however, had little reason to acquiesce to their opponents’ attempts to strut their stuff, despite the level of investment, and argued that having such a system installed was purely the Spanish club’s folly and hardly reason to have the game played other than in daylight. 

The dispute was eventually resolved by having the game start at 5:30pm. If the decision ended that dispute, however, there was plenty more controversy coming down the road.  

Bernardini would deploy his favoured forward line of Virgili and Montouri in the hope that the partnership could provide the goals to take them to glory, with Julinho supplying the ammunition from the flank. Despite their success in the competition to date, and the Scudetto secured the previous season, this would be a monumental task for Fiorentina. 

Real Madrid had won the title previously, defeating a highly talented and motivated Stade de Reims team in a final played in France, and since that time they had added the skills of Raymond Kopa, signed from the French runners-up. It meant that Sarti and his defenders would need to quell a Real front five of Paco Gento, Héctor Rial, Alfredo Di Stéfano, Enrique Mateos and Kopa. There were plenty of reasons for the home team to be favourites for the win. Bernardini’s system and tactics would be tested as never before.  

As the time approached for kick-off, Miguel Muñoz and Sergio Cervato met in the centre circle to shake hands with each other and Dutch referee Leo Horn. After the game, in the minds of all Fiorentina players, it would be the last of that triumvirate who would decide the fate of the final – and destroy the dreams of La Viola.

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Inevitably the game was both tight and fiercely contested. The Italians were robust in their approach and challenges, and their hosts responded in kind, meaning that much of the fluency was sacrificed by both set of players. Half-time came and went without the deadlock being broken, and with few chances conjured up by either team. Then, with 20 minutes remaining, came the key moment. 

A through-ball saw Mateos running clear on goal. The Italians would later protest long and hard that not only was the forward in an offside position when he received the pass, but also that the linesman flagged to register the infringement. Regardless, Mateos ran on and was tripped by Ardico Magnini. 

The challenge sent him sprawling into the penalty area. The speed of the attack had left Horn trailing somewhat behind the play, but as the Spanish forward tumbled, he pointed enthusiastically to the spot. It was the defining moment not only of the game but of the tournament, one that punctured glory for Bernadini and his Viola heroes.

The Italians protested long and hard about the offside flag from the linesman and virulently asserted that the offence was outside of the penalty area anyway, regardless of where Mateos had fallen. Videos of the game certainly suggest that there was more than a measure of merit in the second of those claims. 

With some 124,000 fans baying passionately for the penalty, however, there was little chance that Horn would waver from his initial decision. Pleas for him to consult his linesman fell on deaf ears. Di Stéfano converted from 21 yards as Sarti threw himself forward to try to block the effort. 

Whilst the game was far from over with just a single-goal lead, both righteous indignation and the realisation that their game plan had been stymied seemed to drain the resolve from Bernardini’s players and it was of little surprise when a ball from Kopa set up Gento for the coup de grace. Fifteen minutes later, Francisco Franco beamed as he handed the trophy to Muñoz. Real Madrid were on their way to setting the standard for European club football for the next few years. 

Fiorentina had come so far under the guidance of Bernardini and the largesse and administrative skills of Befani. Finals are no place for losers, though, and as Los Blancos headed towards immortality, Fiorentina would enter a slow decline. 

Julinho returned to South America and Virgili moved on. By that time, Bernardini would also be gone. He left in 1958 to join Lazio, before moving on to Bologna and then Sampdoria. He would win the Coppa Italia in his first season with the Roman club, and reprise his Scudetto triumph with Bologna in the 1963/64 season. 

He was replaced first by Lajos Czeizler and then Luigi Ferrero and Argentine Luis Carniglia – the Real Madrid manager in that European Cup final. Despite a string of second places in Serie A and a Coppa Italia triumph under Carniglia, the decline was irreversible. Befani would leave the club in the same season as the cup triumph. 

As the wheel inevitably turns, a club’s fortunes will wax and wane. The glory of Fulvio Bernardini and La Viola drifted into the past with sad laments in and around the capital of Tuscany, and with it went the days of the Purple Reign.

By Gary Thacker @All_Blue_Daze

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