Football and the supernatural don’t seem obvious bedfellows, but there are a surprising number of dalliances with unexplained phenomena and the paranormal stretching through the ages that suggest the contrary. For starters, it seems that any self-respecting football club has their own ghost. Herbert Chapman’s footsteps could supposedly be heard around Highbury years after his death. West Ham’s Boleyn Ground is rumoured to be haunted by one of Anne Boleyn’s handmaids, who died in childbirth. Blackpool, meanwhile, supposedly angered the ghost of Lord Nelson by lining the Bloomfield Road boardroom with wood from the wreckage of his ship, HMS Foudroyant, with some fans even blaming the Admiral’s ethereal wrath for their inexplicable capitulation to Bradford in the play offs in 1996.
Hexes in football are almost as plentiful. It was apparently still acceptable to believe in ‘gypsy curses’ throughout the 20th Century, with Derby County’s 1946 cup winning captain Jack Nicholas, Don Revie and Barry Fry all seeking out soothsayers to help break various jinxes. Nicholas felt the need to act amid rumours that travellers evicted during the 19th Century, when the Baseball Ground was built on the site of their camp, had cursed the club never to win the FA Cup. The Rams then lost three finals in six years in 1898, 1899 and 1903, and in the weeks before the first post-war final, Nicholson pleaded with the gypsies to lift the curse. After a tense game against Charlton, Derby were finally successful. Revie was notoriously superstitious, and brought a gypsy from Scarborough to exorcise Elland Road, also removing the Peacock from the club’s crest and changing their nickname from ‘The Peacocks’ to ‘The Whites’, convinced the flightless bird was an unlucky omen . Perhaps most famously, Fry sought to end Birmingham’s winless run in 1995 by taking the advice of a mystic and waddling around the St. Andrews pitch, urinating in all four corners. He was sacked later that season.
This Halloween story, however, is more sci-fi than horror, and unlike the other stories, it has plenty of eyewitnesses to support it. It involves the Fiorentina side of the mid-1950s and early 1960s – one of the greatest that Italian football has produced. Legendary coach Fulvio Bernardini, an early exponent of Catenaccio, had assembled a team with a ferocious Italian spine, including the likes of Sergio Cervanto, Beppe Chiappella and Ardico Magnini at the back, Guido Gratton in midfield and the bulldozing Giuseppe Virgili up front, and infused it with South American flair in the inside forward positions. Miguel Montuori was born in Rosario, Argentina to Italian parents, and was discovered playing in Chile by a local Fiorentina-supporting priest. He would become the first foreign-born player to captain Italy. At inside right, meanwhile, Fiorentina had Julinho Boetelho, a lightning-quick, incredibly graceful Brazilian star of the 1954 world cup, who caused chaos with his zig-zagging dribbling skills and in 1996 was voted the club’s best ever player. This concoction of grit and élan ushered in a golden age of Florentine football.
On 27th October 1954, a crowd of around 10,000 was in attendance at the Stadio Artemio Franchi, where Fiorentina were playing a reserve match against lower league neighbours Pistoiese. Bernardini fielded a strong team in the first half, featuring a number of his first team regulars, including Cervato, Magnini, Chiappella, Gratton, Virgili and Swedish star Gunnar Gren, before giving his fringe and younger players (including Ernesto Vidal, world cup winner with Uruguay in 1950 and goalkeeper Giuliano Sarti, who would go on to be a key player in the all-conquering Inter side of the 1960s) a run out in the second. However, shortly after the interval, with Fiorentina leading 6-2, loud noises were suddenly heard in the sky, clouds of smoke became visible, and the players became aware of a commotion in the stands…
Appearing in the air over the Artemio Franchi, lining up in squadron formation, and witnessed by thousands – including the news editor of Tuscan newspaper The Nation - were over 20 Unidentified Flying Objects. Appearing in three waves, the first equipped with ‘eagle-like wings’, the second shaped like tear drops, and the third resembling the classic UFO ‘disc’ shape, the objects shone brightly in the sky, performing acrobatic manoeuvres and moving at high speed from northwest to southeast. Hearing the panic in the stands and noting that the teams had stopped playing to stand agape at the scene, the referee suspended the game. It did resume for over 10 minutes. In the aftermath of the ‘visit’, the stadium - and Florence itself - was covered by a blanket of sticky, stringy material, known as ‘angel hair’, which descended from the sky and evaporated quickly.
“It was 15:27, when they appeared on the tower of Marathon, one behind the other" Chiappella recalled. “They advanced with a constant pace. Then one stopped at the position of midfield.” Romulus Tuci, captain of Pistoise, remembered seeing “something like rings in the distance,” followed by “a cloud of fog”, while team mate Ronaldo Lomi spoke of “hearing a big bang” that stopped everyone in their tracks.
The Fiorentina UFOs were part of a continent-wide wave of mass-sightings throughout 1954. It remains one of the most famous mysteries in Italy. Many have attempted to rationalise the sightings – blaming the ‘angel hair’ substance on everything from chaff from military aircraft, to the trails left by migrating spiders and mass hysteria – but nobody has yet come up with a satisfactory explanation.
Whatever they saw in the sky on that befuddling autumn day, it clearly had little effect on La Viola – under Bernardini’s guidance they casually sauntered to their first-ever Scudetto the following season, winning the title by 12 clear points from a Milan side inspired by super-Swedes Liedholm and Nordahl. En route, they set a 33-game unbeaten record, only blotting their copybook with defeat to Genoa on the last day with the title long secured. It was a benchmark that has only been beaten twice since, by Fabio Capello’s Milan team of 1991-92, and last season’s champions Juventus. They might even have won the European Cup in 1957 had they met anyone else in the final other than the greatest club side ever – the Real Madrid of Puskas, Di Stefano and Gento. By the time they finally did taste European glory, winning the inaugural Cup Winners’ Cup in 1961, Bernardini had moved on. The man was a footballing alchemist however, and the sixties saw him head to Bologna and, using the same blueprint of mixing Italian graft with foreign craft, take a mid-table team all the way to the Scudetto again.
Fiorentina would be able to boast many great sides in the years that followed, but they could never quite scale the heights of that mid-century heyday – when they were so good they seemingly attracted visitors from other galaxies.
Read more from Rob at The 90s Football Party.