"This Fiorentina side begin to remind me of my Juventus, the one with Platini, Boniek and Paolo Rossi, a team with great individual players capable of winning the match for you at any moment. The fact is that we can't hide it any more, we're now in line to win this championship."
Giovanni Trapattoni was the speaker and the above words were spoken on the morning after Fiorentina had picked up their most significant win of the autumn, the 1-0 home defeat of champions Juventus which extended their lead to four points and left the Old Lady from Turin struggling 10 points behind them in ninth place.
It has been almost 30 years since the pride of Florence last picked up the Italian title but, on the evidence of the first third of the season, Fiorentina could be about to end the drought. In a post-World Cup season in which traditional big guns such as Juventus, Inter, Milan and Lazio have been waylaid by a combination of injuries, mental stress and physical exhaustion, Fiorentina have looked as sharp and enthusiastic as a set of kids at a Sunday kick-around.
It would seem, too, that Fiorentina have all the right Italian title-winning ingredients - a wealthy and politically connected boss, a vastly experienced and winning coach, a solid goalkeeper and defence, a hardworking midfield and a positively scintillating attack. Furthermore, it could well be that by the end of the season, Fiorentina will have cause to be grateful for their seemingly harsh UEFA Cup ban (following the firework throwing incident during their tie with Grasshopper).Next March, when title rivals Juventus, Inter, Lazio, Roma and Parma are involved in European ties, Fiorentina will be enjoying a mid-week rest.
So far, such has been the quality of soccer played by the team that they have needed no "protection" whatsoever from their patron and boss, film tycoon Vittorio Cecchi Gori. However, in the realpolitik world of Italian soccer (remember the controversial nature of last season's title win by Juventus), it does no harm to have a boss who not only owns two commercial TV stations (Telemontecarlo 1 and 2) and a large film production and distribution empire, but also happens to be a senator in the Partito Popolare Italiano (ex-Christian Democrat party), which forms part of the current governing centre-left coalition. Nor does it harm Fiorentina's prospects that the coach who has won most titles in contemporary Italian soccer is currently sitting on the bench (Trapattoni won seven Italian championships between 1976 and 1989 - six with Juventus and one with Inter - as well as the Bundesliga title with Bayern Munich in 1997).
If you have to point to the moment at which Fiorentina emerged as championship challengers, then that came on the day last spring when Fiorentina announced Trapattoni's appointment.
The coach is 59, but his enthusiasm, vitality and vigour remain intact. He still shouts himself hoarse during a match, often reverting to his famous, shrill two-finger whistle to attract a player's attention. He still jumps up and down along the touchline like a man possessed, driven by his fiercely competitive instincts.
Arguably, however, Trapattoni made his greatest contribution to the Fiorentina cause even before a ball was kicked this season. It came last summer when he cornered Argentinian ace Gabriel Batistuta and wayward Brazilian Edmundo, persuading both that he meant business at Fiorentina and that, if they wanted to win the Italian title, they should stay right where they were.
After seven largely unsuccessful seasons with Fiorentina, Batistuta was understandably (and yet again) attracted by a move to a seemingly more solid championship contender such as Inter, Milan, Parma or Roma. After one controversial half-season with Fiorentina, during which he had played only nine League games, Edmundo was threatening to return to Brazil rather than risk sitting on the bench for much of the year. Trapattoni told Edmundo that he would get his game and that, furthermore, he would get that game playing alongside the greatest centre-forward of the moment, one Batistuta. You soften them up, old son, and Gabriel will finish them off for you.
True to his promise, Trapattoni has based the attack of his winning Fiorentina team on Edmundo and Batistuta. True to their immense talents, Edmundo has consistently softened them up and Batistuta has finished them off, scoring 13 goals in the first 13 League games of the season and prompting Trapattoni to comment: "At the moment, Batistuta is the best striker in the world. Not even Ronaldo at his best is any better. You should see how much he puts into his training. He's always out in front of the group. In the dressing-room he manages to communicate his desire to win. He's a man of matchless pride."
Having persuaded both Batistuta and Edmundo to stay, Trapattoni's next clever move was to play Belgian international Luis Oliveira alongside them. This added another deadly talent up front but the coach also persuaded Oliveira to double up and help out wide on the right of a midfield that will always look lightweight because of the playmaking, attacking vocation of its resident central schemer, Portugal's Rui Costa.
As for the central spine of the side, Trapattoni was already well covered on arrival in Florence, with Italian international Sandro Cois in a defensive midfield role, a talented sweeper in Pasquale Padalino and an International-class goalkeeper in Francesco Toldo.
Despite the attacking potency of the current Fiorentina side, all of the great teams coached by Trapattoni over the years have been built from the back. Accordingly, he added three key elements to the squad - defender Moreno Torricelli (£4.2million from Juventus), Czech Republic defender Thomas Repka (£2.7m, Sparta Prague) and German midfielder Jorg Heinrich (£6.1m, Borussia Dortmund).
Repka is an immensely solid player, not without a competitive bite, as shown when he broke the nose of Juventus defender Mark luliano with his elbow during the above-mentioned clash. Torricelli on the right and Heinrich on the left add an attacking option to their sound defensive work, but both make an arguably bigger contribution by bringing with them the experience of playing in League and Champions League-winning sides. Provided that the team escape serious injury, then the above ingredients are good enough to take the title.
Injuries to key players, however, could be very costly.Fiorentina simply do not have the 24-25 man squad employed by such as Lazio, Inter and Milan. Perhaps Fiorentina's biggest problems, however, will stem from the stress and pressures that inevitably will be created by the expectations of their notoriously enthusiastic supporters. At this early stage of the season, the fans are keeping relatively cool, but the longer the winning run lasts the more the pressure will mount.
Trapattoni, however, is convinced his men can learn to cope: "I've explained that to win a League you have to get used to driving at 360 kilometres per hour, all the time and no matter what the road conditions are."
This article originally appeared in the February 1999 edition of World Soccer.