'Mute fish' Mihajlovic still swimming against the tide of fan opinion at Fiorentina

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As dawn broke on a wintry Tuesday morning in Florence, the streetlights outside the Stadio Artemio Franchi cast a murky orange light on a banner hanging loosely from its green gates.

“As a coach we discuss you, but as a man we respect you. Sorry!!!” it read in crude red spray-paint.

This, believe or not, was an apology of sorts from the Fiorentina supporters to coach Sinisa Mihajlovic for the deplorable racial slurs he has been subjected to in each of the club’s last two home games when - amid the by now frequent calls for his dismissal - a section of the Curva sang: “You are a Gypsy.”

Their actions justifiably brought widespread condemnation from the club and the wider football community. “Fiorentina expresses the firmest and toughest condemnation of racist chants and insults towards Mihajlovic,” a statement read. “Every form of dissent and protest is considered legitimate as long as it does not go beyond the limits of correctness and civility. Fiorentina cannot accept a decline into gratuitous vulgarity, into verbal aggression or racism and therefore expresses full solidarity and support to Sinisa Mihajlovic, the victim of shameful and intolerable attacks.”

Mihajlovic’s own response was typical of the spirit he once showed as an uncompromising defender.  “They can whistle me and chant ‘sack him’ for as long as they want, that’s fine. But when they start to get personal it becomes bothersome and I can’t accept it. I hope that if these people were ever to meet me in the street they would have the bottle to say it to my face.” Mihajlovic has never been one to shy away from a fight, but there is a growing sense that, for once, this is a battle even he can’t win.

Ever since his appointment in June 2010, Mihajlovic has never enjoyed the favour of the Fiorentina supporters. Replacing Cesare Prandelli, the club’s longest-serving manager, was never going to be easy. On the pitch, he had done more than anyone else to re-establish Fiorentina as a leading player in Serie A, achieving fourth place finishes in 2008 and 2009 and qualifying for the Champions League. Off it, Prandelli went further. He helped shape the club’s identity, presenting a Fiorentina with a social conscience to the world. There was the Terzo Tempo fair-play initiative and the decision to forego a commercial shirt sponsor to promote the charity ‘Save the Children’, which came into effect just after his exit.   

When Prandelli accepted the Italy job in the aftermath of the World Cup in South Africa, it was thought that Fiorentina would bring in another Mr Nice. Instead, they made the decision to hire someone with a reputation for being Mr Nasty. It was not well received. Football fans are elephants, not gold fish. They never forget. But they are selective in what they remember. To many of them Mihajlovic remains one of the most divisive figures in the game because of the controversies that marked his playing career, controversies that many take at face value without exploring the complexities behind them, even if that doesn’t at all mitigate or excuse what he did, from racially abusing Patrick Vieira during Lazio’s encounter with Arsenal in October 2000 and spitting at Adrian Mutu during a match against Chelsea, to honouring his friendship with the late war criminal Zeljko Raznatovic – better known as Arkan.

Sinisa's range of bespoke knitwear wasn't particularly popular in Florence

But to refer back to Tuesday’s banner, what’s up for discussion here is Mihajlovic the coach, not Mihajlovic the man. The debate has to be professional, not personal. So let’s look at the facts and in particular the background of Mihajlovic’s arrival.

Fiorentina had finished a disappointing 11th in Prandelli’s final season at the club. They were eliminated from the Champions League in March by Bayern Munich unable to recover from the injustice of the first leg when referee Tom Henning Ovrebo harshly sent off Massimo Gobbi and failed to disallow Miroslav Klose’s winner, which was scored from a clearly offside position. The defeat cast a shadow on the rest of campaign, as did the open secret that Prandelli would be leaving.

That Easter, amid the suspicion Prandelli was in talks with Juventus about replacing caretaker boss Alberto Zaccheroni, one of the brothers who owns Fiorentina, Diego Della Valle, asked that the coach sign a letter to the fans saying he would not be moving to the club’s biggest rivals. Prandelli refused and in a fit of pique Diego announced that he would no longer be patron of Fiorentina. He’d had enough. Around the same time, plans to build a new stadium with hotels and retail space were shelved by the city’s mayor Matteo Renzi, a huge blow to the Della Valle family, while the economic downturn understandably meant their business interests also warranted greater attention. 

The Della Valle family grew distant. They felt a distinct lack of gratitude for resurrecting the club they had bought in 2002, which was then playing under a different name in Serie C2 and still reeling from the effects of bankruptcy. The same fans who had welcomed them as saviours were now staging protests, and the moment had come to ask if their time and money could not be spent better elsewhere. Last January, for instance, they committed £21.5m to the restoration of the Colosseum in Rome while transfer expenditure at Fiorentina throughout the season was £13.3m, the lowest outlay since the club returned to Serie A in 2004.

What’s clear is that there was a climate of discontent before Mihajlovic’s arrival in Florence. Lauded for saving Catania from relegation, his stock had risen substantially since he received the sack from his first coaching position at Bologna. Even so, his experience came under the microscope. He had never started and finished a season with a club, always stepping into the breach and there were suggestions that Mihajlovic had done so well in six months at Catania because they were up against it and needed someone to take no prisoners and give them a good kick up the backside. The job played to his strengths and the team responded.

Fiorentina represented a different proposition entirely. Used to challenging for Europe and being comfortable in Serie A, whenever times were hard, the players could expect Prandelli to put an arm around their shoulders and talk to them calmly. Voices weren’t raised. There was no hair-dryer treatment. In Mihajlovic, a bigger contrast to Prandelli’s style of management could not be found. Alberto Gilardino said it was a bit of a culture shock. That was an understatement but, to be fair, Mihajlovic soon recognised that if he were to get the best out of his players, he would have to adapt.

Matters weren’t helped, however, by an injury crisis that decimated Fiorentina’s squad.  Top playmaker Stevan Jovetic was ruled out for the entire season with torn ligaments in his knee. Goalkeeper Sebastien Frey suffered a similar fate and had been disgruntled anyway by the purchase of Artur Boruc. New signing Gaetano Di’Agostino struggled for fitness and form, reportedly prioritising church over his football. Captain Riccardo Montolivo played through an injury sustained at the World Cup but inevitably succumbed and had to go under the knife before Christmas. Adem Ljajic ate too much chocolate and needed to get his haircut. The list went on. Mihajlovic could never field his best team, the football was unconvincing and an already thin margin for error became thinner and thinner.

Mihajlovic shares a laugh and a joke with Patrick Vieira back in 2000...

Interviewed by Il Corriere Fiorentino, Mihajlovic’s wife Arianna said: “I suffer if he loses because I know that the mute phase begins… He already speaks little, if he then loses a freeze descends on the house. He becomes a fish...” Was Mihajlovic out of his depth? Considering the circumstances, the ninth place finish he achieved was not a disaster. Fiorentina were four points and three places better off than the previous year. They had taken the lead in 20 games, but in those cases Fiorentina only went on to win 11 of them. There were missed opportunities that’s for sure. But it could still be said an improvement had been made. Nevertheless the expectations of the supporters hadn’t been met. 

When Mihajlovic was again linked with the vacant post at Inter after Leonardo’s departure for a desk job at Paris Saint-Germain in June, another banner was draped over the gates at the Stadio Artemio Franchi. “Moratti, please take him away from us. Thanks!!!” it read.  Much to their disappointment, he didn’t take them up on their offer, deciding on Gian Piero Gasperini instead. A measure of fun was to be had though when someone stole Mihajlovic’s favourite Oliver People’s sunglasses at a pre-season press conference only to respond to a club appeal and return them in an unmarked envelope.

Even so, the malaise at Fiorentina couldn’t be lifted.  

Diego Della Valle’s brother, Andrea, wrote an open letter outlining the situation. “I need to know with extreme clarity what the city and real fans want and expect for the future of Fiorentina, to understand if there is still the motivation for the owners to continue down a common path of sporting passion, to build the best possible future and to restore all the pleasure of going to the stadium to spend an entertaining afternoon. If there aren’t these conditions then, as we have said before, the owners are ready to step aside.”

Montolivo was one of the first to give an answer, one that he had been mulling over for some time. Entering the final year of his contract, he revealed that he wouldn’t be signing a renewal.  Fiorentina stripped him of the captaincy and though there were rumours of a move to Milan, a deal to suit both parties couldn’t be struck and he remains at the club, still eligible for selection as long as he keeps working hard in training, which he has done to his credit.

Despite everything, once Mihajlovic’s second season started there were reasons to be hopeful. Fiorentina opened their account with a 2-0 victory at home to Bologna, while a defeat to Udinese the following week was immediately put right by the 3-0 thrashing of Parma in front of their own fans. Jovetic announced his return with a brace and put pen to paper on a new long-term contract until 2016. Then came a run of five games without a win, coinciding with an injury to Alberto Gilardino and a 2-1 defeat to the old enemy Juventus, which brought the pressure right back on to Mihajlovic. 

Last Sunday’s visit of Genoa was labeled a must-win, even by the club. Fiorentina president Mario Cognigni insisted that while a “Mihajlovic problem” does not exist, results have to change. Before kick-off the supporters unveiled banners in favour of certain names put forward in the press to replace him. “I want Delio Rossi,” claimed one. “Me too,” said another. Some even got behind Genoa because their coach Alberto Malesani, once in the employ of Fiorentina in the mid-90s, remains popular. Much to their chagrin, Mihajlovic prevailed, as Andrea Lazzari’s 41st minute strike separated the two sides and saved his coach from being fired though it wasn’t enough to silence the whistles and vile chants.

Tuesday’s ‘apology’ was a positive sign. Tentative efforts to open further channels of rapprochement between Mihajlovic and the fans were made on Thursday when an open training session was organised with a friendly against the Under-17s on the cards. Whether the peace is genuine or phoney remains to be seen. Street signs in the city have been defaced to read via Sinisa da Firenze [jokingly pointing Mihajlovic in the direction of the exit] and if Fiorentina were to lose to Chievo on Sunday ahead of their next fixture against Milan then he might well be forced to take it.