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  • James HorncastleItaly writer

Kill the lights. Darkness falls on the Artemio Franchi. It’s a hot summer’s night. There’s no football on. Florence is full of tourists. Any self-respecting local is out of town and at the beach.

But 10,000 Fiorentina fans have turned out. In years to come they wanted to be able to say: “I was there.” Smartphones are yanked out of pockets and turned into torches. There was a UFO sighting here in the ’50s. Franck Ribery isn’t an alien. But he is a star. “He’s here,” a bloke shouts. “He’s coming.”

“Eye of the Tiger” drones out of the speakers. In the Maratona stand, dry ice pumps out of one of the stairwells. A figure emerges, backlit by purple LEDs. The stage is his. Tonight the ground becomes the Franckie, not the Franchi.

At Ribery’s introductory news conference the following morning, Fiorentina’s sporting director Daniele Prade thanked the club’s new owner Rocco Commisso. Without him it would have been “unthinkable.” The adjective was entirely appropriate because bringing Ribery to Florence had not entered Prade’s head. It was somebody else’s idea.

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“One day around June 20, I spoke to Luca Toni,” Prade revealed. “I’d just come back to Fiorentina [the Roman left Udinese in the summer to reprise his old role in Florence] and he says to me: ‘Direttore, what you got in mind [for the transfer market]?’ So I told him the first thing we wanted to do [under Commisso] was bring enthusiasm back to a city that at the time was depressed from a football point of view. He thought about it for a second and said: ‘Sign Franck Ribery.’ I was like, ‘Come on! What do you mean sign Franck Ribery? How we going to do that?'”

The incredulity left Toni undeterred. By the end of the conversation he’d convinced Prade, and five days later a mutual friend set up a call with Ribery. “When I got the chance to speak to him it was impossible not to fall in love.”

And Prade isn’t the only one.

Fiorentina have had some great players in the past. Everyone knows the names of Gabriel Batistuta and Manuel Rui Costa, but neither of them arrived as superstars. The same can be said of Mohamed Salah. They developed into them over time. World Cup and Champions League winners have been brought in from Bayern Munich in the past. The likes of Stefan Effenberg and Mario Gomez (who was greeted with a welcome parade numbering 20,000 five years ago) moving to Tuscany caused a stir, but you can’t say they captured the imagination quite like Ribery. As a city renowned for its art, flair players — Joaquin is a recent example — are always going to set the pulse racing more than shouty Teutonic midfielders and strikers poaching for tap-ins.

Fiorentina fans know Ribery did not have to join them. He could have gone to Turkey or the Gulf, wherever his friend Salt Bae has a steakhouse. One imagines part of the sales pitch made by his former Bayern teammate, “my brother” Toni, also highlighted that when it comes to bistecca, Florence is mecca.

“Franck chose Florence, not money,” Commisso’s consigliere Joe Barone explained. Which isn’t to say the Frenchman is on minimum wage. No one else over 35 is taking home €4 million a year net in Serie A. Ribery is comfortably the highest earner at the club, making more than double what Federico Chiesa does. On this, the club’s judgement has been questioned. Is it wise to invest that much money in salary and this must hope in a player with so many miles on the clock?

The counter-argument is easy enough to make: Ribery is a “free” transfer, which mitigates the risk. Described as a winning lottery ticket by Franz Beckenbauer, the player joked that the same numbers could work in the Italian one. Fiorentina “haven’t had to pay anything” for the magic slip of paper. The jackpot rolls over.

Sources tell ESPN the contract is incentivised, meaning Ribery will have to perform in order to make all his money, and it’s a challenge that he accepts. All told, Ribery has taken a pay cut on his last Bayern deal, and other clubs were offering more lucrative terms with more cash guaranteed. Tax breaks introduced by the government also make paying Ribery more affordable than in the past.

His new coach, Vincenzo Montella, claims the move will go down as a success if the former Galatasaray and Marseille winger is able to play at “70%” of the level he showed in his prime. In some respects, though, Ribery touching down in Florence has already had the desired effect. The city is in a frenzy. Prade talked about the need to get people excited about the team again. Commisso’s takeover alone did that.

It’s harsh on the Della Valle brothers. They gave Fiorentina their club back. They restored its identity. They assembled a team that qualified for the Champions League, reached a Europa League semifinal and a Coppa Italia final. If the takeover happened so fast, it was because the two of them left the club in a healthy financial state. But the pair, perceived as having lost interest, had become deeply unpopular. Simply not being them, rightly or wrongly, ensured Commisso was welcomed as a hero and liberator. Hope sprung anew.

Even before the Ribery news, season ticket sales went through the roof. And this for a team that went into the final day of last season at risk of relegation. So far, Commisso has played a blinder. Moved by the reception he got in Florence after the completion of the takeover, he returned to New York saying to himself: “I have to do something for these fans.”

That something is Ribery. But the Commisso effect goes beyond luring a big name. As Prade says, “He is from America but profoundly Italian.” Commisso speaks the language. He is in Florence regularly and recognises the importance of being on the ground. “You’re not going to believe how much work is waiting for me in New York,” Commisso said. Montella adds: “I’m convinced that if he could, he’d be in Florence all the time.” But it feels like he is already, which means a so much to supporters.

The previous owners were distant from the fans. Commisso is among them. Literally. He’s a fan first, an owner second. Football is not a business to him, it’s passion. As such, why should Commisso sell Chiesa? Keeping his promise not to has proven every bit as important as signing Ribery.

Now that the transfer window is closed and the dust is beginning to settle, it remains to be seen if Fiorentina can keep the buzz generated by Commisso and the flurry of new acquisitions going.

The mood has changed in Florence, but for now the results remain the same. Despite going in front against Napoli, the team lost a thrilling game 4-3 on opening night. Montella received a pass for that, but the defeat to Genoa — a no-show for 75 minutes — caused concern. He has so far been unable to buck the trend of the past six months. Fiorentina have won one league game since February. It was Christmas when they last celebrated a win in Serie A at the Franchi.

Experience has been added to what remains the youngest team in the league. The average age is still low despite the arrivals of Ribery, Kevin-Prince Boateng, Milan Badelj and Martin Caceres. An uphill start and the sheer number of new faces to assimilate — we’re talking 20 players, including the kids returning from loan — mean Montella is under media scrutiny.

Next up, it’s Juventus, the game of the year in Florence, Cristiano Ronaldo against Ribery, CR7 vs. FR7. Montella has been picking up the tab for dinner ever since the club signed Ribery. He won’t have to if the first league win of the Commisso era comes against the Old Lady. Everything will be on the house.

“I know how big this game is. If we win we get to eat for free all week,” said Boateng. “I already know the restaurants I want to go to.”

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