The notion of a football hipster community is pretty new. It’s a phenomenon borne of the internet age. You need to be able to have the technology to watch leagues across the world, and see the trends your fellow hipsters are following. Unlike music, there is no ‘underground scene’ which facilitates both the discovery and the sharing of these teams. There are only so many video cassettes and CDs of Red Star’s 1991 European Cup campaign, after all. And each year one or two teams are the anointed ones; but only for a season, because by the end of that they are either broken up or too big to remain the sole property for hipsterdom.
Before I move on, I just want to clarify that I am not using the term hipster in this article in a disparaging way; it’s just that there is no other way to describe them.
A couple of years ago Napoli were primed to be obvious candidates for this role; but that was before Chelsea and Didier Drogba pounded them into submission – in football the dragons guarding the tower eventually kill our knights in shining armour. Then it was the turn of Athletic Bilbao (of course if you are a hipster you should refer to them simply as Athletic Club) to capture the imaginations. A few years before that Villareal occupied that romantic role. And finally last season, it was Dortmund who vanquished all but one foe over the course of nine months.
There are obvious requirements to being selected for this role – it could be a side which has no history (Pellegrini’s Villareal) or a fallen giant who’ve recovered without using a lot of money, preferably with unheralded or young players (Dortmund, Napoli and Athletic all fall into this category). But more than anything, the team needs to play attractive football – no hipster ever truly loved Otto Rehhagel’s Greece teams. It also can’t be a team from The Greatest League In The WorldTM as such a team jumps the divide from under-appreciated to over-appreciated rather quickly.
The obvious candidate for 2013/14 would be Atletico Madrid – a team challenging the big two in Spain, whose recovery is reliant on a young manager making the team greater than the sum of its parts. Yet Atleti are just not that team. They are too mainstream, not revolutionary enough and don’t have the required romance. They will need to go beyond the call of duty (say, reaching the semi-finals of the Champions League, for instance) to be considered worthy. But there are two teams who do fit the bill better – Fiorentina and Real Sociedad.
Real Sociedad were, much like Atheltic Bilbao, a purely Basque team for most of their history. It wasn’t until 1989 that they bought their first non-Basque player (and only 2001 when they bought their first non-Basque Spanish player). The reason for this change were Athletic Bilbao, who have monopolized the Basque nationalist ideology; Real Sociedad just couldn’t compete with them. Despite this they’ve had a glorious history: they are one of the only six teams in La Liga history to have won multiple league titles, in the Liga all-time table they are ranked 8th. And as recently as 2002/03 they challenged for the league title.
Fiorentina have won two Scudettos and reached the final of each of the three major continent-wide UEFA tournaments. Their team of the late 90s, with Batistuta and Rui Costa, would have been the hipsters’ choice for years had internet existed back then.
Of course the less romantic history would state that Fiorentina were involved in the Calciopoli scandal in 2006, and were relegated from the top tier due to it. Meanwhile, la Real doped in their great 2002/03 season, as their chairman of the time has admitted. So fixing and doping, the two great millstones around sports’ neck, both are represented here.
Most hipster choices have to be tactically revolutionary. Roma’s deployment of the false nine, Villareal’s 4-4-2 with two interiores, Athletic’s Bielsification and Dortmund’s gegenpressing all provide an excuse to wax lyrically about the science of football. This is one of the major reasons Simeone’s Atletico aren’t really an option.
Similarly la Real don’t do anything revolutionary, but their journey and their methodology are representative of the football zeitgeist. The play a 4-3-3 where they keep possession in the midfield like Barca, but the key to their offense is a front three that relies on the break – the best team outside of Madrid in La Liga at doing that; the best of both worlds without the negatives that come with it. They played 4-4-2 through most of this century, until Phillippe Montanier switched Xabi Prieto, easily the best player in their recent history, from the right-midfield position to one of the three central midfielders. Their abandonment of a reactive 4-4-2 with two wingers to a proactive 4-3-3 with inside forwards makes them a perfect study in the tactical transformation that football is undergoing. And with it they created an extraordinary team last year, they scored more goals than anyone bar the big two – including the Falcao-powered Atletico, and they did it against everyone. In the six matches against the teams that finished above them, they got seven points (decent by Liga standards), scoring 11 and conceding 15 in those games. They beat Barca and Atleti and should have beaten Madrid in both their encounters too.
Fiorentina act on a much higher plane though. Much like Athletic or Napoli before them, they rely on a unique formation. On paper it could be said to be a typical Italian 3-5-2, yet it was so much more. The preferred front two last year (Jovetic and Ljajic) were essentially two number 10s; the midfield trio (Borja, Aquilani and Pizarro) were central playmakers, and at least one of their fullbacks (Cuadrado) is really a winger. So if you broke it down you could call their formation a 3-7-0 without a single destroyer. That’s the sort of thing Guardiolistas would cream themselves over. Of course Montella isn’t tactically stubborn, he sometimes played a boring old 4-3-3; but it was the 3-5-2 which made them so much fun. They had the second best attack in Serie A, one goal shy of Napoli, despite no one scoring more than 13 league goals – Napoli had Edinson Cavani score 29 off their 73 goals. Well, that was last season – both Ljajic and Jovetic have been sold and two more conventional strikers (Rossi and Mario Gomez – the latter the very definition of a forward who isn’t a number 10) are there now (Rossi having missed last season with injury). So we may not see the 3-7-0 with everyone chipping in with goals, but a 3-5-2 with that midfield trio will be fun nonetheless.
The Stories and the Players
The key to any choice of the hipster/neutral fan are the stories that surround the team. Sure the 90 minutes are fun but it’s what happens for the rest of the week that defines each team in the twitter age. That is what separates the hipsters’ choices from teams like Lyon or Porto. Riquelme, Bielsa, Cavani and Klopp – those are the guys which create the emotional attachment. And in this case both Fiorentina and Real Sociedad are well served.
Fiorentina have stories of players who are familiar to worldwide audiences from ‘bigger’ clubs and are now performing in a place where they aren’t under-appreciated. Gomez, Pizarro and Aquilani could all have such narratives written around them. The presence of three ex-Villareal regulars is also no coincidence as Fiorentina are attempting to do in Serie A what Villareal did for most of the past decade in Spain. But their best story would be of the manager himself: Vincenzo Montella, a great goalscorer in his day, was let go by Roma in the summer of 2011 after winning 7 of his 13 games at the club, as the new owners looked for their own vision. He joined Catania, where he took over a team expected to fight relegation and reached the 40-point mark with 10 games to go. Finally he came to Fiorentina, where he’s had the faith and the wallets of the Della Valles, and he’s turned them into the most entertaining team in Italy.
For Real Sociedad, the story is more dramatic. The obvious narrative would be to look at their two best attackers, Griezmann and Vela, as two wunderkinds who wowed the world in underage tournaments before stagnating until last season when they finally began to fulfill their potential. Or to write about Inigo Martinez, an exceptional ball playing centre-half who loves the spectacular – in the space of four months in 2011 he scored two goals from the halfway line, and scored a backheel own goal from 30 yards out. The better narrative would be to look at the club’s journey. Their relegation in 2007 forced them to look inwards where, thankfully, they had an exceptional crop coming up. They spend an eighth of their budget on Zubieta, their academy. The result is that six years on from that relegation, they have probably the most homegrown team in a league which also includes Barcelona and Athletic Bilbao. Of the 23 players that have played for them this season, 15 have come through the youth/B team, and they haven’t spent over 3.5million Euros on a single player since they came back up in 2010. This summer they sold Asier Illaramendi (a youth product) – who went to succeed another of their products, Xabi Alonso, at Madrid – for over 25m Euros; meanwhile they only bought Haris Seferovic for a tenth of what they got for Illara. The best possible illustration of this team, of course, is Xabi Prieto. Described by Sid Lowe as a slow motion genius; he came through their ranks and made his debut in 2003/04. He was on the bench the last time Real Sociedad played in the Champions League (in 2004). Relegation followed a few years later but Prieto never left. He spent his mid-20s playing in the second division when he would have been good enough to start for at least 15 of the 20 teams in the first division. Now he’s reaping the benefits of his loyalty and idealism, as he captains the club of which he became a season ticket holder as five year old to the biggest club competition in the world. He remains the key to how the team play acting as the chief creator. And if he ever kisses the badge on his shirt nobody can accuse him of being disingenuous.
So which one to choose then? Well, la Real have the far more romantic and fun story, but Fiorentina are just better. And this is an important point; for all the guff I wrote, the reason why Napoli, Dortmund, Villareal and Athletic came to prominence was due to their success in the continental competitions (especially against English teams) – and I fear that while Fiorentina should be best placed to win the Europa League (until the 8 dropouts from CL group stages), Real Sociedad might crash and burn in the group stage of the Champions League. Their opening day loss at home to Shakhtar, despite completely dominating the match, might be a harbinger of things to come. And la Real fans might finally start to appreciate the work that Montanier did.
Finally, Fiorentina also have two things that Villareal, Roma, Napoli and Dortmund had: a distinctly unique strip, and a supremely likeable manager. So, it’s got to be them, right?
UPDATE: This article was written back in September, since then the events of the new season hasn’t been kind to La Real who find themselves one point off relegation, but it is a similar start to the one they had last season, so there’s always hope. And Atleti’s evolution under Simeone means that despite their handicaps the sheer weight of their performances (won every match this season except two draws against Barcelona) makes them ideal for the hipster’s choice in Spain. Then there’s also Villareal returning like the last two seasons never happened.
Fiorentina are in a better state but their thunder in the league has been stolen by Rudi Garcia’s Roma. And Rafa Benitez’s Napoli might have been even better placed for making a dent in the European scene, if they hadn’t been placed in the Group of Death.