Stefano Fiore turns 44 today, so Hasan Saiyid looks back at the former Udinese and Italy midfielder’s complicated career.
At Euro 2000, the usual debate around which superstar should play had followed Italy into the tournament. Was it to be Francesco Totti or Alessandro Del Piero? The debate staged the usual regional anxieties and allegiances that the blue of the Azzurri shirt never seems to soothe completely. But while the media quibbled over their preferences, a native of Cosenza by the name of Stefano Fiore had announced his arrival on the international stage with a breathtaking goal of his own against Belgium.
Fiore didn’t represent any of Le Sette Sorelle (The Seven Sisters) - a now-disbanded sisterhood but once comprised of the ultra-competitive clubs of Parma, Roma, Lazio, Milan, Inter, Fiorentina and Juventus. But he had just finished an outstanding season at unfancied Udinese, during which he scored nine goals, playing more of an attacking role in Coach Luigi De Canio’s midfield. While Fiore had even been used on the left wing, Zoff deployed him closer to the strikers for Italy, but he considered him equally adept at playing a more conventional position in central midfield.
Fiore considered his versatility to be bittersweet.
“My preferred position had always been to play inside of a three or five-man midfield, but it was where I played the least in my career,” he said back in 2015. “I have played as a regista, often as a trequartista and even out wide.”
His goal against Belgium at the King Baudouin Stadium in Brussels that summer’s night illustrated precisely what Fiore was capable of when played closer to the front players as he exchanged a quick pass with Filippo Inzaghi, before releasing an unstoppable shot from the edge of the area. But it was his celebration that was emblematic of his career. Pointing to his name on the back of his jersey as he wheeled away, Fiore was reminding everyone that he existed, that he mattered.
That night he earned his sixth cap for Italy at the age of 25, but only keen followers of Italian football knew who Fiore was. His career wasn’t particularly decorated, even if at Parma he had won a UEFA Cup serendipitously at the age of just 20.
“I was co-owned by Cosenza and Parma, but I ended up at Parma after they won the blind auction for me. I was playing for their Primavera team but then found a place in the senior side and won the UEFA Cup.”
In 1999 he would win the UEFA Cup again with Parma after having played a much more crucial role that season, but he only came on as a substitute for Juan Sebastian Veron in the 77th minute of the Final against Olympique Marseille.
Finding himself on the fringes, Fiore went to Udinese the following season, where he became a key figure, winning the Inter-Toto Cup in 2000 and scoring nine goals in each of the two seasons he was at the club.
His performances attracted the attention of Lazio, where, most notably, he lost to Porto in a UEFA Cup semi-final in 2003 and won the Coppa Italia in 2004. Fiore was an essential part of that Biancoceleste team, especially after their financial troubles in 2002 forced an exodus of high-profile players like club captain Alessandro Nesta and striker Hernan Crespo.
He stayed on until 2004 before moving to several other clubs including Valencia and Fiorentina, but his career started to fade after his Lazio stint, and he finally retired in 2011 after playing for his hometown club of Cosenza in Serie C1.
Depending on who you talk to, Fiore was either a forgettable journeyman midfielder or a player who was criminally underrated. To those who witnessed his career after he left Lazio, he was a serviceable player, but the early noughties epitomised his undeniable ability.
Fiore’s story is compelling, not only because of what was but also what could have been. Yes, he won UEFA Cups, but not as a central figure. Yes, he was versatile, but he often played in positions that he did not prefer. Yes, he played at Lazio, but right when their financial problems were about to commence.
Despite having the quality to take that final leap into stardom, Fiore remained for several years only on the cusp of unqualified success. His career is a perverse counterpoint to that of a modest player who luckily finds himself at a triumphant team.
Fittingly, he came within seconds of winning that European Championship with Italy. His performances throughout Euro 2000 earned him a starting spot in the Final against France in Rotterdam but, after a crushing, last-gasp French equaliser, Italy lost to a David Trezeguet golden goal in extra-time.
When watching replays of that Final, it is hard not to allow yourself a smile when the panning camera lingers during the Italian national anthem for a second or two on Fiore - a player easy to forget, but always a joy to remember.