|Inzaghi and Fiore (right) celebrate the goal against Belgium|
At Euro2000, the usual debate of 'which superstar should play' had followed the Italian national team into the tournament. Was it to be Francesco Totti or Alessandro Del Piero? After the group stage, it seemed coach Dino Zoff preferred a twenty-three-year-old Totti to Del Piero. The Roma man started the first two victorious games for Italy against Turkey and Belgium, scoring in the latter; Juventus's Del Piero started the last meaningless one against Sweden, in which he nonetheless scored a blistering winner in the 88th minute.
The debate staged the usual regional anxieties and allegiances that the blue of the Azzurri never seems to soothe completely. But while the media quibbled over their preferences, a Cosenza native 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 disfigured sisterhood, but once comprised of the ultra-competitive clubs of Parma, Roma, Lazio, Milan, Inter, Fiorentina, and Juventus. He had just finished an outstanding season at unfancied, sensible Udinese in which he scored nine goals playing more of an attacking role in Luigi De Canio's midfield. Zoff deployed him closer to the strikers, but he considered him equally adept at playing a more conventional position in central midfield. Fiore was even deployed on the left flank during his career as well.
It was a bittersweet versatility.
"My preferred position has always been to play inside of a 3 or 5 man midfield, but it was where I played less in my career," he recently said in an interview to fantagazzetta. "I have played as a regista and often as a trequartista, and even on the flank."
His goal against Belgium at the Baudouin Stadium that summer night illustrated precisely what Fiore was capable of when played closer to the front, as he exchanged a quick pass with Filippo Inzaghi before releasing an unstoppable shot from near 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 still existed, that he still mattered.
That night he earned his sixth cap for Italy at the age of twenty-five, 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 only the age of twenty.
"I was co-owned by Cosenza and Parma, but I ended up at Parma after they won a bid," he recalls. "I was playing for the youth 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
playing a much more crucial role in that season, but he only came on as a substitute for Juan Sebastian Veron in the 77th minute of the Final against Marseille. Marginalized, Fiore went to Udinese where he finally earned the recognition that he had sought.
|Fiore in action for Udinese|
But his success was transient. After Udinese, came Lazio, Valencia, Fiorentina, and Livorno but Fiore was never able to replicate the success of the years between 1999 and 2001 (it should be noted that he had his moments while playing for Lazio and Fiorentina). That period was his apotheosis as a footballer, and near the end of his career Fiore slowly faded into relative obscurity.
For Italy, after that game against Belgium, Fiore continued to have a remarkable tournament. He provided an assist for Totti's goal against Romania in the quarter-final, and started the Final against France, which Italy lost to a golden goal. When I watch replays of that Final even now after seventeen years (I make sure to end my viewing right before Wiltord's equalizer, of course), I still allow myself a smile when the panning camera lingers for a second or two on Fiore during the Italian national anthem.
I read about him in April of this year after he was involved in an accident in Rome that killed a 22-year-old man. Fiore was cleared of any culpability in the death. Fittingly, he now works for the youth sector of the club that propelled him into recognition--Udinese.