Italy’s quivering, fevered passion for its football is, historically, its top division’s main attraction. Throughout the 1990s it was rightly considered Europe’s premier competition: Batistuta, Zidane, Baggio, Maldini, Costacurta and most of the continent’s elite all flocked to Serie A. It forged an unlikely romantic relationship with English football fans, as Gazzetta Football Italia showed free-to-air highlights of Europe’s great players prancing around Europe’s great stadiums in Europe’s great kits.
The rose-tinted view of the definitive era of this footballing romance was helped by the surrounding area. From the azure waters on the Amalfi coast and the fiery passion in Naples, to the sophistication of Milan and the grandeur of Rome, Italy is a beautiful ribbon of the very essence of life, stretching straight into the Mediterranean. Italians themselves are totally enveloped by this: Giuseppe Verdi, in his opera Attila, acknowledged that “you may have the universe if I may have Italy.”
The point at which this ribbon extends into the sea lies the region of Emilia-Romagna, where its gastronomy and history attract visitors from across the world. Its football clubs are also a source of pride for the region; their teams have played in 145 collective seasons of Serie A, and four of them (Bologna, Sassuolo, Parma and S.P.A.L.) currently reside in the top flight.
With Cristiano Ronaldo’s recent arrival in Turin and the ever-improving quality of Italian teams, Serie A could well be returning to its former glories. Like most of Europe’s elite leagues, it has had its various turns in the spotlight. But unlike the others, its romantic highs stand in stark contrast to its crushing lows. The 2006 Calciopoli scandal cast a harsh and revealing light on the shady dealings of the elite – Juventus were relegated to Serie B, and Fiorentina and Lazio were handed severe fines and points deductions.
This is the thin end of a tumultuous wedge in Italian football: since Fiorentina went bankrupt in 2002, 153 Italian sides have either merged with other clubs, been re-founded or ceased to exist altogether. Just this season, Bari and Cesena’s financial difficulties meant they failed to register in time for Serie B and were dropped to Serie D.
A club from Emilia-Romagna who may have faced the trickiest of paths is Reggio Audace FC who, from their inception in 1919 to 2018, were known as A.C. Reggiana. I Granata have spent most of their history in the lower leagues of Italy – though they did spend three years of the 1990s in Serie A with some notable talent. Their best finish, 13th in the 1993/94 season, was thanks in no small part to Brazilian goalkeeper Cláudio Taffarel, who went on to win the 1994 World Cup. Their lofty achievements were beyond their comparatively modest finances, which has largely been the cause of their myriad issues since their promotion to Serie A.
The league deemed their old stadium, the Stadio Mirabello, unfit for use, so the club took the unprecedented decision to self-fund the building of a new stadium. With many fans purchasing ten-year season tickets, sponsorship funding secured and a shopping complex being built next to the ground, the future looked bright for Reggiana. Unfortunately, by 2005, delays to the shopping complex and huge financial commitments to their stadium project left the club in a perilous position. With no funding secured from governing bodies, A.C. Reggiana were forced to fold, re-form and start again in Serie D.
The new stadium, that the club had bet their dream and invested a gargantuan amount of their budget on, was bought by Italian property magnate Giorgio Squinzi who, to the Reggiana fans’ dismay, owned local rivals Sassuolo. The stadium that the club, the city and its fans devoted themselves to was now owned, and rented back to them, by the rich owner of their neighbouring rivals – a bleak and sobering reality that hasn’t really faded since.
There was a brief period when it looked like Reggiana might return to the heights they briefly climbed to. Mike Piazza, the MLB Hall-of-Famer, bought the club for €3million in June 2016. With Italian grandparents and time spent coaching their national team, his passionate speech about returning Reggiana to Italian football’s top table was received well at his unveiling. With smoke from flares whipped around him by supporters’ flags, this looked to have been the moment the fans craved: a city reborn.
Alas, it was not to be. Piazza and his wife, who had no business experience whatsoever, struggled as owners of the club – it seemed that, whilst his passion and love for the city was evident, converting it into meaningful results proved too difficult. In a famous press conference, in an all almost parodical tribute to Kevin Keegan’s “I will love it if we beat them”, Piazza bemoaned that Reggiana were being pushed around, and were charged excessive and unsustainable rent by Sassuolo to play in their stadium.
Despite this, there was still a chance that Reggiana could emulate the success of its neighbours, particularly Parma and Sassuolo, by first achieving promotion to Serie B. Piazza had sought outside investment from overseas, changed the manager and increased the wage bill, all in the hope of gaining promotion and the financial security it could have provided. In their play-off semi-final, however, they lost to Siena after a controversial penalty was given in the tenth minute of stoppage time. Piazza erupted, accusing the Italian Football Federation of corruption.
Soon after, in 2018, the Piazza family left Reggiana abruptly – they deserted a set of fans, staff and players who felt blindsided by their sudden departure. The club was left with no option but to fold for the second time in their history. Hence Reggio Audace F.C was born, and are currently challenging at the top of Serie D.
In this week’s episode of On The Continent’s ‘Mailbag’, a listener got in touch to say they felt “it was a shame that the club was run into the ground at the hands of baseball hall-of-fame catcher Mike Piazza. I was appalled to hear my son say that the team was irrelevant, and lacked ambition due to playing in lower leagues, and wasn’t worth saving.”
This seems to be the problem, perhaps one stemming from a financial model entirely different to that of the Premier League – or La Liga to a lesser extent – in which their rising tides raise all boats. In Italy, with lower broadcast revenues and smaller crowds, the need for financial stability is paramount, yet difficult to come by. These smaller clubs are regularly disregarded by any fans outside the region, and by the owners whose whims of fancy bring them to the city, but who leave soon after.
These clubs cannot be allowed to fade beyond insecurity and into extinction. For every giant in Serie A, playing against Europe’s best teams and with some of the world’s best players, Italy needs teams like Reggiana. Teams who are desperate for a chance to compete among those giants, repaying the local fans whose continued support – financial or otherwise – often singlehandedly keeps the clubs afloat. For these fans, packed into a tiny stadium in a small town in Emilia-Romagna, are the true spirit of Calcio.