15 November ~ In Italy, il modello inglese is one of those phrases that is generally bandied around whenever an ambitious presidente announces plans for a new, out-of-town stadium, to be populated by smiling passive consumers with official club shop bags tucked dutifully under their reserved seats. Now, however, a more palatable English model is establishing itself in the Italian game. Earlier this summer, fans of Serie D side Unione Venezia announced the formation of Venezia United, taking their lead from the various trusts that have been a part of the British footballing landscape during the last decade and enlisting the help of the European arm of UK organisation Supporters Direct.
Venezia United are not the first Italian club to launch such a scheme (both Ancona, in Serie B last year but demoted down to D after bankruptcy, and Cavese have trusts set up with Supporters Direct’s involvement), but they are the most high profile, bringing national press focus on the idea of clubs run with the direct involvement of fans.
Venezia were relegated from Serie A in 2002. With their Pierluigi Penzo stadium sitting out on the Sant’Elena island and players such as Pippo Maniero and Alvaro Recoba appearing in their distinctive black, orange and green shirts, the lagunari were a favourite with neutrals, a unique club for a unique city. When president Maurizio Zamparini sold up and headed south for Palermo (taking a fair chunk of the playing staff with him), Venezia hit a downward spiral of debt and disaster from which they never recovered.
Relegation to Serie B was quickly followed by financial problems (sadly an all-too-common curse; Zamparini had originally saved the club from bankruptcy when he bought them back in 1987). Their involvement in the 2005 match-fixing scandal with Genoa then saw them demoted down to Serie C2. Finally, last year, with financial irregularities again playing their part, they were relegated to Serie D and amateur football. Having dropped off the calcio radar, a fan group announced in June of this year that it had formed a supporters’ trust, aiming to establish a key role in securing the future of the club and, in the words of its new manfiesto, to cultivate a “sense of belonging, attachment and attention” to the team among the Venetian community.
Venezia United hope to raise €300,000 (£254,000) by next summer, allowing them to buy up ten per cent of the club (with the full support of president Enrico Rigoni), and currently boast 1,000 members who have so far pitched in some €25,000 (fans can join up for a fee of €10 but are encouraged to make larger donations). A website runs video highlights and interviews with players and staff, supplies pdfs of match programmes and provides live commentary on the Radio Venezia United channel. There’s a great feeling of inclusion, of bringing fans together and reminding the outside world that Unione Venezia are still very much alive. With the backing of the mayor and local council, the ultimate ambition is to emulate the successes of AFC Wimbledon and FC United of Manchester and to set up Italy’s first community club, one that can then go on truly to represent a city of Venice’s size and international profile.
There’s been plenty of talk of new dawns in Italian football, of clubs buying up their stadiums, of more equitable television deals, of improved security. Looking at supporters as a possible solution to calcio’s ills, as opposed to being one of its biggest problems, has never really been part of the equation before. Venezia United are working hard to allow fans a crucial say in the running of their often troubled club. At the same time, they’re setting a template for changing the Italian game at a grassroots level and, just possibly, further up the league structure too. Matthew Barker