Rejection of commercialised top divisions in favour of community-based teams

icon nofans17 September ~ Something’s been stirring in Italy’s lower and amateur leagues for a while now. Inspired in part by the success of English clubs such as AFC Wimbledon and FC United of Manchester, the grassroots game has been invigorated by a new wave of DIY, community-based teams, gathered loosely around a “calcio popolare” (folk football) banner.

Some, like Afro Napoli United, in Naples, and RFC Lions Ska, in neighbouring Caserta, have become focal points for anti-racism, pro-immigration movements. Others wave an against-modern-football flag. One of the first of these independently minded clubs, CS Lebowski, based in central Florence, celebrate their fifth year this weekend with a debut appearance in the Prima Categoria, just a couple of promotions away from Serie D.

Back in 2004, a group of teenage Fiorentina fans, disgruntled at supporters’ continued mistreatment and the commercialisation of the game, began following Porta Romana, one of the city’s lower-league teams. L’arancione (the oranges) trace their roots back to the late 1950s, and have just begun a new season in the Eccellenza, one level below Serie D (and one above Lebowksi). However, ten years ago they were struggling to get a goal, never mind a win. When the new fan group turned up, waving flags, letting off flares and chanting, miffed Porta Romana players initially assumed that they were being made fun of.

The support was genuine enough, as was the joy of rediscovering the giddy enjoyment of football fandom, but there was always the sense that they’d rather hijacked an existing club, with its own history and identity. Far better instead to start up one of their own. In 2010, CS Lebowski was born (the CS stands for Centro Storico, ie, the centre of the city; Lebowski is, of course, in tribute to the Coen Brothers’ stoner anti-hero).

Self-financed and run on the tightest of budgets (the team play in distinctive black-and-grey shirts because that was the cheapest option), the new club quickly found their feet. Games at the San Donnino ground attracted crowds of three to four hundred like-minded souls, and progress through the divisions proved fairly painless.

Last season they made it up to the Prima Categoria via the play-offs. With the recent signing of 42-year-old striker Paolo Montagni up front, a veteran of the Italian lower-leagues closing in on his 400th career goal, there’s optimism for another decent showing. Promotion this time around would, however, mean getting the better of long-established clubs, some of which, like Aglianese and Fucecchio, have recent experience of life higher up the ladder.

It all starts with a home game against Tavola. The closer Lebowski and other similar clubs get to the footballing mainstream, the more they’re going to have to reconsider issues like finance and crowd controls. All that’s a way off yet, but with big names such as Parma continuing to fall through the cracks, the lower leagues are enjoying some level of media coverage. The hope now is that the alternatives offered by calcio popolare can reach a wider audience. Matthew Barker

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