Matthew Barker reports on a desperate but imaginative protest movement that relied on solidarity from the local community

In late February, players, staff and supporters of Lombardy side Pro Patria staged a three-day sit-in protest at the club’s Stadio Carlo Speroni. In recent years the Lega Pro Division Two (fourth tier) team has endured a litany of miserable luck and disastrous financial mismanagement. Occupying the stadium was a last attempt to save a dying club and a famous name in the Italian game, even if i tigrotti (the little tigers) last played in Serie A in 1956.

In 2008, just weeks after losing a Serie C1 relegation play-off against Hellas Verona, they were declared bankrupt and only reinstated to the league after no alternative club could be found. In June 2009, the renamed Aurora Pro Patria 1919 was bought by the Tesoro family, with the 28-year-old Antonio appointed president. His father Savino, a Milan-based industrialist, would bankroll proceedings and, inevitably, there was talk of a new, multi-functional stadium.

Somewhere along the line, though, father and son fell out. So much so that Tesoro senior cut off all funding of the club and stopped talking to his son altogether. By last summer, it quickly became apparent that this was a major problem; wages weren’t being paid, triggering a series of fines and, eventually, a two-point deduction. Antonio insisted the family feud would end eventually and that before too long his stubborn old dad would get his wallet out again.

In December, after six months without wages, players and staff staged a one-minute strike during a game against Montichiari. At the time, Pro Patria were topping the table (despite that two-point handicap), guided by new coach Raffaele Novelli, a keen student of Zdenek Zeman who shared the Czech’s attacking instincts and laconic outspokenness. At a press conference to announce the strike action, he addressed the media in tears: “This is incredible agony. It’s terrible to see the players treated like this.”

On January 5, Savino Tesoro announced that he was selling the club to an estate agent called Massimo Pattoni, a man with no previous football experience. Wages would be paid, for the past three months at least. The Tesoro era was over. However, within days Novelli was telling the local press that neither players nor staff recognised Pattoni as club patron after he pocketed all the matchday revenue from a high-profile game against Piedmont rivals Casale.

“Pattoni isn’t the club,” Novelli declared. “The ground staff, the secretaries, the physiotherapists; these people are the club.” The new owner insisted he first had to pay monies owed to the administrators of Lega Pro before addressing the outstanding wage bill. Another deadline, February 14, was set, when players and staff would finally get to see some money.

The club’s general secretary, Giuseppe Iodice, began turning up at the stadium every day for a morning shower after his water was cut off. Brazilian midfielder William Justino had to move in with a local journalist after he was evicted from his flat. And it wasn’t just about wages. Cash had to be found for basic running costs: the printing of match tickets had to be paid for, a local laundrette had to help out with washing kit, stewards had to be persuaded to work for expenses only, supporters raised funds to allow players to travel to away games.

With the February deadline passed, plans for the sit-in were announced. “We’re all fed up of being messed around,” Iodice explained. “Whoever took on this club would’ve known about all the trouble we’ve had, about the debts. Pattoni is just insulting our intelligence. We are the true proprietors of this club now.” Camp beds were moved into the Speroni changing rooms and supporters brought in food; one ultra, working in a local bakery, brought in cakes “to cheer the lads up a bit”. It was, as one nostalgic Gazzetta dello Sport reporter pointed out, “just like university in the 1970s”.

The protest brought plenty of attention to the plight of a proud club. At the time of writing, a consortium of Milanese entrepreneurs is expected to complete a takeover that would see the club changing hands for the fourth time in three years. Remarkably, despite the huge disruptions off the pitch, Pro Patria have remained one of the form teams in a tight division, staying in the top three for most of the season. A recent loss of form has seen i tigrotti pick up just two points in five games and lose ground on leaders Tritium and Pro Vercelli. Novelli, typically, has been in bullish mood: “I could give you 10,000 excuses for our lack of victories, but I don’t want to hide behind anything.”

Even if new owners do come in, a number of those long-suffering players are expected to finally leave and some €3-6 million (£2-5m) is needed just to keep the club afloat. Lega Pro president Mario Macalli has claimed that up to a quarter of clubs in both divisions could go to the wall this summer. Clearly it’s not just Pro Patria who face an uncertain future.

From WSC 291 May 2011

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