This Italian season is different from its predecessors in at least one significant resepct. Filippo Ricci reports

Castel di Sangro is a village in the centre of Italy. Not far from Rome, heading east, lost in the mountains. There are 5,635 inhabitants. There is a football stadium, obviously, named Teofilo Patini, that can hold 2,100 people. At the end of last season Castel di Sangro were promoted to the second division, Serie B. Never in the history of Italian football has a small village team got so high up the league. When they beat Ascoli away in the final of the promotion playoff, the entire population waited to greet the team on their return.

The club began its long haul to this level thirteen years ago, when they were amateurs down in the equivalent of the ninth division. Now they are preparing for the most important, and strangest, season in their history. With big teams like Torino, Genoa and Bari to come, the stadium has had to be refurbished and enlarged, to a capacity of 10,000.

A few examples of the gulf that separates Castel di Sangro from the madness of calcio: After matches the players wash their own kit. If there’s a hole in a shirt the player has to sew it. There won’t be a new kit this year. The club’s entire expenses for the season won’t be more than £500,000. Roberto Baggio earns four times that amount in a year. The highest paid player, Andrea Pistella, an experienced forwarded just bought from Lucchese, will be paid around £45,000, but most of the squad will receive between £600 and £2,000 per month, peanuts by Italian standards.

In order to encourage season-ticket sales the club is offering a week’s free holiday in the Mediterranean or Caribbean to anyone buying one, and some are priced as low as £80. Lastly, summing up the club’s no waste philosophy, there is the question of the ritiri, the training camps that all Italian teams go to in pre-season, usually lasting two to three weeks. The coach of Castel di Sangro thinks these are useless and said so, to the delight of the club president who had thus found another way of saving money.

The Serie A clubs are of course in a different world. After the Bosman judgment they have been ‘buying’ all over the place. After two months a new record was set: there will be 83 foreigners in the top division next season. Inter lead the way with eight, followed closely by AC Milan, one behind having just sold Vieria to Arsenal.

The latest wave of imports also suggests that Italian clubs have finally recognized the football talent to be found in Africa. There had been black players in Italian football as far back as the first wave of Brazilians in the 1950s, and more recently French and Dutch players, but until recently when the subject of African players came up, the old myths would be trotted out: they won’t adapt; they’ll feel the cold; if they go home for a holiday you don’t know if they’ll come back.

Now, in the wake of the examples set by George Weah at AC Milan and Abedi Pelé at Torino, suddenly it’s afrimania. Inter bought the Nigerian Nwankwo Kanu from Ajax and, having exceeded the limits for non-EC players, (three per club) have ‘parked’ Mohammed Kallon, the 16-year-old wonder boy from Sierra Leone, and the younger Kanu brother Christopher with a Swiss club; Vicenza and Venezia have players from Cameroon, Wome and Mbenti respectively; Udinese have an Egyptian, Imam, and a Ghanaian, Gargo, and there are even white South Africans, Tinkler and Fish, with Cagliari and Lazio. Palermo were also supposed to be buying Nii Lamptey from Coventry, but pulled out at the last minute to the apparent dismay of their supporters.

Even at this level, though, one team stands apart from the others. For the third consecutive year, Piacenza have decided to save money and not bought foreign players. It seemed that they would be tempted this year after the departure of coach Gigi Cagni, who had set out to prove that a club could survive in Serie A with just homegrown talent, but after a bid for the Russian Kolyvanov fell through, they decided to carry on with the old policy. Ironically, Cagni, now with Verona, walked straight into a scandal involving a foreign player, which served to illustrate the problems that stranieri may still face in some parts of Italy.

Verona have one of the largest fascist followings in Italian football, alongside Inter and Lazio. Towards the end of last season, the club announced that they were going to sign Michel Ferrier, a black Dutch player. At a home game the following week local thugs brought along a dummy with a black face and ‘hung’ it on the terraces. The Verona president condemned the act and said he was going to press on with signing the player. A month later, Ferrier came to Verona, but was said to have failed a medical. A few days later he signed for another Italian club, Salernitana.

Verona were heavily criticized at the time, but later signed Reinaldo, a black Brazilian, and Ferrier did miss Salernitana’s pre-season matches through injury, though the club insist that he is perfectly fit. A very mysterious episode.

Such problems are not unique to black players, either. Giuseppe Baronchelli is a 26-year-old defender with his home town club, Brescia. Two years ago, when they were playing in Serie A, Baronchelli was attacked by a group of hooligans when he was on his way home. They blamed him for the club’s poor run that would see them relegated at the end of the season. There were fists and kicks, then threats to his family. Baronchelli went to the police station where he was shown mugshots: he recognized some faces (Brescia is a small city with a small, albeit violent, hooligan hardcore) and pointed them out. The police made arrests.

Baronchelli was now an infame, someone who speaks out to the police, a traitor. His career with Brescia was effectively over. He continued to play, but was only safe from abuse at away matches. This summer, supporters gave an ultimatum to the Brescia president, Corioni: “Sell him or we’re going to cause trouble every week.” Everyone knew who these people were and the police could easily have barred them from entering the stadium. But Corioni agreed to their demand, and Baronchelli, a good player and still under contract, has been left out of the team.

He’s kicking his heels, training with his local fourth division team, waiting to be picked up by another club. English clubs looking for experienced defenders could do a lot worse, though Ivano Bonetti might advise him to stay clear of one particular manager . . .

From WSC 116 October 1996. What was happening this month

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