Missing in action

For two clubs in north-east Italy relegation from Serie A was just the start of the problems. Gavin Willacy saw the trouble unfold

If Sheffield Wednesday, Reading or Ipswich get relegated from the Championship in May, their fans would be safe in assuming that the beleaguered club will kick off next season in League One. And if Southampton stay in the third division, you can at least expect them to be on the starting line again come August.

Not so in Italy, where two clubs with similarly recent top-flight experience to those above simply disappeared last summer. Last April, I went on a football weekend to the Veneto in north-east Italy: Treviso v Triestina in Serie B on Saturday, Venezia v Sambenedettese in the third division on Sunday.

Anyone who has been to these two towns will know that there are far worse places to watch football. The affluent walled city of Treviso is ignored by the majority of Ryan­air passengers, who fly into the local airport and climb straight onto a bus to Venice, where away fans visiting SSC Venezia alight from a small ferry behind the terrace at the eastern tip of the Isola di Sant’Elena.

Bottom of the table Treviso managed to see off a supposedly play-off chasing but half-hearted Triestina 1-0, but other results filtering through suggested that their victory was in vain. A fortnight later, the Biancocelesti were duly relegated to the Lega Pro Prima (previously known as Serie C1). You would expect the club to cope with this. After all, they gained an astonishing three successive promotions in the mid-1990s to rise from non-League to Serie B, becoming regular play-off contenders before spending a season rooted to the bottom of Serie A.

Like so many clubs relegated from our Premier League, Treviso struggled to adjust back in Serie B, sliding lower each year. On July 11, 2009, however, they ceased to exist. Unable to contemplate funding the losses outside of the top two divisions, the president had pulled the plug on the whole club. Founded in 1909, they would mark their centenary with liquidation.

With an attendance of under 3,000, a mere 864 of whom paid on the day (the rest being season ticket holders), Treviso banked just €6,663 (£5,941) from the Triestina game. Merchandise was nowhere to be seen, programmes were free and catering behind the main stand consisted of a tiny room serving espressos. With those income streams typical in Serie B, their members are even more hopelessly fragile than our Championship clubs. The weekend before Christmas attendances were astonishing: 700 at Ascoli, 260 at Brescia, 400 at Gallipoli, 500 at Albinoleffe. The previous week, Torino were watched by just 1,563 in the Olympic Stadium.

Half an hour east, Venezia were putting up more of a fight. They, like Treviso, had a taste of the big time earlier this century. I saw them host a star-studded AC Milan in 2001-02, their last season in Serie A. They number Álvaro Recoba and Christian Vieri among their recent stars and the current generation of Venezia fans had experienced little but the top two divisions until relegation from Serie B and bankruptcy in 2005. Sympathy was in short supply though as they were heavily involved in the match-fixing scandal that saw Genoa demoted two divisions that summer.

Although they were attracting crowds similar to the Lega Pro Prima average of 1,500, the Stadio Pier Luigi Penzo is a doomed anachronism and could easily be mistaken for a derelict dock from the outside. And yet there is a passion among their ultras, still divided into those who have always been Venezia – who wear black and green and stand on the east terrace – and those from the mainland industrial port of Mestre, with whom Venezia controversially merged in 1986. They wear orange and stand on the Curva Sud, chanting provocatively at the Venezia fans as much as the Sambenedettese visitors at the opposite end.

Accordingly, their team battled away bravely to draw 0-0 that day and went on to avoid relegation in a play-off. Three weeks into post-season, owner Signor Golban threw in the towel. Bankrupt yet again, another new club, FC Unione Venezia, financed by the city’s casino has formed. They have the indignity of competing in Serie D, one of eight local divisions playing at level five, with 90 clubs between them and a place in Serie B, where they feel they belong. Unione Venezia – their two sets of fans still behind a united purpose – are making a decent fist of a promotion push to Lega Pro 2, akin to Conference North.

But it could be worse. They could be Treviso. They too have launched a new club, Associazione Sportiva Dilettantistica Treviso 2009, and are still playing at Stadio Omobono Tenni. But they are facing yet another humiliation: relegation from Eccellenza Veneto, the local division of Italian football’s sixth tier. Venezia fans have in the past unveiled a banner stating La fede non retrocede (Our faith will not diminish). Treviso could do with similar blind passion.

From WSC 276 February 2010