The grass on the hills appear in a dreary mixture of green and brown. There are railway stations that don’t deserve that name, each for hardly more than a couple of houses. You couldn’t even argue if it’s a beautiful scenery or not, it’s just scenery. There’s not even grazing animals. Starting in the Calabrian capital of Catanzaro – itself an hour off the only real route through the region – it takes a train ride of about an hour through the southern Italian wasteland to arrive in the town of Crotone.
„Structurally weak“ doesn’t even come close to describe that part of the country. A third of people between finishing school and retirement don’t have a job, especially the young folks pretty much don’t stand a chance of a regular income. In the shadows of ‘Ndrangheta, the politics are incapable of finding investors for the region. ‘Ndrangheta itself, whose local branch is run by the Vrenna Clan, is having a hard time providing perspectives they once could, because a number of arrests take their toll. Luigi Bonaventura, once a leading figure in the clans, cooperates with investigators and shops his old fellows to the police. So far, he’s still alive.
So Crotone, a town of 60.000 people in the periphery’s periphery, vegetates in a lethargic, comatose state, ignored by the rest of Italy, forgotten by the rest of the world. If it wasn’t for Calcio, probably even most of the Italians wouldn’t know Crotone actually exists. But the local Football Club ist just about to be promoted to Serie A for the first time ever. Which is all the more surprising, since the club doesn’t really do anything different now than it did before.
Flashback, September 2006
Italy had just crowned themselves World Cup Champion, but Serie A was shattered by the Calciopoli scandal. Juventus executive Luciano Moggi was said to have controlled the referee’s commision, ensuring his team favourable decisions. Moggi himself claimed he acted in self-defence and several other clubs were involved, but only Juventus was actually demoted to Serie B. Their second away game came on September 19th, a Tuesday, in Crotone. Instead of the likes of Arezzo, Rimini or Triestina, now suddenly World Champions like Buffon an Camoranesi were visiting, alongside internationals superstars like Pavel Nedved; Didier Deschamps was Juventus manager at that time.
It didn’t really matter that Trezeguet and Del Piero didn’t even make the trip: Since the stadium’s capacity of around 10.000 persons wasn’t even close to being enough, lots of supporters stormed the rooms of the adjacent hospital. Between plastered legs and heart patients people were staring at the event that put Crotone into national spotlight for a day. The town was almost famous.
Juventus claimed an easy 3-0 win an was promoted at the end of the season. Crotone was crashing to relegation.
The club did go straight back up to Serie B the following year, but since then it moved between the anonymous mid-table regions and the relegation battles of a league no one really cares about. Season tickets are available for 200 Euros (around ₤160 or $225) for the 21 home games. That’s worth two matchday tickets at the Emirates to see Arsenal.
Signs of weathering and a stone sword
Stadio Ezio Scida is within walking distance of Crotone’s railway station. The red cobblestones on the sidewalk have been gradually losing the strength of their colour for decades now, the tarmac on the roads is crumbling, lots of shutters are closed. Many licence plates of the cars, many of them in a sorry state, start with the letters “KR”. In Italy, regionalized plates haven’t been handed out since 1994.
The four floodlight masts, slim an spartanic, fit the stadium which has been named after a former player of the club – Ezio Scida died aged 30 in a traffic accident en route to a friendly. That was in 1946. The giant parking lot next to the stadium is the wet dream of every driving instructor who want their students to drive around in circles without having to worry too much.
On the hill next to it, a giant stone sword has been erected some 20 years ago by the former mayor, a Berlusconi supporter, in a cloak-and-dagger-operation. Nobody liked it, but when he lost the elections and a leftist mayor took office, he didn’t destroy the monstruous monument that was about honouring fascists in the Second World War. Instead, the new mayor declared a competition to give “Il Gladio” a new meaning. That competion petered out and came to nothing. Like so much does in Italy, especially in the south.
Not the best stadium around
The stadium itself is separated from the parking lot by a barricade and another wall behind that. Behind the two goals there are terraces of not too great size; the South Stand is where the die-hard supporters of the club stand. The sector for the away fans ist behind the other goal, it’s confined by a fence and roofed by a double netting, thereby looking like a crossing between a lion’s and a bird’s cage. It may be just a little to big for a league that attracts not too many away fans anyway, even less so in Crotone.
The lateral stand on the opposite side of the main entrance, right below the Hospital, was furnished with seats not too long ago, until then, people would be standing there, as well. The stadium with noticeable weathering signs holds around 10.000 people, it used to be half-empty in normal league games. At best.
Considering convenience and size, it’s nowhere near what’s usual in the top flights of Europe’s bigger football countries. And if there’s not by any lucky chance of a lucky Coppa Italia draw or some unexpected relegation of a popular club from Serie A, the atmosphere was in a similar state as the stadium was. It happens that a single capo shouted ever the same two or three chants trough a megaphone that sounds like from the last century, which made watching the games even more unpleasent than if it was only for what happend on the pitch. In fairness, it things go well, the atmosphere can be loud and ferocious as well. But Crotone is not used to things going well.
The shady rich guy and the unaffected grandfahter
Old Luigi Vrenna, who took his clan to power after the Second World War, begot some 20 children in this world. One of his numerous grand-children is Raffaele Vrenna. He’s worth an estimated 800 million Euros. He made his fortune in a variety of different fields, like in waste management. Officially. His name, his heritage and his wealth in this desperately poor region let Anti-Mafia investigators not quite buy into it: Football clubs as a convenient disguise for money laundering isn’t what you might call a new development. It’s Raffaele Vrenna who’s been acting as the club’s president for some 25 years not.
Masterminding the club’s survival throughout the years in Serie B, however, is someone else. Sporting Director Giuseppe Ursino, called Peppe, is a not-too-tall guy of 66 years with white hair and a chubby nose. It’s exactly like him that you’d imagine a grandfather from Italy to look like.
His typically southern Italian mutter and his unaffected demeanor dissociate him from the pointedly smart Direttori from up north. Like Inter’s Piero Ausilio, the fit forty-something with the bold head. From Roma’s Walter Sabatini, who despite his age of 60 years you’d fancy to enter a bar alone and leave it with three beautiful women at any given time. From Sassuolo’s Giovanni Rossi, who with his grim face kind of looks like a bouncer.
Ursinos company of nobodies
Ursino didn’t have to be convinced to move to Italy’s outback to Crotone. He’s a native of Rocella, an hour or so south of the city. It’s his job, however, to guide players to a city with little charm, doing so with very limited ressources. Twenty years as Crotone’s Sporting Director left their marks on his face.
Crotone have basically always been Ursino’s company of nobodies from somewhere no one really likes to go. It’s been a scary thought for many clubs relegated from Serie A to suddenly not having to play at San Siro, the Olimpico or San Paolo, but having to go to Crotone.
The old guard has signed off
But times have changed. Unfancied little town clubs like Sassuolo an Carpi in the north or Frosinone, located halfway between Rome and Naples, are already playing in Serie A; Sassuolo have been doing so for a couple of seasons now and this year, they even compete for a spot in the Europa League.
The old top dogs from down south, meanwhile, all pretty much vanished: Lecce was demoted to third division four years ago, following the Calcioscommesse scandal. Reggina Calcio all but shut down, when leading officials were arrested to Mafia activities.
Messina, on the other side of the strait, built a bizarrely oversized stadium in the town’s suburbs in 2003 and went bust five years later. Catania, located at the foot of the Etna, fell to third division because of feisty point deductions the club earned for manipulating games. And Palermo, though right now actually playing in Serie A, racked up more managerial changes than wins this season.
A purgatory called Mezzogiorno
For seven years now, Ursino has not paid a single penny in transfer fees. He gets by looking for players who are out of contract. Every now and then he scores a loan deal for a young, promising talent who moves to the purgatory called Mezzogiorno for a year, to go back and become great and famous somewhere else, looking back to a year full of playing minutes and seeing first hand who bad off people can actually be when life is not on their side.
Alessandro Florenzi for example, now Totti’s successor as Roma’s captain, has been in Crotone for a year. Antonio Nocerino, who’s been loaned to them from Juventus for half a season, earned a handful of caps for Italy and now cashes in on his carreer alongside Kakà in Orlando. Fernando Bernardeschi, probably included in Italy’s squad for the Euros this summer and under contract at Fiorentina, secured Crotone’s holding on to Serie B with his goals in 2014.
The eternal city of Rome, the Tuscan pearl Florence, Disney’s capital of Orlando: They’re all shinier and richer and brighter than Crotone. Hamburg is, as well, but not for Ante Budimir: The striker completely bombed at St. Pauli, but now thrives in Crotone. Another one of Ursino’s improbable signings.
Champions instead of relegation battle
And one of those even came back. Ivan Juric. As a player, the Croatian midfielder suited well into the common image of what players in Italy look like, with his half-long gelled hair and the headband that Francesco Totti made his trademark. For five years, between 2001 and 2006, he played at Crotone, a couple of times he even wore Croatia’s team jersey under Slaven Bilic. When Manager Gian Piero Gasperini moved from Crotone to Genoa, he took his favourite student with hin. When Juric retired in 2010, he quickly became part of Gasperini’s staff at Inter.
Since last summer, Juric is Crotone’s manager. The club’s aim was, as always, to somehow just avoid the drop for another year. When Crotone led Serie B in October after an unexpectedly bright start, Juric hit the brakes: The others will overtake us eventually, we’re not really that good. Half a year later, the club is standing at Serie A’s gates.
Promotion as an impulse
If it just weren’t for the infrastructure. Every half-decent German 3rd Division stadium is easily better than Crotone’s. Carpi had to play their “home games” away from home in Serie A, Frosinone uses its stadium only on temporary permission. Raffaele Vrenna knows that, too. That’s why the club’s rich owner has big plans. At first, the Stadio Scida should be upgraded to host 18.000 spectators – for a club that attracts only 7.000 people on average, even in this most successful of all seasons. But that’s just about to be the first step.
He, Vrenna, has something even more impressive in mind. An arena that resembles a Greek amphitheatre, well suited in the ancient history of the town that once was the home of the mathematician Pythagoras. Privately funded, of course, Italian communities are broke at best, most of them are desparately indebted. And Crotone is not best in any conceivable way. “The stadium should be seen as gift to the city and the people. We don’t just want to be an extra in Serie A, but a real player”, Vrenna recently said.
No more hiding
They’re intrepid, that’s for sure and that’s what Crotone already showed this season. In Coppa Italia, they forced AC Milan to extra-time at the San Siro and it actually was a home game for the side from down South. 7.000 of the 10.000 people in attendance were in the away sector.
Crotone is not afraid of Serie A. And if nothing else, the club turns the spotlight to that forgotten part of the country for a year. An with that to the potholes in the streets, the unemploymet and the wasteland of theirs.
And to a stone sword as a sorry symbol for stagnation.