Next weekend, the top two in Italy’s Serie B clash in a six-pointer with automatic promotion to Serie A at stake. For leaders Empoli, relegated in 2019 and narrow play-off losers in 2020, the aim is clear. For Salernitana, the situation is clouded in controversy, co-owner Claudio Lotito constantly at odds with Granata fans. The fact that he’s also president of Lazio hardly helps…
It may seem bizarre, even avaricious, that presidents of top Italian clubs should also want to invest in smaller ones further down the Federcalcio food chain. Why throw all those euros into a morass of hassle, invariably involving no end of bureaucracy reviving moribund under-achievers whose crumbling stadium dates back decades and whose supporters expect instant miracles?
Take Claudio Lotito. Many Salernitana fans would love someone to do just that, and Salernitana fans are not fans to be taken lightly. When their beloved Granata last dropped out of Serie A, at the end of the last century, the train taking supporters back to Salerno, near Naples, was set on fire and four ultras were burned to death in carriage No.5.
More recently, fans objected when Lotito, the Salernitana co-owner, flew the players up to Monza for a vital promotion clash in his private jet, circumventing a tiring overland journey of nearly 900km. Trouble was, the plane was decorated with the distinctive markings of Lazio. This was no coincidence as Lotito has also been president of the illustrious Roman club since 2004.
Lotito, in fact, is lots of things. Involved in the Calciopoli scandal of 2006 and sentenced to jail, this entrepreneur and centre-right politician escaped with a suspension then, along with fellow co-owner Marco Mezzaroma, assumed control of Salernitana on a 50/50 basis.
Founded in 1919 – centenary shirts did a roaring trade at the club’s sleek store in the centre of tourist-friendly Salerno – the Granata have twice appeared in Serie A and thrice been reconfigured, most recently at the time of the Lotito-Mezzaroma takeover, in 2011. The club’s top-flight debut in 1947-48 ended in immediate relegation, a feat repeated in 1998-99 despite the presence of Gennaro Gattuso and Rigobert Song. The season ended with these star names at Milan and Liverpool respectively, and that fateful 1-1 draw at Piacenza with its tragic consequences for travelling fans.
While Lotito’s Salernitana were climbing from Serie D to Serie B between 2011 and 2015, this Rome-born would-be Forza Italia senator was currying favour in the corridors of Italian football administration. Each division has its own committee where club owners and presidents pow-wow and, well-versed in pow-wowing until his 2006 demise, Lotito went into full schmooze mode.
Bidding to become head of FIGC, the Italian Football Federation, Lotito became the right-hand man of its chief Carlo Tavecchio, who was eventually forced to retire after Italy’s failure to reach the 2018 World Cup. Though Lotito failed to replace him, he was voted onto the FIGC presidential committee shortly afterwards.
Just as Tavecchio had spewed nonsense about African players and bananas – remarks which got him banned by UEFA by not by the FIGC – so Lotito has been recorded slandering other high-ranking figures in the Italian game and offered crass comments about Covid tests as Italy was mourning terrible losses from the pandemic. Failing to claim a play-off place for the Salerno side in 2020, Gian Piero Ventura, previously coach of the Italian national side before he came to Salernitana, walked out following loud, disparaging comments on the part of Lotito.
His replacement, Fabrizio Castori, who took Carpi to Serie A in 2015, obviously has his work cut out but there’s more to Salernitana than an influential owner whose self-seeking ambition matches his lack of discretion. While their fans are forever tainted with the terrible events of 1999, Salernitana have impressed many who have experienced the Stadio Arechi and its Curva Sud in full flow. Set by the Adriatic and a sleek marina, it’s also one of the most picturesque stadium locations in Italy.
It complements the Mary Rosy, €5 million worth of training facilities further down the coast, making Salernitana one of the best-equipped clubs in Serie B. On the pitch, Bosnian international Milan Đurić and André Anderson, a recent Italy U-20 cap, are the key forwards, the naturalised Brazilian one of several players on loan from Lazio.
While Empoli, having lost only once so far this season, are clear favourites for the upcoming fixture at the Stadio Carlo Castellani, for Salernitana a draw would keep them in contention for a return to Serie A for the first time this century.
Many Granata fans fear that Lotito is secretly plotting to keep the club forever in Serie B, thus avoiding the conflict of interest with Lazio should the Salerno side gain promotion. They needn’t worry, for Lotito can easily reconfigure ownership, given that business partner Marco Mezzaroma is his brother-in-law.
In fact, he may well be looking to embrace another sleeping giant slumbering in the lower reaches of the Italian league pyramid. While Lotito failed to snap up Bari follow their collapse in 2018 – Napoli owner
Aurelio De Laurentiis swooped in before him – Serie C is full affordable potential. After all, where calcio is concerned, a man can never have enough influence.
Empoli-Salernitana, Serie B, 9pm, Sunday 17 January 2021.