Serie A newbies

Every summer, Italian second tier Serie B throws up colourful new arrivals to do battle with the likes of Juventus, Inter and Milan in Serie A. Peterjon Cresswell visits two unlikely promotees: SPAL of Ferrara and Benevento.

Italy’s once prestigious showcase may have lost its status as Europe’s best league but recent appearances by Carpi, Frosinone and Livorno have provided plenty of variety in Serie A.

So how does a team of unknowns reach the promised land?

Old-school SPAL: Stadio Paolo Mazza/Peterjon Cresswell

After a gruelling 42-game season, Serie B promotion contenders, right down to the eighth-placed finisher, play off with each other. This allows teams from the most modest of communities to glimpse at glory. Of the three to go up, one might take to Serie A like a duck to water, Sassuolo being the prime example. Another might be a former European champion bouncing back after demotion. Ten years ago, Juventus and Napoli came up together.

Often the success story involves a maverick entrepreneur, happy to pick up an ailing club for a song. In the case of Sassuolo, it was adhesive mogul Giorgio Squinzi – a continuation of his sponsorship in the 1980s.

So, what of 2017 Serie B champions SPAL Ferrara and unlikely play-off winners Benevento?

Founded in 1907, SPAL last played in Serie A in the 1960s, when a certain Fabio Capello made his playing debut. He was brought to Ferrara, a historic town near Bologna, by Paolo Mazza. Coach at SPAL during the war, Mazza masterminded the club’s last spell in the spotlight, bringing through or buying up talent such as Capello and later Inter star Armando Picchi. Mazza, ‘Il Commandatore’, was one of the finest scouts in the Italian game, practically inventing the concept of a selling club. When he died, on New Year’s Eve in 1981, SPAL were halfway through a campaign that culminated in relegation to Serie C1 – then 35 years of lower-division football.

Serie A past master: Plaque to Paolo Mazza/Peterjon Cresswell

Dissolved in 2012, the original club became SPAL 2013, having merged with nearby Giacomense. A year later, new owners, the Colombarini family, big in laminates, brought in coach Leonardo ‘Mr Promotion’ Semplici. As a journeyman defender, Semplici was well versed in the backwaters of Italian football, with spells at Poggibonsi, Sangiovannese and Impruneta. As a coach, he worked Castel-di-Sangro type miracles at Figline.

At SPAL, Semplici has now achieved two successive promotions, the Ferrara club coming out of the third flight to win Serie B at first go, ahead of runners-up Hellas Verona.

July 2017 saw SPAL’s first outing in Serie A for 49 years, a ‘home’ game played at Bologna, and a 3-2 win over Udinese sealed in the 94th minute. While Semplici has been working his magic, the well connected Colombarinis have been getting the stadium up to scratch. Named after Paolo Mazza, whose plaque decorates the main Tribuna Sud, the ground is being expanded to 13,000 capacity. With the benefit of the international break, followed by a visit to the San Siro to face Inter, SPAL should be ready to host Cagliari on September 17.

Earning its stripes: Bar La Coccinella/Peterjon Cresswell

SPAL is easily reached, a short rail journey from Bologna then a five-minute stroll from the station down corso Piave. Tickets (Curva Ovest €23-€35, Gradinata €32-€70) can be purchased online or from a number of outlets around town. Beside the stadium at the junction of via Ortigara and via Arturo Cassoli, Bar La Coccinella is a friendly little spot decked out in blue and white, offset by the occasional namesake ladybird.

Set deep in the fiery heartland of Campania, a slow, hot, two-hour train ride from Naples, Benevento is knee-deep in Roman history with a well preserved theatre and arch to prove it. Its football club, Benevento Calcio, gained a first-ever promotion to Serie A thanks to a Romanian, George Pușcaș (as in ‘Puskás’), whose solitary strike fired The Wizards past 2015 Serie B champions Carpi.

Basking in baking hot sun out by Highway SS7, Benevento’s Stadio Ciro Vigorito is named after one of the two brothers who assumed control of the reformed club in 2006. Ciro died in 2010, Oreste retook command after promotion to Serie B in 2016.

Welcome to Benevento: Stadio Ciro Vigorito/Peterjon Cresswell

The club’s last such achievement came 70 years before, when Benevento were forced to decline their rightful place in Serie B due to financial hardship. This time round, driven by Amato Ciciretti, a classic No.10 ex-Roma youth still only 23 years old, The Wizards not only survived but made the play-offs.

On September 17, coach Marco Baroni takes his Benevento side to the Stadio San Paolo, where his single goal won Maradona’s Napoli the Scudetto in 1990. Around Benevento, amid the red-and-yellow flags, ribbons and bunting strung everywhere, posters in bar windows offer coach trips for the most eagerly awaited fixture of the club’s first, and possibly only, Serie A campaign.

Rather than rivalry, the game should see a sense of Campania camaraderie – few clubs from this hilly southern region make the top flight.

Call to arms: Stadio Ciro Vigorito/Peterjon Cresswell

Capacity of Benevento’s stadium has been increased to 17,500 for the new season. Set at the far end of via Santa Colomba, close to the club’s headquarters and former home, the Gennaro Meomartini, the Stadio Ciro Vigorito is at the diagonally opposite end of the city from the Benevento’s main rail terminus. High-speed Frecciargento trains take 35min from Caserta, an overall 1hr 45min journey from Naples. The direct regional service from Napoli Centrale (€5.60) takes the same amount of time.

Two smaller stations, Porta Rufina and Rione Libertà, are walking distance to the stadium, with infrequent links to Benevento and Naples respectively. There are equally infrequent buses from the Stazione Centrale to the stadium, the No.5, for example, but schedules are a work of fiction.

Trans-Campania Express: Benevento station/Peterjon Cresswell

Two bridges cross the Sabato river from the city centre. The furthest from the stadium, the Ponte Santa Maria degli Angeli, provides access to two handy pre-match bars, the Excellent Café and, on the corner of via Girolamo Vitelli, the Sweet Café.

Tickets are available from various points around the city, including the Mirage cocktail/slots bar on downtown piazza Roma. There are also online sales.

ID is required for all ticket purchases in Italy.