Südtirol: One step from Austria and Serie A

Austrians boost club in Italian city of Bolzano

South Tyrol side straddling the border between Austria and Italy nearly achieve shock promotion

With 70 minutes gone in Bari the other day, FC Südtirol were a play-off final away from Serie A. Enjoying a one-man and one-goal aggregate advantage in this two-leg semi, the South Tyrol side then succumbed to a strike from midfield substitute Leonardo Benedetti, his first touch of the game ending South Tyrolean dreams of a second straight promotion up the Italian league pyramid.

Bari’s aggregate-leveller meant that the illustrious southerners pipped their Alpine rivals to the play-off final by dint of a higher finish during the regular Serie B season.

“Aus der Traum!” ran the headline in the German-language, this local organ expressing its disappointment to around 30% of the population of Bolzano, where the Serie C divisional champions of 2022 are now based. The remaining 70% of citizens converse in Italian.

Misty mountain groundhop – Südtirol's Stadio Druso/Peterjon Cresswell

But in the surrounding autonomous province of Südtirol, German speakers vastly outnumber Italian ones, for whom this is Alto Adige, fought over during World War I to bring this mountainous region into the modern-day borders of Italy. Following the peace treaty, Mussolini then brought thousands of Italians into newly industrialised Bolzano to reset what he saw as a population imbalance.

When Football Club Südtirol Alto Adige was formed in 1995, the English, German and Italian used in its name reflected the aim of bringing together the two communities. Among the founders, you’ll find a Hermann and an Angelo, a Horst and a Luciano. 

But it was a Leopold Goller who became its first president, and whose idea it was to involve and attract the moneyed, German-speaking members of the region. This would be a flagship for Südtirol, never before represented in the lofty heights of Serie B.

You say Bolzano, I say Bozen – Assumption of Mary Cathedral/Peterjon Cresswell

Actually, that’s not quite true, for a certain AC Bolzano once made Italy’s second tier in 1947, the high point of a history dating back to 1931, the time of Mussolini’s Italian influx. Wearing the city’s Stuttgart-like signature colours of white with a red band, ACB then slowly descended down the league ladder but still had enough pride to reject newly founded Südtirol’s offer of a takeover decades later.

Instead, the South Tyrolean entrepreneurs swallowed up SV Milland for a licence to play in Italy’s seventh tier. Bolzano, meanwhile, merged with AC Virtus Don Bosco to become Virtus Bolzano. Still the city’s flagship, they naturally occupied its main stadium, originally a classic Mussolini-era creation opened in 1930. 

Nestled beneath towering peaks, one shaped like a panettone cake with a year-round dusting of snow, the Stadio Druso was falling to bits by the time Südtirol and Bolzano sat down to disagree.

Where Steins and espressos meet – Hopfen & Co in the heart of Bolzano/Peterjon Cresswell

It was then that Leopold Goller took the initiative. Gathering sponsorship and support from his myriad business contacts around South Tyrol, he boldly turned the club professional in 1999, then moved it to Bolzano from its original base at Brixen 45 miles north, Bressanone to Italians. Money was lavished on the Stadio Druso, bringing it somewhere closer to the 21st century and a 3,000 capacity.

Not only that, the club was now called Fußball Club Südtirol, the rebranding placing the twin names of Bolzano and the German Bozen on the badge.

In 2010, Südtirol reached the third tier and were even knocking on the door of the second but more significant was the structure Goller had constructed around the club to enable its subsequent success. Shortly before his sudden death in 2009 at the age of 56, Goller had created a public limited company, precisely 90% of which comprises 32 shareholders, all notable businesspeople of South Tyrol.

Südtirol sponsors gather over craft beers The LAB/Peterjon Cresswell

The most prominent is Hans Krapf, among the richest men in this particularly affluent region. Once a one-man band working out of a garage in 1979, Krapf’s Brixen-based shower-unit company duka now occupies a large, 300-employee complex beside the main road to Bolzano.

For lower-league Italian football, invariably full of chancers, shysters and tax dodgers, this solid foundation is revolutionary. Go to a Südtirol game today and beside the stadium – recently completely overhauled once more at a cost of nearly €18 million – you won’t be let into the busy, buzzing LAB craft-beer bar and trendy restaurant filled with schmoozing shareholders and sponsors. These are the movers and shakers of South Tyrol, brought into the fold by the promise of inclusivity and representation.

There’s even a political angle, as some at the club have links with the centrist Südtiroler Volkspartei, the South Tyrolean People’s Party, which has long supported the area’s German-speaking majority. This reaches back to 1919, and historic ties to the Deutscher Verband, the coalition formed after the post-war shifting of borders.

Fist pumps and Italian hand gestures as Südtirol score/Peterjon Cresswell

Despite initial protests from Italian-speaking Bolzano fans, whose own phoenix club is now based at the tiny municipal Campo Righi on the northern outskirts of town, Füßball Club Südtirol have gone from strength to strength. Former Brescia midfielder Ivan Javorčić oversaw a memorable campaign in 2021-22, the South Tyrolean side conceding only nine goals all season to win Serie C with 90 points and claim a debut spot in Serie B.

Despite steep admission prices, tickets have been like hen’s teeth during the season just gone. Big-name visitors such as Parma and Brescia, both put to the sword 1-0, come in numbers to fill out the away sector at the Stadio Druso. For the recent play-off games, 1-0 wins over Reggina and Bari, the stadium capacity of 5,100 has been sorely tested.

It would be too simplistic, however, to paint this picture in purely red-and-white terms. Südtirol are the Biancorossi/Weiß-Rote, in a city with an Italian-speaking majority. While the match-day experience here is somewhat akin to that in German-speaking lands, a fashionable announcer working the crowd from the middle of the pitch pre-match, encouraging a call-and-response from fans when someone – usually powerful Italo-Nigerian striker Raphael Odogwu – scores, this experience unfolds strictly in two languages.

Those gathering in the Bar Bocciodromo beside the stadium before and after the game are treated to bratwurst and Bavarian Hacker-Pschorr beer – but talk tactics in Italian.

FC Südtirol's waiting... talking Italian – pre-match revelry at the Bocciodromo/Peterjon Cresswell

In fact, there’s an argument for suggesting that Südtirol, finishing above the likes of Palermo, Pisa and Venezia this season (but not, as fate would have it, Bari), may even represent the future of Italian football in the lower rungs. This is something beyond century-old border disputes. Apart from those shower makers, movers and shakers holding 90% of the club’s shares, 10% is reserved for an amateur sports association overseeing Südtirol’s youth teams.

As well as generating significant income from player sales, this encourages the general public to buy into 10% of Südtirol and watch it grow – while they sip their pre-match craft beer at the LAB Bar.

As main shareholder and local shower mogul Hans Krapf explained to in a recent interview: “Although Serie A is still a very distant dream, I am convinced that FCS can make this leap at some point. To speak of Serie A at the moment would be presumptuous. It is now important for us to gain a foothold in this new league, present ourselves strongly, play successful football, continue to promote youth and women’s football intensively and – lest we forget – present our country to the world as an important and exemplary ambassador”.