Viareggio Bs, the Athletic Bilbao of beach soccer

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Take a group of friends and let them share the joy of playing football on a sandy beach in their hometown in Italy. They form a team participating in the beach soccer national league, backed by the non-professional department of the FIGC, the Italian football federation. Against all odds, they won the Coppa Italia (“Italian Cup”) last June. Now, they aim to embroider also the Scudetto on their Juventus-like jersey, as the playoffs will be contested in Terracina, Lazio, from 17 to 19 August.

This is the philosophy behind Viareggio Beach Soccer, the football-on-the-sand team from the homonym seaside resort situated in Northern Tuscany. Similarly to Athletic Bilbao or to the Celtic team who won the European Cup in 1967, the squad is made only of local footballers with an average age of 24, who play in amateur divisions in wintertime. This is what makes Viareggio different from all other Serie A clubs, accustomed to rely mainly upon Brazilian, French and Portuguese stars.

stefano santiniThe deus ex machina of this unique team is Viareggio-born Stefano Santini (pictured right). A 33-year-old former professional footballer with a fleeting experience as a Sunderland player in 1997, it was he to bring beach soccer in this corner of Tuscany. This spectacular sport, practised by five-player teams on a 37-metre-long and 26-metre-wide pitch, has peculiar rules, with free kicks on goal and three 12-minute periods. Despite the smaller pitch, it is harder than football, for players run barefoot on the sand and need great technique.

“The club was formed two years ago, but I should say it all began in 2005”, Santini speaks while looking at the sea. “In that year I organised a beach soccer tournament in memory of Matteo Valenti, a young lad who tragically died following an explosion in a wax factory here in Viareggio. Matteo was a friend of mine and I decided to honour him through football, one of his passions.”

The competition, exponentially increased throughout the years, was held in a stadium exclusively conceived for beach soccer. “It was then when I contacted the FIGC in order to host some league matches in Viareggio.

“This gave me the opportunity to meet Cavalieri del Mare, a successful team from adjacent Massa with whom I established a fruitful collaboration. However, I realised they never did proper training sessions and used to sign several foreigners, including Hernâni, an ex-Benfica player.”

Santini had different views. “Football is my life and I have always believed in applying a key concept like physical training to beach soccer, a revolutionary idea. Meanwhile, I dreamt of forming a personal team by taking the best players from the Memorial Valenti, yearly held, including Matteo’s younger brother Giacomo.”

A great opportunity came in April 2010, when Santini won a competitive bid for the relocation of the stadium in another area in Viareggio. “Since I could afford my own venue, I felt it was the right time to give birth to the team. I asked the FIGC to join the national league and we were accepted, as some clubs withdrew. One month later, our first training session took place. Now we are here, with our peculiar policy. We are the only ones who produce homegrown players and do not sign foreigners.”

At the third year of activity, Viareggio managed to lift their first trophy, the Coppa Italia, in their stadium. Furthermore, eight players have worn the jersey of the national team. In fact, beach soccer has its own international competition, including the World Cup, recently powered by FIFA and entered throughout the years by the likes of Éric Cantona and Romário.

25-year-old winger Dario Ramacciotti barely knew the existence of the Azzurri in beach soccer. “I was at home, watching television with my father, when we leapfrogged on a channel showing a match played by Italy”, he maintains. “‘Daddy, that’s an intriguing national team’, I told him. Now, I’m playing for them, it’s incredible.”

Ramacciotti participated in the 2011 World Cup in Ravenna with teammates Matteo Marrucci, a solid defender, and Gabriele Gori, a top-drawer striker. “It was an amazing experience”, Gori says. “Making your debut in such a competition, staged in your country, is priceless.”

“Playing for Italy has been a natural consequence of the good displays of Viareggio”, Marrucci underlines. “Winning the Coppa Italia has been a really special achievement, for it happened where we live.”

Jolly Simone Marinai, another member of the Azzurri, completely agrees. His tattoo representing Burlamacco, the official mask of the famous local Carnival, is a clear sign of his love for Viareggio. “I won the Coppa Italia in our stadium, in front of friends and parents”, he remembers. “I lifted it as the captain, alongside my friends. I couldn’t desire anything better.”

beach stadium viareggio panorama

They are just back from the EuroLeague leg in Berlin, the last before the final phase in the Netherlands. They lost to Romania and reigning world champions Russia and had to challenge France. “I entered the changing room and Simone was very motivated. ‘We from Viareggio are going to make Italy win’, he said”, Marrucci tells. His teammate turned to be an extraordinary prophet as the Azzurri triumphed 8-6 and only Viareggio players scored.

“I remember a moment of the match, in which all four were on the pitch in the same moment”, Gori recalls. “My mind immediately went back to the first games, when we started this adventure. Now, we are teammates also in the national team. I would have never imagined that.”

This special friendship seems to be the key element of Viareggio. “If I play with them, I just feel strong and confident”, Gori admits. “I know what Dario, Matteo or Simone can do on the pitch.”

Winning a cup with the Azzurri would be fantastic, but they all want to grab another trophy meanwhile. “Yes, I’m talking about the Scudetto, our ultimate dream”, Marrucci adds.

Perhaps, they might make it come true this weekend in Terracina. Quoting a famous song by the Beatles, they gonna try with a little help from their friends.

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