You are just one point behind the top of the third tier of Italian football and you play before less than 1,000 fans in home games. Sounds like a very odd situation, but this is what happens in Viareggio, home of the homonym club who play in Prima Divisione.
Viareggio is a 60,000-inhabitant seaside resort in Tuscany with a quite strong tradition in football. It was here, back in 1926, when was signed the Carta di Viareggio, a charter which officially recognised professionalism in Italian football and prohibited clubs to sign foreign players. Subsequently, the prestigious international youth football tournament Coppa Carnevale was established in 1948 and many rising stars, including some notable European and South American footballers, gave a sample of their skills in Viareggio before succeeding as professionals.
The local club, who wear a Juventus-like jersey, have never been particularly prosperous. They reached the Serie B twice, in the 1930s and in the 1950s, spending most of the time in the lower leagues, even the non-professional ones.
Renamed Esperia Viareggio following a bankruptcy in 2003, the Zebre are now playing in Prima Divisione for the fourth year in a row, whereas the arch-rivals of Lucchese, a more prestigious club, are floundering in Serie D, just one step below the professional leagues. Moreover, they are regarded as a good example of how to run a football club, as players regularly receive their salaries.
Chairman Stefano Dinelli, a Viareggio-born building contractor, is persisting in his policy of taking on loan young footballers from Serie A academies. Lega Pro gives money to clubs who field players aged 21 and below and Dinelli sees it as a good compromise in order to financially survive and to avoid relegation.
Nevertheless, many local fans are ignoring the team. Viareggio boast less than 300 season ticket holders and the attendance at home games has seldom rocketed to 1,000 in recent years. These data look even harder to be deciphered if compared to 5-6 years ago, when the Zebre were still in non-professional divisions and the Stadio dei Pini was teeming with ardent fans.
It is quite hard to find a reasonable explanation for such a trend. Italian football has been going through a decline over the last few years and the AC Milan players’ plea to fill the stadium for last Sunday derby against cross city rivals Inter perfectly photograph the scenario. Moreover, many Italians feel themselves disgusted with all recent scandals in Italian football.
It should also be underlined that in Viareggio, as well as in other towns and cities, plenty of football fans are used to pick a Serie A club as their favourite team. This means they prefer to spend their Sunday afternoons at home, watching Serie A matches on pay-tv channels, rather than going to the stadium and support Viareggio.
Perhaps, the Tessera del Tifoso is another deterrent which keeps fans and families from attending home matches. Most of them portray as absurd to keep files on people before enabling them to buy a season ticket or even a single match ticket. The introduction of such restrictions by the Italian government has led to the dissolution of several supporters groups, including Viareggio, where a significant part of home attendance was constituted by Ultras.
The priority for the team, coached by former AC Milan and Parma midfielder Stefano Cuoghi, is to confirm their place in Prima Divisione, possibly avoiding the play out like in the last three seasons. This encouraging start is suggesting that Viareggio might aim to something more than a mere survival, though. But the town does not seem to care about it.