In a town particularly renowned for a nationwide famous Carnival, the dismal fall of the local football club could not be anything but grotesque. The fans of Viareggio, the football team based in the homonym seaside resort in Tuscany will hardly forget what occurred in this cruel summer. The club who performed in Lega Pro Prima Divisione, the third tier of Italian football, over the last lustrum were not admitted to the next season because of a controversial bank guarantee. Meanwhile, the new presidency was signing even ex Serie A footballers and pledging promotion to Serie B in just three years. Now, they have to restart from the very bottom of regional amateur leagues.
Established in 1919, Viareggio have always floundered in the lower divisions. They peaked in the 1930s and in the following decade as they spent a few seasons in Serie B, but professional football has been a fantasy for a very long time. Moreover, the Zebre – the team’s nickname, for the players wear a Juventus-like shirt – went through two breakdowns in less than 10 years. The first occurred in 1994: Viareggio were playing in the fourth division under the patronage of Francesco Picciotto, an unscrupulous impresario who claimed mining licences in Sierra Leone and was later sentenced for the club bankruptcy alongside his son Giovanni. They were both accused to have snatched ₤1,5bn and to prevent audits into the club accounts. Viareggio were in such troubled waters that fans reportedly access the stadium for free as there wasn’t enough money to print tickets.
Viareggio restarted from Eccellenza, the sixth tier, and were back to Serie C2 after three seasons. But another failure was behind the corner. In spite of the ambitions nurtured by chairman Vincenzo Lombino, nicknamed Marvin Tracy, the Zebre got two consecutive relegations and went through bankruptcy in 2003. With the help of local mayor, several local entrepreneurs were convinced to invest into the club, who started their return to professional football once again from Eccellenza. They won the league, the regional cup and even the amateur Coppa Italia in 2006. One year later, they topped their group in Serie D and reached the third division in a couple of seasons. President Stefano Dinelli, a Viareggio-born contractor, and his staff introduced a new way to run the club. Viareggio focused on taking youngsters on loan from Serie A and Serie B giants so that they could mature and gain experience- current Sassuolo striker Simone Zaza (pictured below) was one of them – in order to keep accounts balanced. Avoiding relegation was equivalent to win the league.
Dinelli had extraordinary plans for the club. He projected a brand new stadium with a hotel and several shops that implied the increase in the number of seats and the destruction of the athletic field. The opposition by many environmental associations – the present, decaying venue stands inside a protected pinewood – and certainly the breakdown of crisis in the construction industry sublimated the dream. The recession massively hit also Dinelli’s personal company and the chairman found himself in the unwanted position to sell his shares to a new owner.
Domenico Filippelli, another Tuscany-based builder, took over the club last June. Alongside general manager Daniele Carpina, he had fruitlessly attempted the acquisition of Pisa, another Lega Pro club, as well as of two other clubs in the same region. On that occasion, Carpina claimed strong relationships with controversial ex Juventus chief managing director Luciano Moggi and agent Mino Raiola, these connections ensuring the club a brisk rise to Serie A. The new property have never presented themselves through a press conference, whereas during informal chats with fans they revealed to schedule pre-season friendlies in Switzerland, to accomplish the refurbishment of the stadium and the training complex for the academy and many other amenities. Viareggio signed ex Empoli defender Francesco Pratali and other footballers, but a nimbus of mystery began to surround the admission to Lega Pro.
As the FIGC Federal Council later pointed out, the new property registered the club by paying a surety via a financial broker rather than a bank, this breaching the explicit requests of the football federation. Then, Viareggio filed an appeal providing a second surety. The CoViSoc, an authority which monitors the financial accounts of football clubs, discovered that “no bank guarantee has been issued through the Banca Popolare di Vicenza differently from what originally announced”. Carpina replied: “I’ve just established an empire, they destroyed it”.
While fans’ anger rocketed, Filippelli stood up for himself and filed another appeal that has been subsequently rejected. Viareggio is now out of Lega Pro and professional football, aiming to restart from Serie D or Eccellenza with a new board. The local city council advocated the help of fellow citizen Marcello Lippi, who led Italy to the World Cup in 2006 and now coaches Chinese side Guangzhou Evergrande. But time flies, as the participating teams to Serie D and Eccellenza will be unveiled in two weeks.
Zebre fans dreamt of watching their club on Saturday afternoon, when Serie B match days are scheduled. Their nightmare is now to see Viareggio playing on the eve of Sunday in Terza Categoria, the last step of FIGC-patronised leagues.