In the first of a regular series, guest blogger Rick Elliott explains why he will be following Mantova 1911 on the road this season, as they strive to regain their place in Italy’s Serie C…
Going to any football match is a unique experience, but doing it as an away fan is double the experience. There is just something special about following your team away from home. There is so much more about it than just going to watch two teams compete for three points.
The anticipation and excitement building up to a game can be just as interesting as the game itself. The effort and the motivation to get there, both financially by working in the week and the physical journey to the game; researching where you are going and how you are going to get there; learning about the stadium and the town you’re visiting. You may dabble in a little betting on the game; a few drinks beforehand; meeting and chatting with like-minded strangers, or going alone for a bit of peace and quiet to get away from the stresses of the week.
An away match encapsulates the joy of travel and the sense of freedom that brings. There are no rules, no right ways of doing it. It’s a mini-holiday, it’s doing it the way you want and enjoying it the way you want, win lose or draw. If you are supporting a team, a win naturally helps, but it shouldn’t be the overall factor on an away trip. For me, football puts things into perspective and isn’t the most important thing in the world.
There is also something special about the fans and the individuals who do it. The fans who I have been travelling with these last few seasons are from Mantova 1911. Mantova is a small provincial town of about 55,000 inhabitants in the eastern outskirts of the Lombardy region, Italy’s wealthy industrial powerhouse. Verona and Brescia to the north, Modena, Parma, Bologna to the south, Venice and Padova to the east and Milan to the west. It is as far away from the region’s capital, Milan, as possible and is surrounded by much bigger and more attractive cities for business, culture and tourism.
Mantova is stuck in the middle of the Po Padana plain, shrouded by fog and humidity in the winter, baked by blazingly hot sun and humidity in the summer. It is a territory of agriculture and farming. The city is nicknamed jokingly “A Sleeping Beauty”; a pretty, little thing quietly left alone where nothing happens. But it isn’t true, there’s loads going on here with a rich history, you just have to find it!
I doubt very many groundhoppers have made it this deep into northern Italy and I wouldn’t blame them. It’s not a household name or somewhere you’d look to go to, despite being close enough to international airports. But it’s full of little surprises and to my ignorance I only recently discovered that it has a significant footballing history and a passionate fan base that reflects the area: proud, loyal and down to earth.
The club is not a sleeping beauty, nor is it a sleeping giant. It is a band of dwarves marching forward and working hard for a better future than it has recently had. Week-in week-out, the same faces are present. They blast out their songs full of passion, love and pride for the red and white colours of the shirt. They bring their banners, flags and drums. They follow their team to places unknown even to Italians, behaving impeccably and having a laugh accompanied by beers, salami sandwiches and shots of Grappa along the way. They are Mantova supporters on their journey!
I have been living in Mantova for almost 12 years now, but for some reason or another I never found an interest in watching football here. This despite being an Italia 90 kid and experiencing live England v Belgium and Platt’s overhead kick in front of the iconic Bologna towers. My Dad drove the family down for a two-week holiday in northern Italy, marching us around Bologna for tickets on the day of the match. I was born in 1982, the year of an Italian World Cup triumph, and I clearly remember James and the pink papers on Channel 4; it was my first taste of European air, dazzling football and wonderfully coloured strips! The childhood memories are still vivid.
I am a Burnley fan, born and bred. Another proud, historical small town club that swims against the current, trying to earn success. Seeing from afar your team develop into an established Premier League club and tasting European nights has been good, really good! They are my first love and one of the few things that does make me miss the homeland.
But my reality is now Mantova, who have been rooted in Serie C & D (3rd & 4th level, respectively) for most of the time I’ve been here. Going out of business, re-forming, small time businessmen uninterested in football covering assets in false hopes, and general apathy towards the club and football in the area has been a never-ending story recently. A story played out for many other Italian clubs both established and at lower league levels.
For several years, culturally and linguistically, I wasn’t able to follow the game in the papers, on TV or online and it just seemed too much of a task to ever take up watching football seriously. I just wasn’t that interested. I’d been to watch a few games over the years, but thought the standard of football so poor that it never really won me over. Even the fan experience wasn’t all that and the stadium was shabby to say the least (it still is by the way). I’d been to a few Serie A games too, to see the stadiums more than anything; to the San Siro, the Stadio Olimpico and Bergamo’s Stadio Atleti Azzuri d’Italia. But, again, they felt scruffy and the football never really gripped me enough to develop a habit.
Then about two years ago, something changed. I come from a local town where local people support their local club. On a whim, I suddenly decided I wanted to go and see another game, so it was obvious to choose Mantova. They had started that season well and had new owners, so I thought ‘why not’? It was my first away game.
Virtus Verona against Mantova. Lombardy against Veneto. The Mantovani (the people of Mantova) and Veronesi (of Verona) aren’t particularly fond of each other so it was a kind of derby, even if Virtus are the third team of Verona. There were a few hundred or so away supporters buzzing around outside the ground, all wrapped up warmly with red & whites hats, scarves, banners, and cans of beer. It was all good-natured matchday preparation, but I did feel a little like a fish out of water amongst the die-hard regulars completely at ease with each other cracking jokes and gesticulating incessantly.
It was Sunday 6th January, the day before returning to work after the Christmas break. There was little else to do and it was officially a holiday, the day of the Ephipany, the day when the three wise men had reached baby Jesus and offered their gifts; it was the day he had been ‘revealed’. This game was the first one after the Serie D winter break, a local derby, a top of the table clash, in freezing cold conditions. The game was lost 3-2 after a last minute winner for Virtus Verona, who eventually won the title and got promoted to Serie C.
But the loss didn’t matter to me so much. What mattered was standing on a tight terrace with the ultras and the rest of the boisterous army for the first time away from home and feeling like one of them. Like a Mantovano. It felt very tribal and very natural. I had been given my gift from the wise men, a new facet of Italian football had been ‘revealed’ to me.
I went to other away games that year that didn’t quite live up to the ‘first time’ experience, but nonetheless I enjoyed discovering another side of Italy. One with smaller local clubs, aspiring clubs, punching-above-their-weight clubs, new regions of the North, small towns, different wines, local peculiarities and much more. The fight for promotion eventually ended after losing the semi-finals of the play-offs. But a seed had been sown.
Last season, in Serie D’s B division, Mantova and Como fought out a tantalising race with record points, winning streaks and unbeaten game sequences hardly ever seen for either club. Mantova’s owners campaigned well pre-season; the offer of €60 season tickets attracted over 1500 holders (very rare at this level), with a loyal 300 or so regulars away from home. I was one of them. After ten years of living and working here, football had strangely been the missing link in my conversion from foreigner to local Italian boy.
Unfortunately, the team fell at the final hurdle. First, dropping crucial points away to Como in February and then having a nightmare week in April; losing both the Serie D cup semi-final and the following crucial league game. In the end, Mantova lost out to Como by a couple of points and entered the meaningless play-offs. The Serie D play-offs are an indictment of the financial health of Italian football; winning does not guarantee promotion, it merely provides ranking points in case teams fold further up the pyramid, allowing lower league teams to be invited in their place. Mantova didn’t win the play-offs in any case and had no right to apply to enter Serie C for this season.
And so, we find ourselves in Serie D again for the third year running. On paper, they couldn’t have been given an easier division this time, with no club the size of Mantova, despite there being some ambitious ones. If this isn’t the year then it never will be. This is the final year of a three-year rebuilding project. New benefactors have come in, including the famous Maurizio Setti, owner of Hellas Verona, to help get the club back into Serie C. Year-on-year they have got progressively closer, but are still chasing the dream; this HAS TO BE THE YEAR, Serie C is the bare minimum this small club expects itself to be in.
So, there you have it, mine and the club’s recent history in a nutshell. This blog is going to be my journey following Mantova away from home for the season 2019/2020, on their search for promotion to Serie C. It will be about the games, about the trips I make, about the little known corners of Italy that deserve some attention. It will be about these places of community, of family clubs that develop the next generation of Italian footballers; about the stadiums; about the fans; about local culture, society, politics, history, gastronomy, about whatever is happening in Italy at the time!
I will provide a picture of a typical Serie D football game and aim to provide some practical information for groundhoppers, shedding some light on the unique experience of lower league Italian football. Italy has a vast number of things to offer on an away day experience and should be on everyone’s list. There is never a dull day here. There are some real hidden gems out there, so I look forward to finding them, sharing them with you and hopefully showing you what it’s like to live and be a football supporter in the Italian lower leagues and making an unknown Italy become a little more known.
Ciao for now
*The report from Mantova’s first away match of the season at Sammuarese is now available.
Title image credit: Atlante del Calcio Italiano, D’Andreta