Calcio Travel Notes: Virtus Entella

Virtus Entella hail from the picturesque coastal town of Chiavari on the Italian Riviera. Located 45 minutes south of Genoa on Italy’s north-west coast, the football club take their name from the Entella river which ends its journey to the Mediterranean here.

Chiavari is a small place, nestled between the mountains and the sea, replete with classic palazzi and arcades, but largely untouched by the tide of tourism. Everything about the town speaks to a gentle pace of life; when not engaging in the traditional local trades of fishing, lace-making and slate work the locals may be found strolling the promenade under the swaying palm trees.

The football club, commonly referred to simply as Entella, have spent the majority of their existence in the lower reaches of Italian football. Like very many other small-town clubs on the peninsula, they encountered bankruptcy (2001), but in Entella’s case this transpired to be turning point in the club’s fortunes. They swiftly reformed and by 2014 had been promoted to Serie B for the first time in their history. The Biancocelesti did their town proud, punching above their weight to survive in the second tier for four consecutive seasons.

And if the club had had their way, it would have been longer. They ended the 2017/18 season in the Serie B relegation places, but became entangled in Italian football’s annual farce of post-season re-organisation following the bankruptcy of Cesena, Bari and Avellino, who had all finished above them in Serie B.

Entella reasonably argued that they should be given a reprieve. Their case was backed by the Italian Olympic Committee (CONI), but rejected by the Italian Football Federation (FIGC), who referred the matter to an administrative court for final judgment. The saga continued to play out over the summer and into the autumn. In the meantime, Entella kicked off their Serie C campaign with victory over Gozzano, before their season was put on hold pending the court’s verdict.

In the end, the FIGC’s preference for a 19-team Serie B prevailed in the courts. Entella were ordered to re-commence their Serie C campaign in November, but after two months of inactivity faced a fixture backlog. The team responded in defiant fashion, going on a five-match winning streak and making light work of the gruelling schedule that saw them playing twice weekly in order to catch up.

Entella remedied the injustice that had been served by going on to win Serie C (Group A) by a single point. They also won admirers for a valiant Coppa Italia run which saw them knock out Serie A neighbours Genoa, before losing to a strong Roma side at the Stadio Olimpico in the last sixteen stage.

The topography of this part of Liguria makes for a somewhat precarious journey by road from Genoa. The E80 route comprises a seemingly endless succession of viaducts and tunnels. The bridges straddle the valleys, hundreds of feet below, whilst the tunnels bore through the hillside as the weaving route follows the contours of the landscape. It was a journey made all the more perilous by the onset of darkness and an over-zealous auto-steer function on the hire care which would sporadically and unexpectedly take control of the wheel.

Arriving at the Stadio Comunale Aldo Gastaldi by night the first thing you’ll see are the floodlights protruding above and between the surrounding homes. The ground is tightly fitted into a riverside residential area, with apartment blocks and balconies overlooking the pitch.

The Stadio Comunale is unrecognisable from the modest arena that was first opened in 1933. The main Tribuna has been a constant since the Second World War, but elsewhere the stadium has been incrementally developed and re-developed as the club’s on-field fortunes have evolved in recent years.

As recently as 2008 the venue featured just two stands with a combined capacity of 1,500. In 2010, management of the stadium was transferred from the municipality to the club and a new north stand was built. In 2013, the athletics track was sacrificed and the southern stand was built. Works were completed in 2015 to bring the capacity up to 5,500 and into line with the minimum requirements for competing in Serie B.

Today, the artificial 4G pitch is surrounded by a shallow, partially-covered bank of seating along the eastern side (Distinti) and – as is becoming the fashion in Italy – scaffold structures behind each of the goals covering the former athletics track. With bright plastic seats in the sky blue and white of the team, the stadium has a clean, modern feel about it. It is testimony to the prudent running of the club that much of the recent development has been funded directly by Entella.

Despite the small capacity, obtaining tickets is not generally a problem as attendances rarely breach the 2,000 mark. Prices range from €8.50 (Gradinata Sud) to €29 (Main Tribuna). These can easily be purchased in advance via the club website with a print-at-home option. Alternatively, tickets are usually available on match day from a small ticket office on the corner of Corso Lavagna and Via Aldo Gastaldi. Directly opposite the ticket office is the lively Bar Entella; an ideal place for a pre-match beer.

The club has a very welcoming feel about it and is clearly a focal point for the local community. In the Tribuna, non-playing players mix freely with supporters, signing autographs, chatting and posing for photos. The bar area inside the ground has a traditional feel and prices to match (€2.50 for beer, €1 for coffee). The dispensing of soft drinks from a 2 litre bottle into plastic cups gives the whole operation an endearing feel.

Entella’s ultras congregated on Gradinata Sud; around 150 of them, equipped with banners and flags unremittingly supported their team. What they lacked in numbers they compensated for in their resolve. Even the Tribuna got in on the act with sporadic, rhythmic chants of “En-tell-a”.

The ultras displayed a banner reading “Prezzi Popolari per Settori Popolati”. Though this was presumably an act of solidarity with ultra groups across the country who displayed similar banners, rather than a genuine objection to the very reasonable entrance fee.

At the other end of the stadium, a similar number of Cosenza fans had made the near-1,000km journey from Calabria in a fleet of cars that had parked up behind the Gradinata Nord. As described in a recent book by Tobias Jones, their ultras are distinguished from the masses by their left-leaning politics and altruistic tendencies. Their monumental journey on a Wednesday night commands a lot of respect – and they certainly did their bit to rally the team, backed by drums and pyrotechnics.

Entella had begun the current season in sparkling form, winning their first three matches, though this had been followed by six matches without a win as they entered matchday 10. They started the match with the apprehension of a team searching for points, making poor choices in the final third and squandering three good chances before half time. Meanwhile, Cosenza were restricted to speculative shots from distance, primarily in the form of Franck Kanouté.

As the match moved into the final half hour and Entella pushed on, ‘keeper Contini had to be alert in racing 30 yards out of his goal to snuff out a Cosenza counter-attack. The visitors then introduced Frenchman Emmanuel Rivière, a striker once signed for €6 million by Newcastle United, as they looked to take a smash-and-grab victory.

But it was Entella who finally made the breakthrough on 82 minutes when Fabrizio Poli steered home a header following a short corner routine. The relief was palpable as the players celebrated in front of La Sud. Entella managed the remainder of the game well, preventing Cosenza from creating anything of note in order to seal the victory.

For the memorabilia collector, there was a free A4-size match programme and team sheets, but these were available in the Tribuna only. If you’re in the Gradinata Sud you may wish to ask a steward if they can pass you a copy before you enter the stadium. For other bits of memorabilia, the club shop is located about half a mile from the ground on Corso Colombo on the seafront. On matchdays a few pieces of official merchandise were available to buy from the office adjoining the ticket office, or unofficial hoodies and t-shirt from a trestle table outside Bar Entella.

Even for the most ardent Italian groundhopper, a trip to Entella may be considered a little bit niche. But this pretty little town, and the football club of which it is so proud, certainly merits a visit. It’s an ideal day trip if you are using Genoa as a base…just brace yourself for the perils of the E80.

 

Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this you might be interested in other articles in the Calcio Travel Notes section, featuring Sampdoria, the Genoa Museum, Milan, Atalanta and Torino

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