Home Is Where The Heart Is

Guest blogger Rick Elliott wraps up the Serie D season with Mantova 1911…

In January 2017, at the halfway point of the 2016/17 season, Mantova were rock bottom of Serie C Division B and on course to drop into the semi-professional ranks of Serie D. After seven years of mediocrity in the third tier, the misery of being a Mantova fan was being taken to another level. To save the day, ex-player and cult hero Gabriele Graziani – an individual with no prior managerial experience – was placed in charge. In the 2000s, he had fired the club through the divisions to the verge of a Serie A return after more than 30 years. A heartbreaking Serie B play-off final loss against Torino, after being 4-2 up in the first leg, shattered the dream. The club has never fully recovered.

In the managerial hot seat, the son of ex-Toro striker and 1982 World Cup winner Francesco Graziani miraculously engineered an escape route with a final day win that secured safety and enhanced his mythical status. An almost impossible task achieved. But the blood, sweat and tears Graziani extracted from his players in that second half of the season was all to be in vain. With years of mismanagement, phoney entrepreneurs and even links to Mafia bosses, the club had been left to rot and officially went bust (once again) that summer of 2017.

Three years on and with promotion confirmed, the newly reformed Mantova 1911 SSD (Società Sportiva Dilettantistica) has earned its place back in Serie C and the professional ranks. It is now Mantova 1911 Srl (Societa Responsibilità Limitata), a professional football club. If those seven previous seasons in Serie C had been bad, then the last three have been purgatory; cathartically expressed in this Facebook fan post immediately after the official news of Mantova’s promotion was confirmed:

“We’re back! 3 years of hell, of suffering and of numerous bitter pills to swallow. 3 years of hope gone up in smoke. 3 years of broken dreams. But we’ve made it, we’re back where we belong”.

It may not be much, but Serie C and professional football is the minimum this little provincial town expects.

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It has been a long, hard toil in the basement league. The first year ended in an embarrassing 5-2 play-off semi final drubbing at the hands of Arzignano in the North-East Division. Last season’s nailbiting head-to-head with Como left a bitter taste after a near perfect campaign faltered at the last hurdle under legendary coach Massimo Morgia in the North-West Lombardy Division. This season the engine has been motoring along the highways anywhere North, East, South and West of Mantova, from the coast of Romagna to the Pre-Alps above Brescia.

Yet, we ironically finish this season and this blog series at home. Here, where we endured the first and one of the strictest lockdowns in Europe. Here, in the heart of the tragic scenes witnessed in Lombardy and in nearby Brescia and Bergamo. And yet it is here, under awful circumstances, where we have confirmed that home really is where the heart is. It shall not be a period we look back on with fondness but it has, at least in these parts, highlighted people’s strength and resilience, their adaptability and their underlying national pride and human solidarity in times of adversity. It has been an unlikely and sad end to the season in what had been, for me, a true adventure around northern Italy’s lesser known quarters.

Like everywhere around Europe, football was initially put on the back burner as the virus took hold. Whilst professional football has returned to be completed, the feeling in Mantova, and in Italy in general, was that lower league calcio should not return. The fan groups and club officials openly disapproved of the prospect of finishing off the season on the field of play. Football was to be played in front of fans and if that wasn’t possible then the season should be cancelled.

They were rightly more concerned in showing support to healthcare workers, placing the ubiquitous homemade written banners in front of hospitals, or hand delivering masks, gloves and protective gear to care homes, private homes and anyone else who needed them. Despite it taking over three months for the authorities to officially close the Serie D season, financial restraints and potential COVID-19 health & safety measures had made the decision obvious from the beginning of the pandemic.

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With Mantova leading the division by 7 points at the time of the hiatus it may seem obvious that they would want the season to end there and then. But in any case, it wouldn’t have made a slight of difference had they returned to playing. This year was always going to be the year against the minnows and semi professional clubs of Emilia-Romagna and Lombardy. It has been a season with few surprises and one where promotion was never seriously in doubt.

A single defeat in twenty-four, that being the last game before lockdown away at Sporting Franciacorta , speaks volumes of Mantova’s dominance. On my travels, I was lucky to see 6 wins, 6 draws, the one defeat, 27 goals and lots of celebrations. But it was at home, at the ‘Stadio Danilo Martelli’, where Mantova built its fortress with 8 wins and 3 draws smashing in 32 goals in 11 matches. It was one of those draws, courtesy of a last second equaliser, that ultimately cost Mr. Lucio Brando his job in February.

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Huge credit must go to the ex-Fiorenzuola manager though, and Sporting Director Emanuele Righi, in forming such a dominant group. Despite some defensive frailties, he rightly focused all the attention and tactics on the attacking trio of Filippo Guccione, Luigi Scotto and Christian Altinier. And they rewarded the club handsomely firing 46 of Mantova’s 59 goals. It wasn’t always scintillating football, it is fourth tier after all, but it got the job done. He had to contend with some inexperienced goalkeepers and young defenders but he backed them to the hilt. He was unfortunate to lose his job but his contribution and influence paved the way for their eventual success.

Like all promotion chasing teams, he was reliant on several key members, but wisely used his squad of youngsters and seasoned pros. The dishing out of several early season maulings helped grow trust and unity within the team and showed the quality of certain individuals. But as the early enthusiasm and optimism levelled out within the league, the hard work and backbone required to win shone through during the winter months. That spirit resonated with the fans and as the bond within the squad grew stronger it also grew on the terraces.

Even during the hardship of lockdown, the Ultras have never flown the flag at half mast. In almost every article of this series you will have seen a photo of it being waved proudly, high in the sky. During the game, it is passed on to the next person to have their moment of glory. If you’re not waving the flag, you’re singing your heart out. If you’re not singing your heart out, you’re cracking banter on the terraces. If you’re not having the crack, you’re at the bar getting the beers in! And if you’re not getting the beers in, well, you’re just not in the group!

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On the huge flag, a red cross pattée, two double-tailed silver coronated lions standing ferociously on their hind legs and four Imperial black open-winged Eagles of Bohemia, are seen, These were powerful symbols that represented the city’s increasing importance and power in the 15th century. The current Ultras’ flag was the actual Coat of Arms for nearly 100 years under then ruler, and first Marquee of Mantova, Gianfrancesco Gonzaga whose family started to rule over the city from 1328, and would continue until 1707.

This period of history was extremely significant in demonstrating the increasing wealth and power of the Gonzaga dynasty and the respect they commanded from foreign powers, most notably from the Holy Roman Emporer, the King of Bohemia. This era marked a transformation that would see successive rulers continue to bring a wealth of art, literature and general cultural prestige to the region never previously seen. It was the start of a new cultural dawn for the city, its ruler and its people. A seemingly canny choice made by the Ultras in this ambitious period for the club’s footballing future.

Heading Mantova’s modern day dynasty is none other than Hellas Verona owner Maurizio Setti. He entered the fray as major shareholder twelve months into a 3-year plan to get the club out of Serie D. Appointing close friend and locally born Porsche dealer Ettore Masiello to become club president was a masterstroke and has restored the fans’ faith in the management of the club behind the scenes. Other important appointments at the time, including Vice President Gianluca Pecchini and Sporting Director Emanuele Righi, have helped the club to attract not only good footballers but importantly plenty of sponsors.

With many Serie C clubs around the peninsula on the brink of collapse or with stadium issues that will not allow them to enter the competition, Mantova finds itself in an enviable position of financial stability with Setti in charge. Amidst the deep and on-going uncertainties of COVID-19, supporters should not be too worried about the club’s existence for the near future. The stadium has needed only €100,000 to get up to professional Serie C standards after investment over the last few years by the local council. Hospitality and corporate facilities, along with changing room standards have all been improved upon.

There are also ambitious plans to build a brand new sports and club training complex called ‘Mantovanello’, based on Milan’s training centre ‘Milanello’, and a possible new stadium. The youth set-up is to get an overhaul with a focus on establishing the club as the central hub for youth football with links to the wider community and the many junior clubs in the province.

The final pieces of the professional puzzle are the additions of General Secretary Simone Marconato, who occupied a similar position at Hellas Verona for the last five years, and Emanuele Troise, the new head coach. These two additions look to be a sign of things to come; a focus on youth and links with Hellas Verona. Marconato will bring knowledge and insight from managing a successful model behind the scenes at Hellas Verona, which has delivered success both on and off the pitch.

Troise, 41, is considered one of the best up and coming coaches around, after spending the last few years coaching in the Primavera and Berretti leagues, Italy’s academy competitions for professional clubs. This approach by the club has been seen previously when a qualified but inexperienced Ivan Juric was taken from Genoa’s Primavera squad and brought to Mantova to make his first foray into management in 2014. It is hoped Troise can have the same effect and stabilise the club in Serie C.

Whilst supporters are somewhat excited for the future, they may be slightly concerned about the club’s footballing strategy. Some of the messages and signs coming out of the club are ominous. And with Serie C, like Serie D, now bringing in obligations to give young players more minutes, Mantova 1911 Srl is potentially going to be a Hellas Verona feeder club with emerging talent being loaned out to get first team experience.

The biancorossi’s strong rivalry and hate towards Hellas, the Veronesi and the Veneto region in general runs deep and merely serving the needs of a bigger rival club will not go down well with the locals. With the club languishing in Serie D, Carpi-born Setti was given the benefit of the doubt and has thus far provided what everyone wanted; a club back on its feet and breathing again. This looks to be a long term project for him that aims to benefit both clubs. Performances, results and, most importantly, promotion ambitions must be provided to keep the Virgiliani onboard.

For now, the future is shrouded in uncertainty. Whether we’ll be able to be back in the stands on September 27th when the new season is due to begin remains to be seen. A socially distanced curva in any Italian stadium is a grim prospect and one that nobody will be eager to experience. One thing that is certain though is top scorer Luigi Scotto will not be wearing the number 9 shirt next season. He has recently devastated the club with the announcement that he is leaving due to personal and family circumstances. A return to his homeland Sardinia, specifically his birthplace of Sassari, is now confirmed and he will line up for Serie D club Latte Dolce (Sweet Milk FC).

Other players from these past two historical seasons have already departed, leaving only Filippo Guccione currently confirmed for the new season. The semi-pro squad is being dismantled and the search for professional players underway. The summer transfer merry-go-round is about to hot up even more in the sweltering 40 degree August heat as the COVID protocols are soon to be issued. The real work for Sporting Director Righi and Mantova 1911 Srl starts now.

Forza Mantova! And C you next season.

 

May I finally and publicly give a huge thank you to Calcio England and Tom for his time, passion, input and availability to host me on the site. I will forever be grateful for the opportunity. And to the readers, who I hope have been able to get a feeling of being on the promotion journey during this unforgettable season for myself, the people and its club. May it spur you on to discover lesser known towns and clubs in Italy, if it was ever needed!

Final Table stats:

Played 24, W14, D9, L1, F59, A31, GD+28, PTS 51

Home 11, W8, D3, L0 F32, A14, GD+18, PTS 27

Away 13, W6, D6, L1, F27, A17, GD+10 PTS 24

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