Italy’s Ghost Stadia: Il Mezzogiorno

In the UK, the unveiling of a new football stadium almost always implies the demise of its predecessor. Finance dictates that stands must be razed and a century of memories deleted, all in the name of progress. However, as the shine begins to wear off the new venue, it’s not uncommon to hear fans become nostalgic for the imperfections of the old place, yearning for just one more visit. But by that point, it’s too late. 

It is perhaps unsurprising to hear that things work a little differently in Italy. With most stadia in municipal ownership and fulfilling a broader set of sporting needs, there is rarely such an imperative for scrapping the old venues. Across the provinces, countless historic former homes stand as memorials to the triumph and emotion of yesteryear. Nature has silently reclaimed some, others have struggled on in a dilapidated state, whilst a few have received a new lease of life. 

In this three-part article, we take a journey around Italy, discovering these relics. First up, we’re exploring the Mezzogiorno, Italy’s South… 

Bari – Stadio della Vittoria 

Stadio della Vittoria was designed as a monument to evoke the spirit and glory of the Italian nation. It was intended to be a modern-day amphitheatre; a sporting complex cast in stone, a grandstand offering unobstructed views of the field, all overlooked by the customary maratona tower. Newspapers dubbed it a “temple of youth and strength” when it was inaugurated in the presence of Mussolini in 1934. In reality, though, it was never fully completed. 

The ravages of war were particularly unforgiving. Just a decade after opening, it was unceremoniously conscripted as a camp for the Italian infantry on their way to Greece. From there, it was partially destroyed by fire, bombed and finally commandeered as a base by Allied Forces. The unfinished maratona tower was condemned in 1966 and pulled down. But none of that prevented Bari from playing almost a thousand games there between 1934 and 1990. Fittingly, their final match was a Mitropa Cup victory against Genoa, just before the club departed for the space-age Stadio San Nicola. 

Shortly afterwards, the stadium endured perhaps its lowest ebb. It became infamous as the holding pen for 20,000 Albanian refugees who had arrived in Bari, after fleeing hunger and unrest in their homeland. High tensions and unsanitary conditions made for a humanitarian disaster. The stadium was overhauled for the Mediterranean Games in 1997 and remains part of the city’s fabric, currently playing host to rugby and American football. 

Salerno – Stadio Donati Vestuti 

Located in the centre of Salerno, the defining feature of this Fascist-era construct is its towering, curving Art Deco-style facade. Inaugurated in 1931 and christened Stadio Littorio, the venue was subsequently renamed after the founding father of calcio in the city, Donati Vestuti. The tight diamond-shaped plot is hemmed in by residential buildings on all four sides, making it difficult to comprehend how 45,000 could ever have squeezed into the stadium. 

For a decade, Salernitana supporters lobbied for a new stadium to replace their loved, but weather-worn home. Eventually, they had their way and the Stadio Arechi was completed on the southern edge of the city in 1990. Aptly, Salernitana’s final match at the Vestuti saw them promoted back to Serie B. The old place is still functional – just about. Much of the terracing is off-limits and with a reduced capacity of just 9,000, it is used mainly to host women’s football, rugby and American football. 

Frosinone – Stadio Matusa 

Since the 1970s, the Stadio Comunale was universally known as the Matusa – meaning “old man”. It was a term coined by a local journalist referring to the dilapidated state of the ground. Having begun life in 1930 as a simple enclosed field, it was gradually expanded over the years, culminating in the construction of a covered grandstand in 1949. However, after that, the stadium saw very little further investment. 

At its zenith in the 1980s, the stadium held 12,000 people, many accommodated in temporary scaffold structures behind each goal. Even back then, plans were afoot to create a successor a couple of kilometres across town. The prospective Stadio Casaleno was only partially constructed and served as a training venue for the team for almost three decades. However, Frosinone’s promotion to Serie A in 2015 proved the catalyst for change. The Old Man had a final hurrah as a top-flight venue before the Casaleno (now renamed Stadio Benito Stirpe) was finally completed. In 2017, the Matusa was flattened to make way for an urban park, with the historic grandstand preserved and transformed into public events space. 

Messina – Stadio Giovanni Celeste 

For over 75 years, Stadio Giovanni Celeste played hosts to Messina’s football club. Its distinctive angular shape is dictated by the neighbouring streets which appear to scythe off two corners of the stadium. The stadio witnessed the club’s Serie A heyday during the 1960s and a 58-match unbeaten run for the club during the 1980s. In 1982, it played host to a European Championship qualifier between Malta and Iceland. 

The club once again returned to Serie A in the 1980s, where attendances up to 30,000 highlighted the pressing need for a new home. In the mid-1990s work began on the replacement Stadio San Filippo, but several years of procrastination and delay meant that it wasn’t completed until 2010. 

Following the bankruptcy of Messina’s main club in 2008, a battle for supremacy has ensued between two city rivals slugging it out in Seire D. Stadio Celeste is now used exclusively as a training field for phoenix-club ACR Messina, and recently plans have been put forward to revive the playing surface, lighting and facilities from their degraded state. However, the other club FC Messina have also made (so far, unsuccessful) enquiries with the authorities about using the stadium once again to host competitive matches. 

Taranto – Stadio Salinella 

Source: Wikipedia

In 1960, the municipality of Taranto advanced proposals for a new 35,000 capacity stadium befitting the local football club’s ambition. A site was identified and funding secured, enabling construction work to begin. However, after two years, the project ran aground amidst rumours of financial problems. The groundwork had been completed with perimeter fencing in place, a moat excavated around the pitch, a concourse laid and supporting pillars sunk into the ground. As delays continued and the site began to gather weeds, patience was wore thin at the football club. 

In 1965, club president Michele Di Maggio came forward with his own plans for a new stadium to be located just a few hundred metres from the stalled project. They had funding in place and once granted planning permission, proceeded to work day and night (as if to make a point…), constructing a 25,000-capacity steel and wooden structure in just 100 days. Remarkably, just a few months later, the municipality announced that work on the original, stalled stadium would recommence, but those plans too would eventually be rationalised and ultimately shelved for good. In 1970, the municipality bought the functioning stadium outright from the football club, but the remains of the unfinished stadium survive today, as a salient reminder of their administrative shortcomings. 

The second leg of our journey into Italy’s Marche, Abruzzo and Umbria regions has now been published and can be found here. The final leg of our journey takes us to the north and will be available soon! 

In the meantime, why not discover the forgotten story of the Italia ’90 stadium disaster?

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