In the city of Cremona, professional footballers play second fiddle to another revered profession. For centuries, master luthiers have handcrafted the finest violins on earth from unassuming artisan workshops across this city. Whilst the household names of Amati, Stradivari and Guarneri won’t be found on any team sheet, that doesn’t diminish Cremonese’s proud footballing traditions.
After several brief flirtations with Serie A in the 1980s, Cremonese’s golden age definitively began in 1993. Coach Gigi Simoni led the club to triumph over Derby County in the Anglo-Italian Cup Final at Wembley, and followed that up a few months later with promotion to the top flight.
They rubbed shoulders with some of the greatest club sides and players in world football, finishing as high as tenth place before succumbing to relegation in 1996. A sobering freefall ensued which saw them languishing in Italy’s fourth tier by the turn of the millennium. The road back to their current position in Serie B has been a long one.
The accolade of Cremona’s most famous footballing son is something of a dead heat. Antonio Cabrini spent his formative years with his hometown club before a glittering career in the 1980s with Juventus and Italy. The full-back won almost every major honour going. Several years later, a youthful and follically-replete Gianluca Vialli emerged as a potent goalscorer with Cremonese before going on to achieve domestic and European success with Sampdoria, Juventus and Chelsea.
The city of Cremona can be found around an hour south of Milan, on the fertile plains of the Po Valley. The focal point of the city centre is the spectacular Romanesque Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta in Piazza del Comune. The Cattedrale possesses an impressive brickwork tower, the tallest of its kind in Italy. The Torrazzo is breath-taking, both from the perspective of the challenging ascent and the views proffered by the exposed viewing platform at the summit.
The city’s agricultural and culinary heritage becomes apparent on market day when the piazza fills with vendors of specialty meats and cheeses and seasonal fruit and vegetables. Narrow streets radiate from the central Piazza and it is here that you can find the best lunchtime retreats and vendors of Torrone; a sweet local delicacy similar to hardened nougat. There is a small club shop in via Solferino (with slightly erratic opening hours) that offers a modest range of shirts, t-shirts, mugs and pennants. Venturing just a little further out, musical afficionados could while away hours in the violin museum and admirers of 1930s architecture can marvel at the nearby Galleria XXV Aprile.
Stadio Giovanni Zini is located about one mile east of the central piazza and is accessed through an angular 1920s archway at the end of via Cardinale Massaia. This place has been home to Cremonese for over a century. Naturally, it has taken on several incarnations over that time, but one near-constant has been its moniker, chosen to honour Cremonese’s celebrated goalkeeper. Zini, who was fondly remembered for his reflexes, courage and spring-like leap, perished during the first world war.
The modern-day stadium holds 16,000 and its composition of six different stands speaks to a story of evolution. With the original velodrome long gone, the oldest part of the stadium is the grandstand (1931), which is now flanked on either side by smaller covered areas. The distinti, running the length of the opposite touchline, has been refurbished in recent years with new seats and, for the first time, a roof. The Curva Sud has had the same treatment, having been incrementally extended over the years and now offering protection from the elements.
The Cremonese tifosi inhabit the Curva Sud, and have done since a controversial relocation from the opposite end in 1984. The stadium’s rectangular form places the supporters directly behind the goal, contributing to an intense atmosphere. The innards of the Curva are brightened by a series of murals dedicated to the club and their fans, including one recalling that Wembley victory.
Tickets for the Sud cost just €10 and were easily obtained a week in advance of the game from ticketone.it. A free fold-out programme is distributed in the Piazza behind the Curva Sud and inside the stadium you can buy stickers and clothing from ultra groups. Refreshment stands offer a range food and drink options (500ml beer, €4), though I had heard that the ground was dry for some previous fixtures.
I had a stroke of luck in booking Hotel B&B Cremona; primarily chosen for its location just a few hundred metres from the ground and its price (€40 a night, midweek). As I headed back to the hotel a couple of hours before the game, it transpired this was where the Cremonese team were staying for their pre-match meal and rest, so I was able to get them to sign the pennant I’d just bought from the club shop!
Heading into the match, Cremonese were key protagonists in one of the tightest Serie B promotion races of recent times. Unfancied at the start of the season, their squad comprised of experienced campaigners and promising youngsters on loan from Serie A clubs were surpassing all expectations. They took on lowly Pordenone as clear favourites, despite the absence of midfield talisman and Juventus loanee Nicolo Fagioli.
The boisterous Curva Sud were in fine voice, offering unwavering support for their team despite a frustrating first half that finished goalless. Cremonese coach Fabio Pecchia rang in the changes early in the second half, but it was Pordenone who took the lead against the run of play following a fine finish from Italy under-21 player Nicolo Cambiaghi. Pecchia’s adjustments came good soon afterwards, a double from super-sub Luca Zanimacchia, another Juventus loanee, turned things around for the home side. The visionary assist from Napoli’s Gianluca Gaetano and impudent finish for the winning goal was joyful to watch.
After twenty-five years in the wilderness, a return to Serie A would be a fairytale for Cremonese and their followers. Moreover, the city of Cremona would be a worthy host for Serie A football, and the tifosi will ensure it is a hostile place for any team to visit. Either way, Stadio Zini should be high up on any groundhoppers wish list, particularly given its ease of reach from Milan and its proximity to the Reggio-Emilian corridor of Parma, Reggiana, Modena and Bologna.
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