Unsuspecting groundhoppers might encounter some difficulty in pinpointing SPAL on a map. Societa Polisportiva Ars et Labor is one of Europe’s only acronymic football clubs and is unusual in that none of the initials reference the historic city of Ferrara from which they hail.
The origins of the football club can be traced back to a cultural and religious order founded by a priest in the early 20th century. Over time, an independent sporting arm broke away, but those ecclesiastic roots are still evident today in the club’s blue and white colours taken from the coat of arms of the Salesian Society of San Giovanni Bosco.
SPAL are synonymous with the name of Paolo Mazza, a storied figure who served the club in numerous capacities over the course of forty years. Arriving as coach in 1936, he then assumed the role of President when football recommenced after the Second World War. Under Mazza’s shrewd leadership, SPAL rose from Serie C to Serie A, spending the majority of the 1950s and 1960s in the top flight.
Mazza’s greatest attribute was his ability to recognise and nurture young talent. SPAL developed an unparalleled reputation as a nursery club, consistently unearthing rough diamonds to replace a succession of star players picked off by larger clubs. The pinnacle of Mazza’s dealings came in 1962 when he persuaded a 16-year-old boy by the name of Fabio Capello, then playing in his village team, to reject the advances of AC Milan and sign for SPAL.
SPAL have endured some lean years since that high watermark, but the good times have started to return to the eponymous Stadio Paolo Mazza. After an absence of nearly half a century, SPAL regained their Serie A status in 2017, staying there for three years. Most recently, the club has been acquired by American-Italian Joe Tacopina, who had previously held interests in Roma, Bologna and Venezia.
Our arrival in Ferrara was amongst the most efficient journeys we’ve experienced in Italy. Little more than an hour after the plane had touched down at Bologna Guglielmo Marconi Airport, we found ourselves standing outside Stadio Paolo Mazza.
Having breezed through passport control, the Marconi Express monorail whisked us from the airport to Bologna Centrale train station in just 7 minutes (€9 via contactless payment at barriers). We even had time for quick coffee before boarding a Regionale train service to Ferrara (€5, 30 minutes, departs three times each hour). The stadium is located just a five-minute walk from Ferrara station.
The city of Ferrara is a UNESCO World Heritage site, reflecting its history as one of Italy’s eminent Renaissance cities. Medieval city walls and open green spaces encircle an old city comprised of enchanting narrow streets and picturesque terracotta rooftops.
In the historic centre, located a few minutes beyond the stadium, you’ll find Castello Estense (the traditional seat of the Este dynasty and, more recently, location of the SPAL 2022/23 team photo) and the Romanesque-Gothic Cattedrale. The Palazzo dei Diamanti, so named after its intricate exterior masonry, houses the National Portrait Collection and also provided creative inspiration for the design of SPAL’s 2022/23 Away shirt.
With the benefit of hindsight, we didn’t allow nearly enough time to do justice to Ferrara’s rich cultural offerings. Chief amongst those regrets was our failure to sample a local autumnal specialty called cappellacci di zucca; a ravioli dish containing butternut squash, Parmigiano-Reggiano and nutmeg.
If you’re looking to grab a drink before the match, there are plenty of bars and restaurants in the centre. Our top recommendation is to head to the Hangar Birrerie (via Mario Poledrelli), located just a couple of streets from the stadio, and which has a good matchday atmosphere. If you’re eager to get inside the stadium, beer is also sold on the concourse (€4).
Stadio Paolo Mazza dates back to 1928, but today bears little resemblance to the original arena. The athletics track and velodrome were sacrificed in the 1950s when the venue took on its now familiar rectangular form.
The stadium comprises four separate stands and, in partnership with the municipality, has been significantly upgraded since 2005. The Curva Est, which houses visiting supporters, has been completely reconstructed and a roof has been added. The Gradinata Laterale which runs alongside the pitch has similarly been enhanced with a new roof and big screen. Extensive works to the main Tribuna have seen the installation of corporate facilities and premium pitchside pods.
The sum of these renovations is a bright, modern stadium that affords spectators a degree of comfort and protection from the elements, whilst maintaining the intimate feel of a traditional Italian stadio. The greatest accomplishment of these renovations is that it does not seem to have compromised the superb atmosphere that emanates from the home tifosi on the Curva Ovest.
Match tickets are available for purchase via the club’s website (with print at home option) and are offered for sale around 7-10 days ahead of each match. Prices range from €16 in the curva at either end of the ground, up to €45 in the centre of the main Tribuna.
Under the current ownership, SPAL are adopting a progressive approach to galvanise local support and attract new followers from further afield. From the bespoke shirt designs that reference civic landmarks to the appointment of an Italian football icon in Daniele De Rossi as coach, no stone is being left unturned.
Further evidence of the club’s modus operandi can be seen in the matchday club shop located between the Curva Ovest and Tribuna. Whilst the primary club shop is located in town (Via Giuseppe Mazzini), a well-stocked sister shop provides supporters with the opportunity to buy anything from signed shirts through to scarves, flags and keyrings. Around 45 minutes before kick-off, SPAL player Marco Varnier came into the club shop to pose for photographs and sign items for supporters.
SPAL have also innovated to provide supporters with the chance to purchase unique pieces of memorabilia. After each match, several match worn shirts are offered for sale via the club’s official online store. The shirts come with a certificate of authenticity and match worn patch and, priced at £115, represent good value for money. Once back in the UK, we were able to buy Lorenzo Dickmann’s shirt from the exact game we went to see.
The match against Benevento in November 2022 had the added interest of pitting two of Italy’s 2006 World Cup heroes against one another. Daniele De Rossi is taking his first steps in management in the home dug out whilst Fabio Cannavaro was in charge of the visitors.
The home curva was sold out and generated a fantastic atmosphere throughout the game. Veteran midfielder Pasquale Schiattarella, a hero of SPAL’s most recent exploits in Serie A, was in the visitor’s starting line-up. He received a warm reception from home supporters who unfurled a banner paying tribute to the grit and sweat he displayed during his time in a blue and white shirt.
SPAL entered the field in their famous narrow striped jerseys and took an early lead courtesy of an exquisite free kick from impressive midfielder Salvatore Esposito. Benevento thought they’d drawn level on the half-hour mark, only for VAR to intervene to keep SPAL’s noses in front.
Cannavaro’s half-time words clearly had an effect as the visitors began the second half brightly. The momentum of the game definitively swung in their favour when SPAL’s young Polish defender Patryk Peda was unfortunate to see red for a clumsy challenge in the middle of the pitch. Benevento applied further pressure and, within quarter of an hour of Peda’s dismissal, had turned the tide. Two quick fire goals sent around 300 travelling supporters into raptures and proved enough for Benevento to take 3 points back to Campania.
Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this, check out our Calcio Travel Notes section for other destinations and our Ultimate Travel Guide for hints and tips for your trip to Italy.