Gallipoli: The death of a fairy tale

Fairy tales always end happily, invariably with the hero/heroine living happily ever after. It has been the premise for countless Disney movies down the years and why not, it has been hugely successful and people love to watch tales that end on a positive note.

The fact of life, however, is that fairy tales do not always meet with such perfect endings. That is not to say they don’t occur and there have been plenty of heart-warming stories, particularly in sport, to demonstrate fairy tales are possible. Yet, when you think about it, how many so called sporting fairy tales have actually ended like a Disney movie, with everyone riding off happily into the sunset. The answer is very few.

Take the famous story of Castel Di Sangro, one mythologised in Joe McGinniss’ book, ‘The Miracle of Castel Di Sangro’. Hailing from a tiny village of just 6,000 people in Abruzzo, Castel di Sangro climbed the Calcio pyramid until they reached Serie B; one division shy of what was considered the greatest league in the world at that time. But how did this miracle end? The minnows plummeted back down the divisions before going bankrupt and starting again in Italy’s lowest tier. Hardly a Cinderella like ending.

What about the most recent Calcio fairy tale, the magnificent journey of Lega Pro club Alessandria to the semi-finals of the Coppa Italia. Once again, the end to their story is nothing like the movie ‘Tangled’. Not only did the Grigi’s league form suffer as a result of their cup run, but that run was brought to a grinding halt by the ‘troll’ under the bridge that was AC Milan.

While Fairy tales might not be that hard to come by in the world of Calcio, they don’t always have Disney type endings, as little Gallipoli Calcio would come to find out. This is their story.

Once upon a time in a region called Puglia, there lived a little club by the name of Gallipoli. Having only been formed in 1999, they were much smaller than the other clubs and had never achieved much in the way of success. But then, in the season of 2008-09, something amazing began to happen, Gallipoli started to win and then win some more.

By the end of the season, they had won so much that they finished top of the Lega Pro Prima Divisione, Girone B. As a result, they were promoted to Serie B for the first time in their history.

Putting that achievement into context, the club had only been playing in a division as high as Lega Pro since 2006. What’s more, of the 63 years that the club had been in existence at that stage, 42 had been spent playing in the sixth tier or lower. Needless to say, the promotion to the second highest tier of the Italian game was met with great excitement by the city’s 21,000 strong population.

However, that excitement was soon met with despair, as on the eve of their Serie B debut, things began to unravel. The first issue regarded the club’s quaint Stadio Bianco and its 4000 capacity, which was rendered unfit for Serie B’s regulations.

Despite desperate attempts to persuade the league to make an exception, the club was forced to make alternative arrangements. An agreement was eventually made to use Lecce’s Stadio Via del Mare, which as the crow flies, was about 40km from their own stadium.

While being unable to play at their true home was a major setback, the likes of Carpi and Sassuolo have demonstrated that such a hurdle can be overcome, both having had to move homes after their respective promotions to Serie A. But worse was soon to come.

As the season fast approached, fans became increasingly worried about the club’s lack of activity in the transfer market. Then came the bombshell that would rock everybody involved with Gallipoli: President Vincenzo Barba announced that he did not have sufficient funds to bankroll the club through its maiden Serie B season.

Barba would immediately plea for help but none was forthcoming and he eventually put the club up for sale at a nominal cost. Things, however, were already tipping the scale on the embarrassment front. Due to kick off their competitive season against Lega Pro club, Lumezzane, in the Coppa Italia, the club’s desperate financial situation meant they were unable to put a squad together. Forced to put out the Primavera (youth) team, Gallipoli were duly whipped 6-0.

Ten days before the start of the Serie B season, the club was finally sold to an entrepreneur by the name of Daniele D’Odorico. Although the financial situation was temporarily secured, Gallipoli still had the problem of only having eight players in their squad, three from the promotion season and the rest from the Primavera.
Incredibly, this was all happening just a week before the Serie B campaign kicked-off. A squad was hastily thrown together but its chances of surviving in the division were bleak.

Remarkably though, the club only lost one of its opening nine matches, winning two and drawing the rest. This ragtag bunch were defying the odds and they finished the first-half of the season in 11th place. This relative success came at another price though, with their best players being cherry-picked by rival clubs during the January transfer window.

As such, the second half of the year proved a complete bust as Gallipoli plummeted down the table and into the relegation zone, from which they were not to escape. The dream first year in Serie B could not have gone any worse, but somehow, there was more misery still to come.

The club’s financial insecurities had not been resolved and before the start of the following season, Gallipoli went bankrupt and were forced to start again in the regional Promozione. One year on from playing the likes of Torino and Reggina, the minnows from Puglia were now touring the local circuit.

The club would climb ever so slightly in the coming years but are a far cry from the heady heights of Serie B. Indeed, this past weekend (23/24 April), the club was relegated from Serie D Group H after an all-round miserable season.

As for that fairy tale promotion to Serie B, it was less a miracle and more a tale of villainy. In 2014, it came to light that business men with close association to the Camorra mafia had paid players from Real Marcianise –  Galliopli’s opponents on the final day of the Lega Pro season – €50,000 to lose the match, which they duly did 3-2.

What started out as a fairy tale turned into something much darker indeed.

Words by Kevin Nolan: @KevinNolan11