Plonked right up on Italy’s northeastern border is the Slovenian town of Nova Gorica. Home to little over 13,000 people, this gaming/gambling city as its own tourist website puts it, is the very definition of a border town, with one side of the road being Slovenia and the other being Italy.
Indeed, even the city of Milan is still over 100km closer to Nova Gorica then it is to its own capital city of Rome. A relatively young town, it has only been around since 1947 when, in the aftermath of World War II, it came into being as a substitute for the original town of Gorizia, which remained under Italian control. To this day, Gorizia remains a dominion of Italy and is situated less than four kilometres from its sister town.
For this article, though, the story does not lie with the history of this city (fascinating as it may be), but rather with the football club who call Nova Gorica home, ‘Nogometno Drustvo Gorica’ or for short, ND Gorica.
For an Italian centric site like The Gentleman Ultra, concentrating on a club like ND Gorica is rather outside the norm. Despite being in such close proximity to the border, the club has never played in any Italian league throughout its 70-year history. It is your archetypal Slovenian football club and nothing more. Yes, four national league titles do mark it out to be one of the more successful clubs in the country, but on face value there is nothing that warrants a write-up for this site.
Yet it is only when you tear back the layers that you notice a quirky little tale that connects the Vrtnice (Roses) with calcio. Back in 2013, the club had struck upon an agreement to become a feeder side for the then Serie A club, Parma. Under the stewardship of Tommaso Ghirardi (which turned out to be rather unscrupulous), the Gialloblu were looking to branch out. They were drawn to the success enjoyed by the Pozzo family at Udinese, whose blueprint of buying other clubs and inter-trading players before selling them on for a profit was shrewd and lucrative. The Ducali’s ownership decided they would like a slice of this cake. However, Ghirardi and his partner in crime, Pietro Leonardi, decided that rather than buying other clubs, they would simply make connections and loan players out.
ND Gorica soon became one of these clubs and before you could snap your fingers, they were basically transformed into a ‘Parma lite’. Into the team’s coaching hot seat was placed future Parma boss and former playing great, Luigi Apolloni. With Apolloni installed at the helm, a flood of players joined Gorica from the Crociati. Incredibly, by the end of the 2013-14 season, up to 27 players had been loaned from Parma to Gorica. What makes that statistic even more mind-boggling is the fact that while Parma had 27 players playing at their Slovenian outpost, they also had another 18 on loan at Lega Pro side Gubbio. That though, is a story for another time.
While relying on a squad of loanees is not equitable to long term success, it did bring about some short-term gain. This short-term gain came in the form of some quite decent players making their way from the Tardini to western Slovenia. The first of them being a certain Massimo Coda. Though the now 28-year-old striker remains a little-known name back in his home country, he has still managed to carve out a very respectable career. Following his loan spell with Gorica, he returned to play with Parma in Serie A, before moving onto Salernitana in Serie B where the goals have flowed on a regular basis.
More importantly for Gorica, the goals flew in for Coda in the PrvaLiga, as he helped himself to a total of 18 in 33 matches. Another former Gorica name that has grown in recognition over the last two seasons is current Crotone and Serie A goalkeeper, Alex Cordaz. The journeyman stopper was 30 years of age when he joined Gorica on loan from Parma. The former Inter trainee probably thought his career was on a downward trajectory when he was shipped off to play in a league where only one of the ten teams average an attendance of over 1000 spectators. Yet three seasons on, despite now being 34 years of age, he is playing in his first ever Serie A campaign. A remarkable achievement for someone who looked resigned to a career in the lower leagues.
Indeed, Cordaz’s rise has been remarkable, but it pales in comparison to the next man. At 23 years old, Gianluca Lapadula’s career was heading nowhere and fast. He had been shipped from club to club with dizzying rapidity, proving either a minimal success or simply failing to follow up on a good season. ND Gorica was to be Lapadula’s fourth loan spell away from Parma and most likely his final chance to deliver on some residue of promise.
In the end, he did deliver, but he did not hit the heights one may suspect. Ten goals in 27 matches in the Slovenian league does not strike as form worthy of a move to AC Milan a few years down the line. But it was here in Nova Gorica that things finally began to click for Lapadula. In front of crowds that averaged less than 500, Lapadula would discover the ability that has seen him become such a cult hero at Milan.
Thanks to these three players and 24 other Parma loanees, Gorica triumphed in the Slovenian domestic cup, upsetting perennial powerhouses NK Maribor 2-0 in the final. Both goals were scored by 22-year-old Francesco Finocchio, another Parma loanee who currently plays for Pistoiese in Lega Pro Group A. The Vrtnice also achieved a fourth-place finish in the PrvaLiga, securing qualification for the Europa League qualifying rounds. As fate had it, parent club Parma also qualified for Europe by virtue of a sixth-place finish in Serie A. For all intents and purposes, the Gialloblu had two teams set to play in Europe.
However, while Gorica took up their spot in the qualifying rounds of the Europa League, Parma would enjoy no such privilege, as evidence of the vast financial black hole in the Ducali’s accounts began to emerge. Even with Parma falling into financial ruin during the following season of 2014-15, eight players were loaned out to Gorica. But given that 27 had joined the year before, it is needless to say that the squad saw a radical overhaul in personnel. Out went Cordaz, Coda and Lapadula and as such, the Slovenian outfit struggled, eventually finishing in ninth place and surviving relegation via a play-off. The club have since rebuilt with players based closer to home, and they rely far less on loan deals from elsewhere.
Everyone knows what happened to Parma during the Ghirardi regime, but the story of Gorica is seldom told. They made a pact with a devil disguised as the Ducali ownership, hoping that it would bring them to new heights. Temporarily it did just that, but in the long run it very nearly led to their relegation and from there, who knows.
Thus, ND Gorica may be Slovenian, but their recent successes and failures owe much to the crazy world of Italian football.
Words by Kevin Nolan: @KevinNolan11