The Ligurian Black Devils: How Virtus Entella went from bankruptcy to Serie B

Chiavari è una bella cittadina della Riviera Ligure, ricca di storia e tradizione.

This is how the website of Virtus Entella S.r.l. describes its home of Chiavari; a small-town rich in tradition and history, located on the Ligurian Riveria. And like their home-town, Entella also have a long-standing history, one celebrated during its centenary year in 2014. This was a notable achievement for such a small club that, at different times during its history, has been reborn and rebranded. Today, Entella sit in the top half of Serie B, a welcome relief given the club has spent a large part of its history in the lower leagues and also suffered bankruptcy in 2001. But, with sound investment, the Black Devils have come back from the brink and progressed with a fresh outlook on club matters.

In 1914, Football Club Entella was founded, named after the river Entella that flows between Chiavari and Lavagna. The club adopted the colours of white and sky blue, the trademark of Argentina’s national team. This was largely thanks to Enrico Sannazzari, who had returned to Italy from Buenos Aries and, along with Pippo Lanata, went on to found and play for the ‘Biancocelesti’. Indeed, the Argentine connection is an integral part of the club’s identity and was strengthened by the large number of emigrants from Argentina to the Ligurian region at that time.From these humble beginnings it took the club 100 years to clinch their first historic promotion to Serie B, secured on 4 May 2014 with a 2-1 victory against Cremonese. It was an incredible turnaround given that the club had ceased to exist in the early 2000s. As with many teams in the Italian lower leagues, Entella have endured a number of name changes and mergers with close rivals.
During the mid-1980s, a fusion with ACSA Bacezza created Association Football Entella Bacezza, who were led by the current Italy coach Giampiero Ventura, and also had Luciano Spalletti in their playing ranks. A successful season in Serie C2 (Italy’s old fourth tier) in 1986 saw Entella finish in fifth place, but Ventura left for Ligurian rivals Spezia and took Spalletti with him.

The duo’s departure signalled something of a barren spell for the Biancocelesti, oscillating between the lower professional and non-professional leagues. The ambitious acquisition[LH1]  of the club by the Argentinian, Ricardo Omar Ciancilla, briefly threatened to bring this to a halt and turn around the club’s fortunes.

The newly installed president believed a blend of South American players and current squad members was the way forward. By recruiting players on dual nationality passports (something not seen in the lower leagues at this time), the dream of Ciancilla started well enough with promotion to Serie D in 1999. But second season syndrome derailed Ciancilla’s plan, and Entella’s consequent relegation was attributed to his ambitious recruitment policy and sacking of four coaches that season.

Moreover, Ciancilla left the club in financially dire straits and, in 2001, the Biancocelesti went bankrupt and spent a whole year expelled from football. In the summer of 2002, the club re-founded as Unione Sportiva Valle Sturla Entella and finished second in the Ligurian regional league B.

When one surveys the history of the club and its ever-changing circumstances, one factor does appear to remain consistent; their ethos of developing and promoting young local players. In this regard, the club’s bankruptcy helped refocus Entella’s policy of using local players in a bid to progress through the lower leagues.


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Credit: Virtus Entella press office

Those desperate years after Ciancilla showed hope with the youth sector continuing and a club resurfacing with its history intact after seemingly disappearing. Seasons of high finishes coupled with agonising play-off defeats set the tone up to 2007 before a new president, Antonio Gozzi (pictured above), invested money, time and reshaped the direction of the team.

Gozzi, an Italian and president of Federacciai, the representative entity of all iron and steel companies in Italy and also president of Duferco Italia Holdings Spa, made quick changes. He hired Claudio Terzulli in place of Costanzo Celestini and combined canny purchases of players with lower league experience to get the club promoted to Serie D.Gozzi also reshaped the club’s hierarchy by hiring Matteo Superbi as sporting director. Superbi, a former player, provided that vital link between coach and president in the years that followed and still holds a place at the club to this day.In 2010, the club gained entry to the rebranded Lega Pro Girona B and from this rise up the ladder renamed itself Virtus Entella. Terzulli was preceded by Cristiano Bacci for one season and then Luca Prina, who oversaw the next four historic years in the Entella’s diverse history from 2011 to 2015. Prina was sacked near the end of the 2014-15 season with Alfredo Aglietti seeing out a season in which the club lost a relegation play-off versus Modena only to be reinstated after Catania’s match-fixing scandal came to light. Gozzi, not without scandal himself, was arrested in March 2015 on suspicion of bribery to officials in Congo in order to access markets in the country. He was later released by a Belgian judge with no charges made.

Aglietti took Entella to new heights in the 2015-16 season, with Francesco Caputo netting 17 goals in the league. Aglietti improved the side with goalkeeper Alessandro Iacobucci and the savvy loan of Caputo from Bari, and ultimately only four points separated Bari in fifth from Entella in ninth.

Gozzi then changed coaches again, bringing in Roberto Breda from Ternana. Breda was interim coach leading the ‘Fere’ to 12th-place in Serie B. With Aglietti’s contract not being renewed, it was the sought-after Breda who was tasked with Entella’s immediate future, a coach targeted for years by Superbi for his values and work ethic that resonated with the Entella board.

With Caputo and new captain Michele Troiano, Entella made a sterling start to the 2016-17 campaign, with notable wins against Brescia and Cesena meaning the heady heights of second place by round 12, though since there have been inconsistencies in results, with draws reaching double figures. Breda (pictured below) managed to bring in players during the January window to enhance the squad as they looked to build and vie for a play-off position come May. Francesco Ardizzone (Pro Vercelli), Andrea Catellani (Spezia), Lorenzo Filippini (Lazio on loan) and Simone Pecorini (Ascoli Picchio).Picture

Credit: Virtus Entella press office

Below the first team, the Primavera side led by Gianpaolo Castorina recently conquered Fiorentina in the semi-finals of the Primavera TIM Cup. They will face AS Roma in the two-legged final having dispatched Bologna and Torino in previous rounds. Gozzi’s ‘Entella Project’ looks to be shaping up nicely with the growth of young talent from the region and elsewhere in Italy disseminating the values and beliefs of the club through each team.

Entella have come a long way since the days of Ciancilla. The academy structure is now robust and blossoming with female teams alongside the male youth ranks. One departure early in 2017 was that of Cheick Keita. Aged just 20, the promising left-back joined Gianfranco Zola’s Birmingham City in the January window for just over £1 million. Keita was a product of the renowned French football youth system of Clairefontaine and just one of the many young players that now epitomises Entella’s philosophy.

Entella’s Cantera has record numbers. It is the largest youth sector in Liguria and general manager Matteo Matteazzi explains, “We are proud to have reached this aim providing the opportunity to all children…to put on our shirt, sharing the spirit and values of our society.”

The club, with its community-based initiatives, have invested in the area and value affinity among the local children and families. Every week a player from the first team goes on a visit to the fields of Colmata (Academy) to get to know the young players. It also happens that he trains with them, giving advice and suggestions. Also this year, the players of the first team go into Chiavari and Genoa schools to explain what Virtus Entella is; the children who attend the meeting then have free access to the stadium to watch a match.

The team can but dream and keep playing the way of the club in an attempt to complete its restoration and reach Serie A. Regardless, the future looks encouraging for the Biancocelesti, with the success of the Primavera and the astuteness of Breda at the helm.

Words by Julian Ralph @juralph27

Julian Ralph is a football coach and writer, lecturer, photographer and calcio lover.