From ecstasy to agony: Messina in Serie A

The Sicilian port city of Messina has been at the forefront of the world’s most notable events. It served as the catalyst to the First Punic War between Rome and Carthage, which shaped the ancient world. In addition, Messina is thought by scholars to have been the entry point into Europe of the Black Death in the 14th Century, one of the most devastating diseases in human history. The exploits of Messina’s football team may pale in comparison to the city’s history, but in the mid 2000s, they helped create ripples within Italian football.

The Biancoscudati had been through several upheavals since the turn of the 20th Century, undergoing several bankruptcies and rebirths. By the summer of 2003, the club had been owned by local businessman Pietro Franza for a year, drifting listlessly in Serie B. They narrowly avoided relegation to Serie C in the 2002-03 season for the second time in a row. As a result, Franza appointed Bartolo Mutti as head coach, a man highly experienced in coaching teams across Italy’s football pyramid. Franza hoped Mutti would help Messina avoid yet another relegation scrap but got far more than what he bargained for in the 2003-04 season.

Mutti guided the Sicilians to third place in his debut season, clinching automatic promotion to Serie A for the first time in 39 years. Getting promoted to Italy’s top flight was a complete surprise, as Messina had staved off relegation to Serie C for the last two seasons. It felt like a new dawn for the club on and off the pitch. They finally moved to the Stadio San Flippo in August 2004, which was a significant upgrade to the Stadio Giovanni Celeste, the home of Messina since 1932 and had a capacity of just 11,900.

It was no surprise that multiple observers tipped Messina for relegation, as the squad lacked any real experience in Serie A. Mutti knew reinforcements were needed to bolster the squad if they were to be competitive in the top flight. Yet he did remain loyal to those who helped get the Biancoscudati promoted. Captain Salvatore Sullo had been with Messina when the club were in Serie C in the early 2000s. In addition, Arturo Di Napoli, Alessandro Parisi, goalkeeper Marco Storari and midfielder Carmine Coppola helped win promotion to Serie A and all remained. But Mutti made sure he also acquired players who could combine with his long serving players. Experienced striker Nicola Amoruso was signed on a free transfer from Modena while Riccardo Zampagna returned from his loan spell at Ternara. Come August 2004, the Sicilians felt equipped to compete in Serie A.

“It was an interesting team,” said Daniele Fisichella, a journalist well versed in Sicilian football. “A mix of young and emerging players, a few talented foreigners and also good journeymen,”

Messina’s exciting mix of players certainly made an impact, as they went undefeated in their first five league games, with three wins and two draws. This impressive start made the rest of Serie A stand up and take notice, especially because it included back-to-back wins at home to Roma (4-3) and famously AC Milan (2-1) at San Siro. Messina found themselves in second place going into match day six, but cold reality kicked in with three defeats in a row, slipping down to ninth. Their next game at home to fierce rivals Reggina gave Messina a chance to revitalise their season. Fisichella explained the intensity of the Derby della Stretto, named after the Strait of Messina which separates mainland Italy from Sicily:

The rivalry is massive, I understand it is even bigger than the derbies vs Catania and Palermo.

To add fuel to the fire, this was the first edition of this derby played in Serie A, with previous fixtures played either in the lower leagues or Coppa Italia. Messina’s fans produced a boisterous atmosphere but were silenced when Emilano Bonazzoli gave Reggina the lead on 30 minutes. However, Messina turned the game around in the second half, as Zampagna and Di Napoli scored in a 10 minute spell, with the Biancoscudati holding on for a vital 2-1 win. As a result, Messina jumped to fourth place.

But what goes up must come down and the Sicilians went through a barren spell from November 2004 to January 2005. They drew four games in a row before losing the next three. As a result, Messina plummeted to 12th, undoing their blistering form at the beginning of the season.

Mutti’s players underwent a period of inconsistency until mid-April. They would pick up good results such as a goalless draw against Juventus, beating Reggina again 2-0, as well as defeating high flying Lazio and Udinese. On the other hand, the Biancoscudati were equally capable of shooting themselves in the foot, dropping points to relegation threatened teams like Siena and Livorno.

Despite this inconsistency, Messina had sealed their Serie A status for next season, confounding those earmarking them as prime relegation candidates. With their top flight status secured, it allowed Messina to express themselves, which led to a famous 2-1 victory against Inter and a 2-2 draw at Sampdoria. These two results spearheaded Messina up to seventh place, where they remain for the rest of the season. To finish in such a lofty position in their first season back in the top flight was nothing short of incredible by Mutti and his players. So what was the secret behind their success?

“Messina was certainly the surprise pack of that season. There was a lot of enthusiasm around the team,” Fisichella recollected. “Mutti used to play with four at the back and used a play-maker behind the two strikers. Parisi, the left-back, often provided an attacking threat with crosses and free-kicks.”

Messina Stadium

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An important factor in staying up is having forwards who can score goals. Messina had the luxury of three competent forwards that played a key role. Zampagna was the club’s top scorer with 12 league goals, Di Napoli scored nine and Amoruso chipped in with five from the bench. In addition, Parisi made his presence felt at left back with six goals. If attack helped win games, then defence provided the base for the Biancoscudati to attack. Storari was a key cog for Messina and kept an impressive 10 clean sheets from 28 league games. Iranian Rahman Rezaei was a commanding presence at centre back, whether in Serie A or B, as supporters heralded Rezaei the “Secretary Of Defence.”

Unsurprisingly, Messina’s players began to earn recognition in the Italian national side. Parisi’s sparkling performances at the start of the season led to his first (and only cap) for Italy in November 2004. Carmine Coppola, a stabilising rock in midfield, debuted for Italy in June 2005 after the end of the domestic season. These call ups to the Azzurri were just reward for the hard work which had seen Messina become the surprise package in Serie A.

However, the success Messina enjoyed had one notable drawback, as it attracted growing interest from bigger clubs. The Biancoscudati lost two of their most important attacking players in the summer on free transfers: Zampagna to Atalanta and Amoruso sensationally to local rivals Reggina. To add further insult to injury, disaster would strike the club before the 2005-06 season. On July 15, 2005, the Italian Football Federation (FIGC) requested Messina to be relegated from Serie A due to financial issues.

“The financial troubles were linked with the fact the Franzas had overspent between wages and the construction of the stadium,” Fisichella explained. Messina’s promotion to Serie A meant a spike in the wage bill, as the club tried to attract players, so to avoid going straight back down to Serie B. Furthermore, the construction of the Stadio San Filippo had long been a drain on the club’s finances. As said before, the stadium opened in August 2004, but work on the San Flippo was commissioned as far back as the early 1990s. Delays on building the new stadium put huge strain on Messina’s coffers.

Stunningly, Messina won their appeal 11 days later, thereby saving their Serie A status. But these off field issues had a detrimental effect on the players. The Biancoscudati struggled throughout the 2005-06 season, as they failed to win their first nine league games. By late March, Messina languished in the relegation zone with seven games left. Pietro Franza’s hand was forced, as he sacked Mutti, replacing him with Giampiero Ventura for the last seven league games. Ventura’s first game was a 3-0 defeat against Inter, but Messina managed to beat Treviso 3-1 in their next fixture. That was as good as it got, as the Sicilians lost their last five games, which included a galling 3-0 loss at Reggina. The Biancoscudati finished 18th, a position that normally meant relegation.

However, the 2006 Calciopoli scandal would come to Messina’s rescue, as Juventus were relegated to Serie B, their CEO Luciano Moggi receiving a lifetime ban. Their transgressions allowed Messina to stay in Serie A for the 2006-07 season but the club weren’t immune to allegations related to Calciopoli.

Aniello Aliberti, president of Salernitana, accused Franza and sporting director Mariano Fabiani of complicity in Calciopoli while both clubs were in Serie B. He said Franza offered him 300 million lire if his side lost to Messina for they had little to play for. The Sicilians were investigated but no evidence tied them to Calciopoli. Despite this, Aliberti remained suspicious of their promotion to Serie A. He remarked:

“The change of coach {Mutti} in the {promotion} race and a couple of purchases are not enough to explain the change of pace in Messina”

The 2006-07 season would prove to be the beginning of the end for the Biancoscudati. They went through three coaches, had the worst defence in the league, and finished bottom of the table. The only positive in such a wretched campaign was Christian Rigano. In his second spell at the club, the forward scored 19 goals in 27 league games, the third highest scorer in Serie A that season. Rigano accounted for half of Messina’s goals that season and stayed for just one season – moving to Levante in the summer of 2007.

Things got progressively worse for Messina, as debts spiralled out of control. Admirably, they managed to secured their Serie B status in the 2007-08 season. However, the fatal blow was struck on July 2008 when Franza was unable to find any investors for the financially stricken club. Their Serie B licence was revoked and they were admitted to Serie D in August – Italy’s fourth tier. Come November 2008, a court in Messina declared the club bankrupt.

Nowadays, the Biancoscudati still reside in Serie D, a world away from the heady heights of Serie A. They made ripples in Italian football by challenging Serie A’s elites and their downfall was equally as spectacular. In just three years, Messina’s ecstasy became agony, a fate that has befallen many an Italian club.

Words by Yousef Teclab: @yousef_teclab