Last year, while visiting family in my home town of San Vito sullo Ionio in the Calabrian province of Catanzaro, I took a drive to the biggest shopping mall in the region.
On the journey, I noticed a decaying stadium reminiscent of the white elephants of Italia 90. It was the Stadio Nicola Ceravolo, home of US Catanzaro. I had heard stories about the club, how they were competitive in Serie A years before I was born, and how they made the people from the poorest region in Italy dream for a decade.
One story, dating back to 1923, told how the unofficial local team travelled to Cosenza for a derby match in the regional league. Of the two buses carrying fans and players one broke down and the occupants were forced to walk the rest of the way through the mountains to the stadium. Despite arriving mere minutes before kickoff, the stricken players joined their teammates to beat Cosenza 2-1.
At the time, there was more than one club in the city but in 1929 they merged to form Catanzarese, later renamed US Catanzaro. The new club dubbed themselves the Giallorossi because of their kit colours and Aquile del Sud (Eagles of the South) after the club’s emblem featuring the national bird of Calabria.
For decades, the club yo-yoed between Serie B and Serie C. It wasn’t until 1958, when local lawyer Nicola Ceravolo bought the club, that top-flight football seemed possible. The new owner invested heavily and Catanzaro became competitive. In 1965, they reached a historic milestone.
Catanzaro team 1965/66 – Standing: Sardei, Marini, Bui, Tonani, Marini, Maccacaro; kneeling: Gasparini, Provasi, Tribuzio, Vanini, Marchioro.
Despite being a Serie B side, Catanzaro made it to the Coppa Italia Final. They defeated Messina, Napoli, Lazio, Torino and Juventus, via a historic 2-1 win in Turin, to reach the final. Thousands of Catanzaresi from all over Italy descended on Rome’s Stadio Olimpico for the final against Fiorentina.
The game finished 1-1 after 90 minutes. Catanzaro battled heroically through extra-time but with six minutes to go, hearts were broken as Fiorentina scored to make it 2-1. The small club from Calabria had come agonizingly close to qualifying for the European Cup Winner’s Cup.
In 1971, Catanzaro defied the odds again and became the first team from Calabria to be promoted to Serie A, beating Bari in the play-offs. However, they struggled in the top flight and had to wait until week 16 to secure their first win, a 1-0 triumph over Juventus. During this period, they toured North America playing exhibition matches in places such as New York and Toronto. They even contested a friendly against Pele’s Santos team.
Following their relegation, they spent another four years in Serie B, narrowly missing out on promotion in 1975, but the signing of club legend Massimo Palanca a year before sparked a golden era for the club. The moustached striker is still worshipped today with shrines dedicated to him in the local shops. He was deadly in front of goal and notorious for scoring directly from corner kicks.
Catanzaro team 1976/77 – Standing: C. Ranieri, E. Nicolini, L. Boccolini, G. Sperotto, G. Pellizzaro, F. Silipo; kneeling: P. Nemo, R. Vichi, M. Palanca, G. Improta, P. Braca.
Inspired by Palanca, Catanzaro gained promotion again in 1976 but went straight back down before rising again in 1978. Each time they grew stronger and provided a tougher challenge for Italy’s top flight clubs. Their best years came between 1979 and 1983 with Palanca leading the front line and Claudio Ranieri commanding the defense. A respectable ninth-place finish and a Coppa Italia semi-final appearance in 1978-79 would have been followed by another drop save the forced relegations of AC Milan and Lazio, but they made the most of their reprieve finishing seventh in 1982.
Despite the lack of technical ability, Catanzaro worked hard and were aided by a passionate crowd. The away teams’ gruelling two-hour journey from Lamezia Airport to their mountain location also worked in their favour.
Following relegation in 1983, Catanzaro never reached the same heights again. Their exciting and colourful journey to the top flight had come to an end. Despite a handful of appearances in Serie B, most recently in 2003-04, the giallorossi spent the majority of the next 35 years in the third division.
Financial troubles in 2006 and 2011 led to double bankruptcies before the club emerged again as US Catanzaro 1929 having purchased the historical brand and logo of US Catanzaro. A dream of a return to the top flight may seem farfetched, but there is hope.
In 2016, Crotone proved that a small city in Calabria (described by some pundits as an outpost of Italian football) could reach the top flight, spending two years in Serie A. Cosenza’s recent promotion to Serie B could also provide an incentive for Catanzaro.
Who knows? With some shrewd management and a dose of good fortune, Calabria’s Eagles might soar again.