Foligno Calcio: The shadows behind the man with the Rolex

In May 2016, fans of Umbrian football club, Città di Foligno 1928 (Foligno for short), were scanning the pages of the local newspapers and the Folignosport website. Not just in the hope of some transfer news, but also to see if there had been any progress in the rumoured takeover of the club.

Things had been tough for the Umbrians since their relegation from Lega Pro (now Serie C) in 2012/13. Financial issues led to the club being dissolved and reformed in in the summer of 2015. And living in the shadow of the region’s biggest club, Perugia, made it difficult to attract the investment required to make Foligno a success.

But in June 2016, it looked like club President Roberto Damaschi had finally found a buyer. Roman businessman Gianluca Ius was the public face of a three-man consortium (the other backers remained silent partners) as the sporting rights to Foligno were handed over.

This was not the entrepreneur’s first foray into the lower leagues of Italian football. In the summer of 2015, he made an attempt to buy Ancona. The deal never happened and a bitter Ius hit out at Ancona President Andrea Marinelli after he decided not to sell the club. Instead, Marinelli gave the shares to a fan’s group called Sosteniamolancona, prompting Ius to look elsewhere.

Gianluca Ius took control of Foligno with promises of investment and a brighter future, giving jaded fans a glimmer of hope. But just a month later and with no visible signs of investment, suspicions were raised. Local writer and Foligno Calcio historian, Alessandro Bianchini, was so concerned he felt compelled to write an open letter to Ius via the Folignosport website.

Bianchini did not hold back, basically accusing of Ius of being nothing but a fraud.

“A scapular does not make you a monk, as a Rolex does not make a millionaire but we Foligno fans are not stupid, indeed we have become experts in recognizing those who say nonsense and in recent times it was too easy to recognize them.”

He also questioned the money Ius had available to him.

“Some say that you have a holding company, so I ask for transparency and respect towards the fans. Could you make known the others who help to grow the club that you preside over?” He continued, “If for example, I search on the Internet the name of Santopadre (a well known Italian businessman) the result of the research makes me understand that he is the owner of a well-known clothing brand, if I look for Gianluca Ius unfortunately the outcome of the research leads me to understand something else, that is I do not see a list of his companies.”

The letter got no response from Ius or anyone at the club. But with just a week left, Foligno were finally registered for the Serie D season.

The season started in tepid fashion, with just three wins in the opening 15 games. The fans worst fears realised: there would be no promotion push, just a battle survival for survival in Serie D – the Christmas break could not come soon enough. Rumours circulated that staff had not been paid since October and with the club struggling on and off the pitch, the early optimism was shattered.

On December 16, just as things seemed they could not get any more traumatic, the club’s offices were raided by the Guarda di Finanza (the Italian finance police). Gianluca Ius and several other members of staff were lead away in handcuffs.

With the arrests came accusations of money laundering, false invoices and aggravated fraud against the state equating to over a million euros. The Roman’s murky past was unearthed as a 2013 charge for money laundering came to light.

The investigation concerned illegal activities in the Enav-Finmeccanica awarding system, a scandal that also included British companies. Allegations of bribery in relation to the signing of a contract for the sale of 12 AgustaWestland helicopters to the Indian government had consequences for both the British and Italian authorities as a potential €600 million deal was called off. According to the investigators, Foligno resumed his illicit business affairs after prison and used the football club to launder his money.

With no leadership and a lack of players, the club struggled to fulfill fixtures. Youth players stepped up, but were woefully out of their depth. The last game the club played was a humiliating 11-0 defeat to L’Aquila.

The FIGC (the Italian FA) stepped in and suspended the club from participating in all competitions right down to U15 level. Once again, a community was helpless as their football team was taken away from them.

The regional councillor of Foligno, Maria Grazia Carbonari, issued a statement, backed by municipal councillors, Fausto Savini and Valentina Ferrari, lamenting the lack of care taken in the process of selling the club.

They blamed not just the previous owners, but also the Mayor Mismetti. “I expressed my concern about a negotiation conducted by the Mayor Mismetti for the acquisition of Foligno Calcio, which we believed should have been conducted with greater attention on the people involved. With greater dialogue and sharing of information by the Mayor of Foligno, another deplorable episode for the city of Foligno and fans of the football club that could have been avoided.”

The FIGC issued a statement outlining the numerous grounds on which the league had suspended the club. And a month later, on January 20, 2017, the FIGC expelled the club from the league, annulling their previous results.

Using strict anti-mafia laws, the FIGC had started investigations into Ius and fellow board members as early as September 2016.  “With regret the FIGC informs the league that an anti-mafia notice has been issued concerning the company in question (Città di Foligno 1928) and pursues action under article 88 paragraph 3 of legislative decree 159/2011 and subsequent amendments and additions, having ascertained the existence of the causes of forfeiture, suspension of all activities as referred to in Article 67 of Legislative Decree 6 September 2011, n. 159 and subsequent amendments and additions.”

This statement effectively ended the existence of Città di Foligno 1928. Just 18 months after reforming, the residents of the Umbrian town were once again without a football club. Every player was released bar the U15s leaving nothing more than a youth set-up.

In the following months, a working group including the municipal administration and various minor football teams in the city led to the revival of the club. In the summer of 2017, the Fulginium group, who had many sporting interests in the area were handed the sporting rights and Foligno Calcio was born. The new owners declared “year zero” after two destructive years for the fans and the people who had carried the burden of others with honour.

The newly formed Foligno Calcio entered the 2017/8 Umbrian Promozione league under the guidance of new President Guido Tofi and Coach Antonio. The Falcons had renewed optimism with everyone determined to right the wrongs of the last two seasons.

The historic season started with 12-straight wins and eight clean sheets, goalkeeper Roani going unbeaten for 759 minutes. Armillei’s men did not taste defeat until the 23rd game of the season on March 3, 2018. They had the best attack in the league, scoring 80 goals in 28 matches. Emiliano Gjinaj netted 30 times while strike partner Ettore Braccalenti added 22.

At the other end of the pitch, only 15 goals were conceded and every home game ended in victory, giving the long suffering fans much to cheer about. With records broken and automatic promotion secured two games before the end of the season, things could not have gone better.

With promotion to the Eccellenza division secured and the club now under the guidance of trustworthy owners, the future looks bright. As for Roman entrepreneur Gianluca Ius, things did not turn out so well. Released from prison three months after his initial arrest he spent a further six months under house arrest and the stigma has been hard to shake.

Foligno fans

Better times ahead for Foligno Calcio fans

In an interview with Ilgiornale in July, 2017 and again in Affaritaliani in Febuary, 2018, Ius continued to protest his innocence – all this despite it being his second arrest for mafia-linked crimes and his lawyer also being the representative of leading criminal underworld figure Massimo Carminati, nicknamed ‘The last King of Rome.’

When pressed on his associates, he was rather circumspect: “Rome is a great city, an international metropolis. Names and centres of power are rather narrow, big business is done in a circle of 100-200 people, not more. If you know someone who maybe ends up in the circle, you risk getting sucked into the cauldron. In my case it may have affected my sympathy for the right, seen as smoke in the eyes.”

But as another saying goes: “Sometimes those who shout loudest have the most to hide.”

Word by Mark Neale

Image sources (top to bottom): Gianluca Ius via Facebook; Foligno Calcio via Facebook .