‘Non si fa’ explained the elderly woman standing next to me at the intersection on Viale Cavour and Corso Isonzo in Ferrara as we were waiting to cross the street.
From what I could translate to English the woman, well into her senior years, was saying ‘it’s not the done thing’. ‘Aren’t you cold?’ she said reminding me of my 89-year old nonna at home in Australia. ‘It’s November, you can’t wear shorts in November!” her voice raised ever so slightly.
Turns out if you’re walking the streets of Italy in November there’s a dress code that needs to be adhered too whether you’re in Milan, Rome or Ferrara. ‘You can’t wear shorts in November’.
In November 2019 the city of Ferrara was my third stop in Italy, having previously spent time in Bologna and Brescia. There to see the Monday night Serie A match between between Società Polisportiva Ars et Labor S.p.A., more conveniently known as SPAL, and Sampdoria.
Founded in 1907 the Ferrara side enjoyed a golden run in the ’50s and ’60s competing in Serie A between 1951 to 1968, the club itself a launching pad for many young footballers including ‘Grande Inter’ captain Armando Picchi, future football coaches Luigi Delneri and Edoardo Reja and SPAL youth team player and future Italy, Milan and Roma manager Fabio Capello.
SPAL were appearing in their second consecutive Serie A season since securing promotion to Italy’s top-flight winning Serie B in season 2016-17. So ignoring the glamorous Serie A destinations where better for me to experience Italian football on a cold and foggy November night in a city known as one of Italy’s first modern cities, and still to this day, a designated UNESCO World Heritage site due to ‘its intellectual and artistic contributions during the Italian renaissance’.
In the 2019-20 season ‘I Biancazzurri’ or the blue and whites, who have declared bankrupt and reformed three times, even as recent as 2012, were trying to establish themselves as a Serie A mainstay and with the likes of Jasmin Kurtic, Mirko Valdifiori and Andrea Petagna and prove their survival the season prior was no fluke.
After my day was spent walking the medieval walls that surround the historic town and the cobblestone streets taking in the Castle Estense, the Palazzo dei Diamanti Gallery (Diamanti Palace) and the stunning Ferrara Cathedral it was time for the main attaction, SPAL’s Stadio Paolo Mazza, named after former club chairmen Paola Mazza who spent over 30 years as club chairmen.
Mazza became chairmen in 1946 and was believed to have pioneered the idea in Italian football of opening training centres at youth level.
Legendary Italian journalist Gianni Brera nicknamed Mazza ‘Il Rabdomante’ (The Diviner) according to the club history, due to his ability to scout players and spot talent other clubs close by would pass over.
Spotting the Stadio Paola Mazza on the other hand is no issue.
About a 10-minute walk out of the city on Viale Cavour the stadium is easy to spot, and any football fan would be hard pressed not to get excited as you approach the ground nestled amongst apartment complexes and tree-lined streets.
Arriving an hour prior to kick off I was excited to be greeted by the prospect of several bars located directly behind the Curva Nord where around a thousand fans had already gathered closing off the street with beers, coffees and panino con salsiccia (sausage sandwich) in hand.
The atmosphere outside was building nicely and even walking around you got the sense the home support would be loud, vocal and enthusiastic even prior to walking in the stadium.
Sitting in the Curva est Settore (Eastern stand) I had to walk to the other side of the stadium where I was greeted with the usual request of “Biglietto e passaporto,”.
Holding just over 16,000 people you walk in and up the stairs of the Stadio Paolo Mazza are immediately reminded and stuck by how new everything looks.
Having previously visited Brescia’s Stadio Mario Rigamonti, SPAL’s ground looked futuristic compared to that, and others, in Italy and once I’d had a coffee or two in one of the club bars at the back of the stand it was time for me to find my seat.
Once I’d walked up the stairs of the Eastern Stand I was met with a rare and unusual sight in Italian football, a rectangular stadium with the pitch close to the field.
No concrete moats, no fish ponds, no running tracks, incredible!
One of the loudest and most vocal supporter bases I’d come across during my time in Italy the Curva made it sound like there was more than the recorded 11,617 in attendance.
In the opening half SPAL tried to get on the front foot with both overlapping fullback Nenad Tomovic and left winger Arkadiusz Reca whipping in crosses looking for Andrea Petagna and despite the strikers ability with back to goal Sampdoria’s central defensive pair Omar Colley and Alex Ferrari had no issues dealing with the SPAL front pair of Petagna and Gabriele Moncini.
SPAL continued to exert authority on the match despite superior possession and more corners and shots than Sampdoria and halftime saw both sides leave the field at 0-0.
Leonardo Simplici, looking a frustrated figure on the sidelines, knew for all SPAL’s dominance this wasn’t a game SPAL could afford to lose as they looked to avoid being sucked into a relegation fight.
Simplici, who took over at SPAL in December 2014, guiding the Lega Pro club to Serie B promotion and then onto Serie A looked needed to be made for SPAL to capatalise.
Returning for the second half the home side made an attacking substitution fifteen minutes in bringing on Sergio Floccari, however it made no difference as the home side continued to miss chances to go in front and failing o convert their dominance into goals.
As full time approached on the scrappy affair, with the game still at 0-0, the audible frustration and tension grew around the ground as the home crowd were not shy in making their feelings heard and each mistake was picked on by the home faithful.
Meanwhile the Sampdoria faithful tucked away in the corner estimated at around 250 or thereabouts hadn’t stopped singing all match and their voices were grew louder with each passing minute.
Sampdoria coach Claudio Ranieri perhaps sensing the tide starting to swing his sides way made his first substitution after 70 minutes with Gaston Ramirez coming on for Manolo Gabbiadini.
SPAL’s chances were now few and far between and for the remaining 20 minutes Sampdoria started to take control of the game and perhaps it was with that in mind that Ranieri made his second substitution of the night.
In the 90th minute he brought on striker Gianluca Caprari, choosing to leave Fabio Quagliarella on the bench to the surprise of many, and the move made immediate dividends.
With his first touch of the ball, and running onto a pass from fellow substitute Ramirez, an unmarked Caprari managed to slot the ball past SPAL keeper Etrit Berisha in the 91st minute much to the delight of the away fans who’d made the near four hour journey to Ferrara from Genoa.
In that moment you would’ve sworn there was 11,617 Sampdoria fans in attendance given the noise the goal was greeted with.
As the final whistle blew the home crowd made their frustration and anger heard booing their side off the field and the locals mood was still visible and audible surrounded by home fans as I walked back into the city.
A point of note was the massive amount of people that rode their bike and walked to the stadium.
The peloton leaving the Stadio Paolo Mazza would’ve put the Giro d’ Italia to shame.
The story of this game proved to be the story of SPAL’s 2019-20 season, poor finishing and even worse defending, as it would see them unable to repeat their miracle finishes of seasons 2017-18 and 2018-19 and saw them ultimately relegated to Serie B.
Spending two days in Ferrara when speaking with the locals the reoccurring theme was that when SPAL do well, Ferrara does well and the by the sheer number of local volunteers working the kitchens, help desks, club shops etc in and around the stadium it’s obvious the club plays a large role in the community.
What the Ferrara based club lacks in size they more than make up for with energy, enthusiasm and local support so if you find yourself in and around Emilia-Romagna make the trip to Ferrara you won’t regret visiting ‘the city of bicycles’, one Italy’s most culturally important cities, Italy’s first modern city but just don’t wear shorts in November.
Words by: Frank Risorto. @SerieA_Aust