This past Sunday, Castel Rigone (population 406), playing in the Lega Pro Seconda Divisione, defeated Messina (population 242,684), 2-0. Seven years ago, Messina was playing in the top level of Italian soccer (Serie A). Seven years ago, Castel Rigone finished twelfth in the ‘Eccellenza Umbra‘ regional league and barely missed demotion into the seventh level of Italian soccer.
I first learned about Castel Rigone Calcio when I went to a Wednesday practice for one of our boys at Don Bosco. One of their youth squads practices once a week on the artificial turf at Don Bosco, because several players on the team come from Perugia, and it saves those families some driving (there’s no public transport available between Perugia and Castel Rigone). The Don Bosco youth program also works as a feeder system for Castel Rigone.
That’s because the club itself is headquartered in the small hill-town of Castel Rigone, about 650 m. above sea level and 27 km. of wriggly road north of Perugia, just east of Lake Trasimeno. Castel Rigone Calcio is the smallest community in Italy to have a soccer team in the fully-professional ranks of the national system. And the club is only 15 years old, started as a way for a group of friends to have a kick-around. And their code of ethical behavior is more important to them than winning games. In the brutally competitive world of modern soccer, how the heck did this happen?
It all began with Brunello Cucinelli and some friends in 1998. Long before UEFA and FIFA made them slogans (or jokes, depending on how cynical you are about the organizational behemoths of soccer), the founders of Castel Rigone wanted to instill Respect and Fair Play into a team that honored the game, the fans, the opponents, and the rules.
Their origin story and philosophy can be found on their webpage; Cucinelli, sometimes called the “King of Cashmere,” had the intent “to create a pleasant environment, where one could play soccer in a true amateur spirit, with an emphasis on healthy and authentic fair play, without forsaking the masculine play, typical of English football, that is synonymous with a healthy, fair comparison amongst athletes.” The club has tried to keep that spirit intact even as they’ve steadily moved through the amateur ranks into the professional divisions, which they achieved this past spring.
Their small stadium of San Bartolomeo has only 500 seats (more than the entire population of the town); they call it a “Garden for Soccer.” As a story in Calcio Mercato three weeks ago noted, Cucinelli says, “Our soccer is ethics and style. I hope to bring a new healthiness and to educate the parental supporters. This is not a fable, but a glimpse of my life. One can make a mistake on a goal, but not admit mistakes on the ethical level. I demand respect for the referees, all the teams, and the visiting fans. At home, we play on Saturday because Sunday is meant to be spent with families.”
Such an approach may have stemmed not just from their founding philosophy, which is in stark contrast to the many ethical scandals Italian soccer has endured over the years, but also from starting at the very bottom, at the 10th level of the Italian soccer pyramid, with more than 4000 teams above them in the hierarchy. Their rise happened like this:
- 1999: First season, in Terza Categoria Perugiana. Finished First. Promoted.
- 2000: Seconda Categoria Perugiana. Finished First. Promoted.
- 2001: Prima Categoria Perugiana. Finished First. Promoted.
- 2002: Promozione Umbra. Finished First. Promoted.
- 2003-2009: Eccellenza Umbra. Finished Second in 2009 and won Promotion by making it to the final of the Italian Amateur Cup.
- 2010-2013: Division E of Serie D. Finished First in 2013 and won Promotion to Lega Pro Seconda Divisione.
Such a meteoric rise for such a small town might be accounted miraculous (even given Cucinelli’s wealth). Back in 1996-97, Joe McGinniss followed the A.S.D. Castel di Sangro team as it rose into Serie B, the 2nd level of Italian Soccer. His book, the Miracle of Castel di Sango, is a hilarious, sad, and thrilling description of the team’s effort to survive for more than one season punching above its weight (Castel di Sangro only has 5500 inhabitants), and a difficult expose of the ethics problems that persist in Italian professional soccer.
Castel Rigone has had miracles for some time; its church of Maria Santissima dei Miracoli has quite a foundation story:
The Sanctuary in Castel Rigone was built at the end of the fifteenth century, just outside the walls of the old fortified village, near the public well. Tradition, backed up by ancient written chronicles, has it that in 1490 a young girl, while she was filling her pitcher at the well as usual, looked up to see a beautiful lady arise out of a nearby thicket; the lady approached the girl and asked her to tell everyone in the village that she wished them to build her a small chapel at that very spot. This apparition continued to take piace at various intervals, until the “Lady” showed her true nature to the incredulous inhabitants of the village by sending the girl back home with her pitcher full of water upside-down on her head. The people started to proclaim a miracle, and rushed to clear the thick thorn bushes whence the lady had emerged, to find a tiny shrine with a picture of Our Lady feeding the Infant Christ; and immediately other miraculous happenings took piace through her intercession. Soon the news of what was happening in Castel Rigone reached Perugia and thence spread to Rome. The magistrates of the city decided to contribute towards the expenses of building a small chapel, but in 1494 Alexander VI issued a Papal Bull ordering that a fitter temple be built, using the many offerings contributed by the faithful who wished to honour the Heavenly Mother.
Part of the above tale reads like a legend, but it is undeniable that something exceptional must have happened to whip up people’s fervour to such an extent and to come to the notice of the inhabitants of the city of Perugia, even to stimulate the interest of the Pope. In any case, work started immediately on what is the finest Renaissance building in northern Umbria.”
The town itself was in fact founded by as a base by an Ostrogothic chief (Arrigo/Rigone) to lay siege to Perugia in AD 543. A recent tradition celebrates the arrival of the Barbarians each year in early August with the Festa dei Barbari:
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Castel Rigone Calcio has an especially hard task this year. The whole structure of Lega Pro will change next year, and many of the teams in their division will be relegated to the level below. To stay ‘safe’ in what will become Serie C next year (which is the 3rd level of Italian soccer, so in some way, another promotion), they will have to finish in the top 8 out of 18 teams. You can follow their progress here: if they stay in the Green zone, they’ll play in Serie C next year; if they are in the Pink, they’ll be relegated to Serie D, and if in between, they’ll compete through a playout for one spot in Serie C or be dumped into Serie D. Yes, it’s confusing.
I hope to attend some games, and provide reports. If you want to join me, tickets are available at “La Bottega del Pane e del Vino” Via del Santuario, 20 – Castel Rigone.
Their colors are white and sky blue. Forza Castel Rigone!
Highlights from the Messina game: