Luca Ubaldi in action for Castel Rigone v. Vigor Lamezia, from Umbria 24

All last week, the Giornale dell’Umbria published stories on Castel Rigone going for a ‘poker’. A ‘poker’ in Italian means a hand with four aces. In sporting terms, this indicates either scoring four goals in a game, or a string of four successive wins. On Sunday, the team earned that club-record fourth win in a row. A 1-0 victory away at Sorrento Calcio, after defeating other strong opposition (first-place Teramo and seventh-place Vigor Lamezia), vaulted Castel Rigone into fifth place at the midway point of the season, firmly within the survival zone of the top eight teams. (In Italian soccer, tiebreakers for teams level on points are: first, head-to-head record; second, overall goal difference.)

LegaProHalfwayStandings

Standings at the winter break, from Lega Pro. G = games played; V = victories; P = draws; P = losses; Gol: goals for-and-against; DR = goal difference; PU = points.

The victory at Sorrento was achieved without their top striker, Dario Tranchitella, who was on the bench with the flu. Two other first-team strikers (Di Paola and Cappai) have either been transferred or are about to be transferred, leaving the team thin up top. Although Marco Agostinelli was the only experienced option, he came through to score the only goal in the 69th minute (video highlights below). Coach Fusi played a 4-3-3, which pushed two midfielders up alongside the central forward, making him use most of his experienced centrocampiste from the start. Everyone is expecting Cucinelli to fortify the squad with at least two attackers and another midfielder in January.

When I first learned about the team, they were second-to-last in the division. Now they are in as good a place as they could have dreamed of coming into the season. What factors have led to success so far in their first professional season?

  1. The best striker in the division. Dario Tranchitella has eleven goals in the sixteen games he has played. He’s strong, quick enough, creative, and doesn’t hesitate to take his chances. His positional sense is excellent, and he has developed a fine understanding with his teammates. He can hold up the ball well, and link play around the midfield. He has a sneaky movement off the ball for a big man. Finally, he is a ‘hungry’ player who can create chances quickly and seemingly out of nothing; there’s no time at which he doesn’t seem dangerous.
  2. A coach that exemplifies stability and strength. After taking over in Week 9, Luca Fusi has led the team to 19 out of a possible 27 points. His mantra revolves around hard work. The team has begun to shape their style around a pragmatic style of play that is founded on possession — while retaining a previous eagerness for quick counter-attacks. His emphasis on group organization has improved set-pieces (leading to 38% of offensive goals, but just 22% of defensive concessions). But it is not just results that define his tenure; he has brought a calm confidence that the team belongs, and deserves to excel, at this level. This helped the squad start to win games away from home, which was a major weak spot early in the season.
  3. Better defense. Castel Rigone has allowed just 1.0 goals on average per game in their last nine games, compared to 1.5 goals per game in the first eight matches. Their flank play and free kick threat has been enhanced by the astute signing of Gianluigi Bianco, and another new defender has now arrived (Francesco Luoni). As mentioned, they are conceding fewer goals from set pieces and penalties. They look a bit calmer in the back, though are not yet completely reliable because they’ve not had a settled back line due to injuries and suspensions. Above all, their goalkeepers (Franzese, and for one game Zucconi) have played superbly, keeping the score down on multiple occasions.
  4. An aggressive approach to play. Castel Rigone likes to press, and their forwards and midfielders are forceful in trying to win the ball. While turnovers have only led to two of their 16 goals since Fusi took over, the current of positive energy that runs through their play has lent power to their attacks in open play. The team seems to chase victory; they have the fewest number of draws in the division (2), and both draws have been 0-0 affairs (in one of those matches, Tranchitella missed two penalties). Castel Rigone does not seem interested in settling for the one point that a draw brings. A side effect has been that they’ve had earned a large number of yellow cards as a result of physical play (well more than the league average; see below).

These four developments have helped the team cohere impressively. The players have bought into their common cause, and have conjured that mysterious quality known as ‘Belief’. After the holiday break, they need to hold their concentration and continue to play with the urgency and passion they’ve shown so far.

* * * * *

LegaProFairPlayDec13

3 pts = Red Card (however it is achieved); 1 pt = Yellow Card

Let’s look at the standings in Lega Pro Seconda Divisione in a different way, though. What would the table look like if we awarded 1 point for every yellow card, 3 points for every red card, and inverted the rankings (data from Lega Pro)? Five of the current top eight teams would also make the top eight for fair play: Teramo, Cozenza, Foggia, Melfi, and Vigor Lamezia.  Castel Rigone would be fourth from bottom, principally due to the large number of cautions that players have received.

On 10 December, the front page of the Giornale dell’Umbria said that Perugia was the capital of ‘clean sport’. The previous day, Perugia had hosted a summit of 69 club presidents, police officials, and the Minister of the Interior.

The friendly, from Giornale dell’Umbria

Connected to the meeting was a friendly match that featured old-timers versus officials from Lega Pro, including Castel Rigone’s coach (Fusi) and chairman (Cucinelli). The officials wanted “immagine di uno sport sano che si proietta verso il futuro” (“the picture of a healthy sport that is directed towards the future”). One of the players featured was Gennaro Gattuso, who attended the AC Perugia youth academy. As a defensive midfielder, Gattuso was a real terrier of a player, using his endless energy to break down opposing attacks; I admired his play greatly. He was a pivotal player for AC Milan and the Italian team that won the 2006 World Cup. One week after this friendly, Gattuso was named in an investigation into match-fixing during the 2010-11 season. Nothing has been proved (and it would be a real shocker if Gattuso did anything but try to win every match he ever played); but it shows how no one is untouched by the problems in calcio.

The purpose of the summit (paraphrasing the Giornale, p. 6) was to figure out how to create the most positive participatory atmosphere at sporting events (for everyone involved). There was a realization that infrastructure was not the complete solution (in other words, to keep rival participants physically apart), and an idealistic argument that sporting events had the powerful opportunity to educate people how to win and how to lose. The usual distinction was made between supporters who wanted to see a match and “delinquenti” who wished to ruin matches.

Of course the problems lie much deeper, in divisions and passions and attitudes that have long made it OK  for people to hate each other based on what teams they support. A different model is possible by building a club from the ground up, and building in values and virtues of respect and fair play, a model which summit organizers said is exemplified by Castel Rigone Calcio. And yes, perhaps new clubs can begin with a clean slate and can maintain the will for positive attitudes towards competition. But what about long-established clubs with identities and animosities that go back decades? Is there any hope for them?

Map of Italian ultras and their political affiliations, made by the Polizia di Prevenzione, and posted on the AS Roma Ultras fan site in order to point out its alleged errors and misunderstandings.

Bill Buford went behind the scenes of extreme football supporter organizations (firms, ultras, etc.) in 1980s England to learn what made them tick; his book Among the Thugs was a pioneering –and chilling — study of the forces that lead average young men to revel in the mass psychosis of the mob and become willing, even eager, to cross lines of civility and humanity in order to confront and destroy the ‘other’. It’s not been the last word, of course; the situation in Italy continues to simmer, with stabbings, death threats, and racism all occurring this Fall.

One case involved a bizarre match between Salernitana and Nocerina in Lega Pro Prima Divisione B (the division in which AC Perugia plays), in which so many players faked injury to use up their side’s substitutions that the referee had to abandon the match for lack of players on the field. Clubs and their supporters also tend to be highly politicized in Italy. Eleven years ago I recall seeing a chart in La Repubblica that showed the political affiliations of Italian ultra organizations; a similar chart is reproduced on a fan site for AS Rome (at right), which tends to reduce and oversimplify the major affiliations (in their chat rooms, ultras smile at such charts).

Fighting inside and outside the arena. The AD 59 riot at Pompeii, after which the facility was shut down for 10 years by the emperor Nero. The closure was rescinded after the earthquake of AD 62 devastated the city, as a kind of ‘stimulus package’ for the populace.

How deep local rivalries go can be seen in a famous painting from Pompeii (House I.3.23) depicting an amphitheater riot that broke out in AD 59 between local residents and visiting supporters from… Nuceria (yes, that’s the town of Nocerina today).

Perhaps this season we ought remember: ἐπὶ γῆς εἰρήνη ἐν ἀνθρώποις εὐδοκίας (“on earth, peace towards men of good-will”).

Just a little good-will.

Official Lega Pro video highlights of the week 15 win v. Teramo:

Friendly match to emphasize Fair Play “Lega-lità”:

Official Lega Pro video highlights of the week 16 win v. Vigor Lamezia:

Interviews after the week 16 win v. Vigor Lamezia:

Official Lega Pro video highlights of the week 17 win v. Sorrento Calcio:

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