Italy flag

The latest financial crisis in Italian football has claimed its most high profile club to date. Spal has bid farewell to the professional ranks taking with it over a century of footballing history that will forever be enshrined in the annals of the beautiful game in the peninsula.

Formed in 1907 in the beautiful city of Ferrara in Emilia-Romagna, Società Polisportiva Ars et Labor or Spal as it was to become more popularly known, will always be remembered as the club that gave legendary Italian coach Fabio Cappello his first taste of professional football at the tender age of 18 during a halcyon period when the club had a regular place at the top table of Italian football. Under the stewardship of President Paolo Mazza, the Biancazzurri finished fifth in Serie A in the 1959-60 season and contested the Italian cup final in 1962 narrowly losing 2-1 to Napoli.

As well as Don Fabio, the team with the famous blue and white stripes can boast a former player roster which reads like a glorious who’s who of Italian football; Edy Reja, Carlo Mazzone,  Osvaldo Bagnoli, Armando Picchi, Ottavio Bianchi and Luigi Del Neri, are just some of the names associated with the club from the Stadio Paolo Mazza.

Reja and Cappello who were to become great friends, were an intrinsic part of the team’s midfield during the mid sixties and both were later honoured for their achievements at the club’s centenary celebrations in 2007. Ottavio Bianchi was the man who brought Maradona to Napoli before finally securing the club’s first scudetto in 1987. Centre-half Carlo Mazzone went on to achieve notoriety as the larger than life coach of amongst others, Ascoli, Roma and Brescia. Osvaldo Bagnoli on the other hand, will forever be remembered as the tactician who masterminded the glorious 1985 scudetto winning team from Verona, the last time a provincial side got their hands on Italian football’s biggest prize.

As the sixties’ flower power movement gave way to the early seventies, Spal’s fortunes took a turn for the worse and the club suffered successive relegations to find itself cut adrift in the barren wastelands of Serie C, Italy’s third tier.  Towards the end of  the decade and Mazza’s reign at the helm, Spal managed to claw its way back up to Serie B but by the start of the eighties it had returned to the lower reaches where it has stayed ever since, apart from an all too brief return to Serie B in 1992. By now financial mismanagement was starting to catch up with the club from Ferrara and in 2005 it was declared bankrupt.

The savior came in the shape of businessman Gianfranco Tomasi and the club was renamed Spal  1907. By the time of their centenary in 2007, the club’s very existence was again in jeopardy and as former players returned to Ferrara to mark the special occasion, it served as a harsh reminder to their loyal followers of just how much the club had given to the game in Italy and just how bad things had become.

This summer, after relegation into Italy’s fourth tier and with current president Cesare Butelli unable to make any headway into the three million euro debt which was suffocating the club, the inevitable happened and Spal 1907 was wound up after failing to meet the 600,000 euro inscription fee to be able to take part in next season’s championship. 105 years of glorious history had finally reached its sad conclusion.

A few years ago whilst on holiday in Sorrento, I went to see an early season game when Spal were the visitors. On a scorching September afternoon in front of a crowd of around 800 people, many of the older supporters, once they discovered I was English, seemed more than happy to while away the 90 minutes discussing the vital role the visiting team had played in the history of football l in the peninsula -perhaps the greatest legacy any team can leave behind.

So the final tale of the tape reads like this. Serie B champions 1950-51, Coppa Italia finalists 1962, Serie C champions 1937-38, 1972-73, 1977-78, 1991-92. Not a palmares that would set the world alight but these statistics are irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. Many commentators on the game in the peninsula have been writing the obituary of this once great club in an attempt to explain to a younger generation just what an important part the team from Ferrara has played in the history of calcio.

But out of despair comes hope for one of Italy’s oldest clubs with a new team, Real Spal, under the guidance of new president Roberto Ranzani, about to commence the new season in the amateur ranks of Serie D. The club has managed to claim a “wild card” entry into Italy’s fifth tier thanks to their contribution to the game in the peninsula.

David Sassarini, a young coach whose only previous managerial experience has been with Venezia, has been given the task of trying to put the club back on the road to recovery. Sassarini has invited trialists from all over Italy to come to Ferrara to display their talents whilst promoting some of the former clubs primavera players into the first team in the hope of a quick return to the professional ranks. For what they have given to the game in Italy over the past century they surely deserve to have this opportunity.

By Steve Mitchell

This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona