Italy flagA short drive south of Rome is a rather curious city, so very Italian and yet in all of Italy there exists no other city like it.  It is a city whose football club has never before gone beyond the third division and yet which has produced one of Italy’s greatest ever goalscorers and one of the jewels in Maradona’s Napoli.  But if you haven’t heard of Latina and its blue and black lions, perhaps you soon will. The team is within touching distance of playing in Serie B for the very first time.

Latina lies less than an hour south of Rome along the historic Via Appia and is a very atypical city; rich in history and yet less than 100 years old.  Founded by the Benito Mussolini-led Fascist regime in 1932, it was first named Littoria (after the fascio littorio) and was a grand symbol of the regime’s nation building program.

Latina’s buildings are designed in rationalist and futurist style architecture typical of the Fascist era and the city has a distinctly octagonal shape with its streets straight and ordered.  Built on reclaimed swamp land, its very creation was a victory for the Fascists and its inauguration made headlines across the globe. After the end of the Second World War and the proclamation of the Italian Republic, the city’s name changed to the distinctly less Fascist-sounding Latina and has since been a hub for industry and agriculture, attracting immigrants from different parts of Italy.

Many original inhabitants were imported from the northeast of the country while new arrivals later followed from Sicily and from the towns immediately to the south.  Despite being the second largest city in the Lazio region, after Rome, with a population well over 100,000 and a developed economy, the blue and black lions, as the team from Latina is known, have never played in either of Italy’s top two divisions.

The club was founded in 1945 and was first known as Virtus Latina, although its full name has changed many times and today the club is called Unione Sportiva Latina.  Football in the southern provinces of the Lazio region remains largely underdeveloped. The presence of giants Roma and Lazio to the north and Napoli to the south means support for local teams is quite compromised.

Remarkably, there exists only one city in all of Italy with a greater population than Latina that is also yet to be represented in at least Serie B; that being Sassari, in the north of Sardegna.  Nonetheless, to say Latina lacks any footballing pedigree is not entirely correct. Its most noteworthy son is Alessandro Altobelli, scorer of the third goal in Italy’s 1982 World Cup final win over West Germany. During the 1980s, ‘Spillo’ Altobelli was at the top of the Italian game, scoring prolifically in the blue and black stripes of Inter.  He won the Scudetto with the Milanese giants in 1980 and over the course of eleven seasons at Inter, rippled the net 209 times. Only the legendary Giuseppe Meazza has scored more goals in an Inter shirt in the club’s entire history.

Some might say Altobelli was born to be a star in blue and black and it was in those exact colours which he began. Spillo rose through the youth ranks at his hometown side Latina and played his first season of senior football for them in 1973-74. Latina had just been promoted back into Serie C for the first time since 1952.  Altobelli scored seven times in a dismal season which saw Latina relegated straight back to Serie D and, while the club did manage to fight back and return to Serie C, its greatest product departed, first to play with Brescia, before entering the record books at Inter.

In 1977, Serie C was split into two separate divisions and Latina was relegated into the fourth tier, by then known as Serie C2, that very season.  During this period, Latina fans were blessed with the emergence of another future star. Local boy Andrea Carnevale arrived from nearby Fondi to make his professional debut with the pontini.  Like Altobelli before him, Carnevale lasted a single season at Latina before moving on to bigger and better things. Carnevale’s adventure in the big leagues began with Avellino and he would later return to Campania as a mainstay in the Maradona-led Napoli side which won two scudetti.

While Carnevale and Altobelli scored against the toughest defences up and down the peninsula, Latina failed to rise above lower league football. Since the early 1980s, the club has largely divided its time between that division and the amateur football of Serie D and below.  Other big names to come through the club are few and far between. Lazio legend and Latina native, Vincenzo D’Amico, is one. The 1974 Scudetto winner did not play for his hometown side at senior level but did return for a brief stint as club president in 2007.

This relative mediocrity has meant no great names of football have come out of Latina for many years and the club remains largely unknown and insignificant outside its own region.  Hotly contested and fiery local derbies have been cultivated with other clubs of southern Lazio, which have also failed to make a mark on Italian football. Clashes with Formia and Terracina to the south of the province are always important fixtures on the local sporting calendar but the biggest grudge match remains that against Frosinone.

The Derby del Basso Lazio sees the capital cities of the two provinces south of Rome meet; the eternal rivalry between the pontini of Latina and the ciociari of Frosinone.  In 2011, the two sides met for the first time in eight years and the furious banter exploded before the previous season had even come to an end.

Frosinone’s very first stint in Serie B was almost over; after five years, the gialloblu were sinking back into the third division. At the very same time, Latina was officially going up; the two teams would finally be meeting again.  As Latina fans celebrated promotion, a small plane made its way across the sky above the stadium. Blue and black clad supporters turned their eyes skyward in jubilation only to realise the blue and yellow smoke streaking across the sky. The plane was sent by the Frosinone fans to remind Latina who was boss and, as angry chants were hurled from the Latina curva, in Frosinone they sang, “oh pontino guarda su, il tuo cielo è giallo-blu.” Look up, your sky is yellow and blue.

Latina only just survived its first season back in the third tier, beating Triestina in a play-out to stay up but this season the dream of promotion stands a good chance of becoming reality. Despite being deducted a point, Latina has established itself as a pace-setter of its division with bitter rivals Frosinone not too far behind.  The plucky Avellino too, once a Serie A giant killer, is on the road back from financial ruin and will challenge Latina’s promotion tilt to the bitter end.

On the Latina bench sits coach Fabio Pecchia, a former Serie A player with Napoli, Juventus and Bologna, amongst others. The team can count on his wealth of experience at the top level of Italian football.  Pecchia understands the importance of bringing Serie B football to the area; his origins are quite local, being born in Formia and having grown up in Lenola in the south of the province.  With local fans overwhelmingly supporting the capital clubs Roma and Lazio, a promotion to Serie B would no doubt see interest in the local team swell and perhaps chances of unearthing another Altobelli, Carnevale or D’Amico would grow. After years of jumping between lower divisions, Latina is taking its future seriously.

After a series of financial failures of its own, Latina was promoted out of Serie D in 2010 because a number of other clubs did not have the financial stability to compete in the professional leagues.  Its history of instability and yo-yoing between divisions mean those pulling the strings at Latina must remain disciplined and consolidate its current progress.  The club’s good times are also coming under the first ever female presidency in its history; local businesswoman Paola Cavicchi took the reins in September 2012 and affirmed her desire to bring serious football to the people of her city.

So far, the blue and black lions are on the right track and, while on course to record their best ever season, are not resting on their laurels.  The January arrival of Lithuanian international and former Arsenal striker, Tomas Danilevicius, boosts the team with extra goals and arguably more importantly, Serie A and B experience. Further experienced additions will be required to construct a side capable of establishing itself in the higher reaches of Italian football but this is a club and a city with the potential to go much further.

The city of Latina was built to demonstrate power and grandeur; now its football team has an opportunity to do the same.

By Christopher Testa

This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona