An economic downturn, the calciopoli scandal, pockets of violence and racism have all scarred Italian football in recent years, but some truly dreadful planning hasn't helped either. 

Sometime in the early eighties:

Two businessmen have recently returned from a long lunch, let’s call them S and M.  They are sitting in a plush office high above a city, the air is heavy with cigar smoke as digestion commences.

M breaks the silence, “Here’s an idea, let’s host a World Cup.”

S takes a long pensive pull on his Cuban, unable to muster much enthusiasm after eating a pound of Bastardo del Grappa. Smoke wreaths around him hiding his face, until an impromptu burp clears the air.

“I dunno, sounds like a lot of work.”

“Ha! Are you mad, have you ever known me to work. No! We don’t do anything, just show our faces, get the money organized you know,” replies M with a wink.

“If you want. I’ve got bigger fish to fry at the moment.”

“Really, like what?” says the bespectacled figure looking up from a Chinese finger trap he was caught in.

“Never you mind. You realize you’ll need all sorts of things, you’ll have to build some stadiums for one.”

A grave look came over M’s face, “But I don’t know anything about building stadiums. Won’t it be cheaper to just tack on a few seats or whatever to the ones we have?”

S continues to puff away on his cigar, thoughts wafting across his balding pate. “Well for a World Cup I think you need twelve, let’s say, just for example, we have ten to renovate. That will satisfy Fifa, and we can build two from scratch. I know a company who would be interested.”

“I’m sure you do,” replies M with a ridiculous grin. “I know an architect. One second.” M looks along a line of telephones with numbers finally alighting on a pink Olivetti with rotary dial. He lifts the handset and dials. A moment later M starts, “Oh hello, I need a quote for a stadium, well actually more than one, hmm, yes, depends on the size you say, well I suppose that makes sense. One moment.” M turns to S, “He’s asking me how big, what’s your favourite number?”

“I’ve always had something about the number six.”

“6. 6 is hardly big enough,” says M directing his voice back into the phone, “60000. Hmm yes I know it’s big, but bigger is better, what’s that? Where? Wait,” M looks at S with a blank expression.

“One for the North and one for the South, keep everyone happy.”

“But where? I’m not building anything in Sicily, not after the last time.”

“No, you’re right, how about Turin and…. Bari.”

“Bari! What in god’s name do you want to build one there for. Actually,” says M becoming tired of his own voice, “Forget it. Hello? Yes, Turin and Bari, I want really big ones, big and shiny, and flowers, shape one like a flower, I like flowers.” M downs the phone, a dim-witted smile plays on his lips, then as if the conversation never happened returns to his finger trap. S stands up, farts a thick cheesy gas making M’s nostril twitch and leaves.

Just over a week ago S and M were nowhere to be seen in the Stadium San Nicola they’d help create, instead 5166 of Puglia’s hardiest souls made the short journey to the outskirts of the city for Bari against Livorno. It holds 58,270.

The home side won 1-0 thanks to a 7th minute header by Martino Borghese. The game was particularly poor from Livorno’s perspective as the opportunity to rise into the top six eluded them. The fans barely sang, nor could be heard in the huge, lifeless petals of the stadium, their former splendour annulled by decades of poorly attended games.

With the dreaded athletics track in-between the stands and the pitch, the atmosphere can generously be described as no louder than a wet fart, and useless for boosting the teams’ performance on the pitch. But 5000 voices have got little chance in an open air stadium fit for twelve times that many.

Perhaps the San Nicola was cursed Italia ’90. Or maybe the people running Italian Football are as spectacularly moronic as the above parody suggests.

The San Nicola played host to five games at Italia ’90, the first featured the Soviet Union and Romania on 9th June 1990, the Romanians won, a double blow for the Eastern giants after losing the right to host the tournament to Italy in 1984. I assume it is only a quirk of fate the Russians opened their campaign in the new stadium they couldn’t build. The San Nicola also concluded England’s most memorable performance since the immortal 1966 Final, a 2-1 third place play-off defeat to the hosts.

In 1991 the Eastern bloc got a measure of revenge when Red Star Belgrade travelled south to beat Olympique Marseille on penalties in the European Cup final. In the intervening twenty years there have been a handful of international matches, some music events but mostly it has been synonymous with A.S. Bari’s travels between the top two divisions.

Last season, while in Serie A the average attendance was 19,770. In 2009/10 it was a more impressive 25,392 after promotion from Serie-B and when Juventus came to town in December of 2009, a whopping 51,849 ticket-buying members of the public turned up, and Bari won. A few weeks later they bettered that as six more fans pushed in to see a 2-2 draw with Inter Milan before Milan encouraged 51,943 away from their televisions and into the “Spaceship” as it’s also known. However if those three games are taken out the average is a more sober 20,426.

What does this show us? Firstly the people of Bari prefer to watch big teams against their own so I think it’s fair to question their sense of loyalty, seeing as the season average so far is 6079, less than a third of last year, but it’s not even about Bari. Really it’s an illness that infects Italian football through every division, Bari are just a glaring symptom of how impossibly wrong officials got it in the lead up to Italia 90 and how members of the Italian Football Federation (FIGC) continually fail to tackle the problem of empty stadiums. Serie B is interesting because it takes away most of the glamour of the top division, and what remains is a simpler indication of a nations’ footballing health.

So where are the 51,000 from two seasons ago? Are fans being priced out from their beloved team? Ticket prices for the Curva Sud/Nord (north and south stand) start at €13 ($17) with the most expensive at €50 ($65). I can understand people not wanting to pay €50 for the standard of football Bari produce, but €13 once a fortnight is hardly expensive.

Perhaps it’s not only Italy’s problem, do other European leagues share Serie B’s apathy. Relatively speaking, no. Comparing the Championship in England the creatively named, Bundesliga 2 and the Segunda Division in Spain it’s clear Italy is again lagging behind.

There’s always some bigger fish in smaller ponds so we’ll aggregate from the middle section in the pursuit of equality.

Of sixteen teams in The Championship the average attendance ranged from Millwall 12,438 to Nottingham Forest 23,466. The Bundesliga 2 saw SpVgg Greuther Furth (not the most rhymable name) with an average of 7,722 while FC Augsburg recorded 20,481. The Segunda Division in Spain read, FC Barcelona B 3,606 to CD Tenerife 13,850. Finally, Serie-B, Cittadella averaged 2503 up to Siena’s 7,233.

And before you think the attendances are low because the rest of the stadiums in Serie-B are purposely built small, following thorough market research and staunch census analysis, think again. Cittadella’s stadium holds 7,623 while Siena, who were promoted to Serie-A can get 15,373 into the Stadio Artemio Franchi. In all, fifteen of the grounds used in last years’ Serie-B held 15,000 people or more, with eleven over 20,000 and six over 25,000. Defendants of the Italian game beware, don’t take solace from Spain’s equally poor figures, the aim should be full stadiums, raucous atmospheres and simply, a better product.

Now league wide, again the questions arise.

The usual insistence is that the grounds are too dirty, old and unsafe, which discourages families from spending their money. Bari’s is one of the newest in the division however there’s certainly something in that for other grounds. Although, more than half of the stadiums in Serie B have undergone some sort of renovation in the last fifteen years and the Stadio Oreste Granillo was completely rebuilt in 1999 with a capacity of over 27,000. Last year, Reggina’s average home attendance was 4852.

Without going into the same details for Serie-A, they’re largely as bad, the fact remains fans aren’t filling stadiums at any level. So what are the FIGC going to do to make Italian Football more saleable and encourage S, M, B,U,N,G and A back to the game they apparently love so much?

It’s difficult to assess, after considering how calcio is being consumed.

A BBC report in 2006 claimed, “according to research some 80% of the population depends only on television for news, the highest percentage in the EU.” Those pesky Murdoch’s have done it again! The divine multiple replays, multi-ground action, the fridge nearby, your favourite chair, why go to the game when it’s all in your house, and if you’ve paid for the subscription already… Though, Sky is in Germany and England as well, so that doesn’t necessarily compute.  

Are we talking about a completely different breed of football fan?

Another mixed message is the continued success of La Gazzetta Dello Sport, Italy’s biggest selling daily, with over 3.5 million copies sold each day. Almost all the pink sheets are filled with football. The Corriere Dello Sport sells over a million. So there’s a football mad public out there somewhere that’s willing to spend.

Post austerity tax measures, La Gazzetta will set you back €1.20 per day and €1.50 on Saturday. If my maths is right, that’s €7.50 a week, €15 for two, how much was a ticket for Bari again?

The cheapest football package with the Italian branch of Rupert Murdoch’s Sky Corporation is €29 a month. If you indulge me a moment longer, for a month of football, outside the stadium it costs €59, not including electricity for the fridge, lights, and TV of course.

 For two games, excuse me Bari fans I know you’ve got panelled, it’s €26 not including travel costs and of course the inescapable taxes. You’d think two home games, local TV and the occasional paper is better than the above. Clearly not.

The perception is that Italian’s love football, the chatter in coffee bars up and down the peninsula, the drums, flares, banners, the protests and the politicized nature of it. Playgrounds are full from morning until night with boys playing and enjoying football; undoubtedly it’s part of the fabric of their society, but going to the Stadium in recent years simply isn’t.

Napoli’s chairman Aurelio De Laurentiis is out to change that for his club and reacted to Silvio Berlusconi’s comment last weekend that it was ‘almost impossible’ to construct privately owned stadiums in Italy, saying on Rai TV, “Berlusconi seems smart…It’s strange what the prime minister said, as he is also a football man. It annoys me to hear that, as he has the means to create an English-style model…In reality, he passed a law that has been delayed for three years.”

Roma’s American owner Thomas DiBenedetto is also keen to stop ground sharing with Lazio at the Stadio Olimpico, but currently the ‘impossibility’ Berlusconi refers to is municipal authorities ownership of stadiums, making as he termed it, “a kind of jealously of bureaucracy”.  That’s a world of confusion I won’t put you through, but from Serie B’s perspective, one can only hope that government officials and club presidents can come to some understanding, accept that the current system is flawed and start from scratch.

In a smooth dovetail, the other elephant built for Italia 90 was the Stadio delle Alpi. At 69,000 seats it was rarely full after the World Cup and became more a hindrance to Juventus and Torino who shared the ground.

Despite all the dreaded statistics, and the quite enjoyable doom-mongering, hope has arrived in an unlikely form. S and M’s northern beast was felled after 2006, and now in its place sits the Juventus Arena, an ultra modern and smaller home for the Bianconeri. Other presidents are eyeing Juve’s stadium with envious eyes, while worrying the Turin giants will in time dominate because of improved revenues. It might not be the purest feeling for change, but if enough of them can throw their toys hard enough Italian football might become a spectacle worth going to see again.

Owen can be found on Twitter here, and at his website

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AuthorOwen Neilson