An Italian club offers optimism to a devastated region.
L’Aquila, August 2006: The city, an hour-and-a-half drive from Rome, like many others around Italy was still buzzing from the recent World Cup triumph. Piazza Duomo, the central spot in the city, was packed with locals and tourists alike soaking in the atmosphere and aesthetic charm of the surrounds, just as I was doing. The Santa Maria del Suffragio Church, with its lovely dome from which the piazza takes its name, stood above the rest. On the football pitch, L’Aquila was preparing for another season in the regional divisions.
L’Aquila, August 2010: The contrast could not be starker. The city had been devastated by an earthquake on April 6th, 2009 in which 308 people died. 16 months later and the effects were clear to see. The same streets I walked previously bustling with activity were now empty and eerily silent, akin to a ghost town. There was a smattering of locals, mostly in the few bars and cafés still open, but mostly curious tourists surveying the damage and military personnel patrolling the city, which would close nightly at 1am. Scaffolding held up rocked buildings and memorials for those lost were everywhere. Families and businesses had to relocate to the outskirts of the city. The church dome had collapsed. Amid the devastation, L’Aquila Calcio was on the rise as it once again entered the professional leagues.
Founded as an amateur club in 1910, L’Aquila did not hold professional status until 1929. It was rebranded two years earlier, which included the wearing of the now traditional red and blue colours. It quickly went bust and in 1931 Associazione Sportiva L’Aquila formed.
L’Aquila’s first star was Annibale Frossi, known for wearing glasses when he played. Frossi featured for the Rossoblù during their 1935/36 Serie B campaign. His efforts earned a place in the Italian Olympic team which won gold at the 1936 Berlin Games. Frossi’s seven goals attracted Inter, who signed the player immediately. Coach Attilio Buratti was killed in an accident in October 1936 as the team travelled by train to face Verona. 13 players and three staff members were also injured, with seven players unable to take the field again. L’Aquila was relegated at the end of the season and a year later had a meeting with Juventus in the first round of the Coppa Italia. The Turin side won 4-1.
Bankruptcy in the early 1940s meant another start and decades between Serie C (including Serie C2 after its introduction in 1978) and Serie D. This was until another bankruptcy in 1994. L’Aquila was placed in the regional Eccellenza (sixth division) but by the turn of the millennium the club was in Serie C1. More financial issues forced L’Aquila to begin 2004/05 from Eccellenza under the new name of L’Aquila Calcio 1927.
Promotion would elude the Rossoblù until 2008/09. Only two matches remained when the earthquake annihilated the city. L’Aquila sat first on 64 points at the time but due to the devastation the team was unable to train or play in the city. Corroboration between the Italian Football Federation (FIGC), the Amateur Federation (which runs Serie D and below) and the club deemed the last two matches unplayable, yet promotion was granted, “For reasons of extraordinary happenings to have occurred after the earthquake.”
Speaking on the day of the State Funeral for the victims, various figures of the calcio world mourned the disaster. FIGC President Giancarlo Abete said: “This is a tragedy that has hit the whole country. The football world...must bow its head as a mark of respect. We share the pain of the families of the victims; Italian football won’t fail to show its solidarity with the population affected by this tragedy.” Then Milan boss Carlo Ancelotti stated: “It is an important day for Italy and above all for those people in need of strength. They need constant help and support. I’m sure the football world will do something about raising money.” Ex-Roma Coach Luciano Spalletti commented: “The effect of the tragedy is really ugly. To know what happened and to see this tragedy is terrible. For many people it will never finish.”
Serie A clubs would do their bit, with Napoli, Lazio and Fiorentina among those to donate funds to the victims. Milan organised a foundation for persons affected, which included raising €410,000 for the building of a sports centre for children, donating eleven houses to families unable to return to their homes and €10,000 for every league goal Ronaldinho netted during 2009/10. The Brazilian scored 12 times.
In 2010 La Gazzetta dello Sport would declare: “The emergency hit heavily and even sport was affected. L’Aquila sport is always played on the road.” Football was only allowed to take place in the city with special authorisation that permitted L’Aquila to play their matches at the Stadio Tomasso Fattori, but train elsewhere.
With the squad and city galvanised by what had befallen, they ended 2009/10 in fourth on the Serie D/F table, qualifying for the end of season playoffs. However, L’Aquila was defeated in the semi finals. Despite this, after changing to a SRL company (Italian equivalent of a Private Limited Company) they requested and were granted a place in the professional leagues, notably after all that had occurred and because those above them could not guarantee financial stability. The rise took L’Aquila to Lega Pro Seconda Divisione (the renamed Serie C2), where the Rossoblù again fought gallantly to reach the playoffs. They were eliminated in the semi finals after a 4-4 aggregate score against Prato; the Tuscan side advancing due to their higher placed finish on the ladder.
On the two year anniversary of the earthquake, L’Aquila President Elio Gizzi spoke of the difficulties which lay ahead: “After what happened our hope was to bring people back to the stadium after what we all went through. It was hard to start again. People want to rebuild; we know it is not easy but people are starting to return.”
The fans are standing by the team and are coming back to the stadium as Gizzi hoped. During their years in Eccellenza the number hovered around 700 supporters a match. In Serie D the average was just over 1000 and has now risen in Lega Pro Seconda Divisione, from 1137 last season (the second highest in the league) to a current average of 1300, the third highest.
This season started with a blessing from a local priest at the squad presentation in Piazza Duomo - symbolically occurring at one of the icons of the devastation, showing an insistence to persist and rebuild. After 21 rounds L’Aquila occupies second position, five points behind leaders Perugia. Led by ex-Napoli midfielder Marco Capparella and a miserly defence which has conceded just ten goals, L’Aquila is on track to rise to the position they inhabited a decade ago. A counter-attacking side, the goals have come from 27-year-old Umberto Improta, who has netted eight of their 23.
Gizzi wants his club to lift the spirits of the populace and demonstrate city pride. He recognises times are tough, but the desire to build a new training centre shows the mental fortitude of a population which has endured so much, yet battles on in the memory of those lost. As the President summed up, “We believe the city is still alive, we are still around and I am convinced of the strength of the Aquilani.”
Follow Luca on Twitter @l_cetta.