Champagne football from Italy (or should that be prosecco football?).
To some, the words Novara Calcio are about as unknown as ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. After all, it was only two seasons ago that the Piedmontese side was floating around in Italy’s vast third division, now known as the Lega Pro. Most the teams in Lega Pro play on pitches comparable with fields found right outside the highway - complete with live & active growing vegetation. It is here that the curious case of Novara Calcio commenced, right down to their unusual synthetic pitch that could very well be renamed ‘Il Cimiterio’ (The metaphorical graveyard of a footballers career) for its awkward surfaces that have caused plenty of twisted ankles and exploded ligaments from players not used to the artificial ground.
The tale of Novara Calcio started in 2008, as they were promoted to the Serie B after a 33 year absence. My first memory of Novara (other than it being a small, unassuming city 50 kilometers from my hometown of Milan) was seeing them participate in La Coppa Italia two years ago as they were still a third division side. They were pitted against a vastly superior Milan side who took them so seriously that the Rossoneri masseuse was told he’d be the starting goalkeeper for the game. A quick glance at the Novara roster sheet revealed the first surprise: one of their players was former Inter striker Nicola Ventola - a man who was once slotted alongside Ronaldo in Inter’s attack. Perplexed, I resumed to watch the game. Although Novara ended up losing 2-1 at the San Siro, they seemed like a formidable opponent considering their current standing.
Fast forward to several weeks ago: The Serie B(win) season had come to a close, and Novara was sitting in third place. Rules in Italy’s second division state that teams 3 through 6 in the standings compete in a playoff style tournament. The Piedmontese side had to face sixth place Reggina through two matches. Novara disposed of them fairly easily by playing their signature highly offensive style led by the formidable attacking partnership of Cristian Bertani and Pablo Gonzalez (the brother of Porto’s Mariano Gonzalez). These two, along with the flashy midfield captain Marco Rigoni, played a highly appealing possession type football that would often result in surprisingly spectacular goals not usually seen in a Serie B that is about as entertaining as undergoing Chinese water torture. Novara’s play was quickly dubbed as “Champagne Football” and they quickly became an iconic model for provincial sides that wanted to replicate their sudden and meteoric rise to prominence.
Novara play their football in the hospitable Stadio Silvio Piola, which unlike many stadiums throughout Italy, does not come complementary with a 10 meter anticlimactic Olympic-track hugging the outskirts of the field. The English style stadium is a refreshing change from the usually horrendously maintained provincial grounds throughout the country. Most likely, Novara took a page out of Cesena’s book in how to semi-successfully run a small club with meager funds. Cesena has been able to attract former stars such as Adrian Mutu this year by promising the fans and players a highly offensive approach. As much as we love watching this type of football, the players love participating in it as well. It doesn’t take long to see the perks of having the stands swallowing the pitch. Both Cesena & Novara have English style stadiums that often sell out to passionate, frenzied fans.
The question now is whether Novara coach Attilio Tesser can be given a legitimate roster that will be able to successfully compete in the Serie A. The league is well known for its highly organized and tactical defenses that do not gift many opportunities to opposing attacks. Novara’s best chance at fighting the relegation battle will be to hold on to their few Serie B stars that helped the reach the first division. Although their star striker Pablo Gonzalez reached a reported €5 million fee with Palermo, the Sicilian outfit shipped him back to Novara on loan for the 2011/2012 season.
The fairytale for the Nerazzuri’s of Novara will continue if they manage to reach salvation this year, a feat that betting websites throughout Italy already dub as highly unlikely. However, a recent trend that has been noticed lately is that the Serie A minnows are starting to play a much more visually appealing style of football - a positive for anyone who loves Italy’s Serie A. Along with Cesena, these two aesthetically pleasing sides to watch have become the center of local movements. Carried by delirious fans, Novara will certainly have the emotional support needed to achieve positive results next year against more prolific sides. No matter the outcome, it will be exciting to watch a team that has made a truly remarkable climb up the echelons of Italian football.
Matteo writes regularly for ESPN Soccernet and you can follow him on Twitter @themilanguy.