Paul Grech1 Comment

VENEZIA AND HAPPY ENDINGS?

Paul Grech1 Comment
VENEZIA AND HAPPY ENDINGS?
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As with any city whose economy is reliant on tourism, Venice has a strange relationship with its visitors.  The money that these bring is welcome but their presence - especially the noise and chaos they create - isn't.  Given that it once was a seat of power that controlled large parts of Europe, its current status as a piece of antiquity to be gawked at perhaps renders the tourists all the more irritating to the locals.

Not all tourists are the same, however.  Certainly not those who come with promises of restoring some of the city’s glory even if this comes through a football pitch.

That is what Yury Korablin has been promising. The Russian millionaire was on a trip to the city when rain forced him into a shop to buy a pair of boots.  There he spotted some replica shirts of the local football team, started talking about the club and ended up heading a group of businessmen who, in 2011, bought it out.

It reads like a footballing version of the love at first sight tale that made the nearby city of Verona famous.  The only difference, at least as far as the fans’ hopes go, is that this one might have a better ending.  That would certainly be the case if Korablin delivers on his promise of getting the club to the Serie A.

It is some claim.  Established in 1907, Venezia have spent most of their existence in Italy’s lower leagues. In between the years of struggle, there have been only two brief flirtations with glory.  Inspired by two twenty-one year olds - Valentino Mazzola and Ezio Loik – in the early forties they rose to the Serie A, won the Coppa Italia and came within a few games of winning the scudetto.  Both Mazzola and Loik would go on to win league titles but that would be with Torino, the dominant team of that decade (sadly, both perished at Superga along with the rest of that Grande Toro side).  For Venezia, there was only a slow descent back to anonymity.

It would take them more than forty years for another brief interlude with success.  This came with the arrival of Mauro Zamparini who first bought Venezia and then the team from the nearby town of Mestre.

Zamparini wanted the local authorities to help in the building of a new stadium but when he saw that this wasn’t going to be forthcoming, he acted on his threat of moving football out of the city of Venezia.  His two clubs were merged into a new one called Venezia-Mestre that, crucially, played its football at Mestre’s Francesco Baracca Stadium.  Not only that but he even dropped the club’s traditional green and black colours, adopting instead Mestre’s orange.

It was a typically controversial move by Zamparini and, inevitably, he was hated by the fans.  Yet he dragged the club forward, guiding them from the Serie C2 (fourth tier) to the Serie B and then eventually the Serie A.  There, with an attack spearheaded by Pippo Maniero and the creative genius of Alvaro Recoba, they achieved an unexpected eleventh place finish.  It was in Venice whilst on loan from Inter that Recoba played his best football in Europe and with him in the side Venezia became one of the most attractive teams to watch in the Serie A.

Without him, however, they couldn’t hold on and when he went back to Inter the following season Venezia were relegated.  Still, Zamparini persisted and having worked hard to convince future Italy manager Cesare Prandelli to take over as manager he was rewarded with another promotion.

That was as good as it got. Relegation was followed by Zamparini buying Palermo and transferring Venezia's best players there, including local legend Maniero.  With a weakened squad, he left the club to drift in a sea of financial problems.  Inevitably further demotions followed before the club was wound up in 2005.

A new side, called Società Sportiva Calcio Venezia, emerged from the ashes.  They started well enough, winning promotion from the Serie C2 but soon problems came to the fore and within three years this club had also succumbed to debts.

Another new club was formed - Unione Venezia - and started life in the amateur leagues.  That is where they stayed until the arrival of the new Russian owners who, true to their word, promptly went about revolutionising the squad and winning promotion (and the league title) in the first season.  It was their first honour since winning the Serie B back in 1966 and a first step towards delivering on Korablin's promise.

Yet that might turn out to be the easy part.

Ambitious though the aim of getting Venezia to the Serie A might seem, it isn't the grandest promise that Korablin has made; that title goes to his widely publicised desire to move Venezia to a new stadium.

Historically Venezia's home has been the Stadio Pierluigi Penzo which is famous for being the only one in the world that visiting fans can only reach either by boat or by train.  Any romanticism that this notion might elicit, however, are swept away upon reaching the stadium.  Having been partially restructured during the early nineties when the club suddenly started progressing up the leagues, it has seen little maintenance since.  Even then, the increase in capacity was handled through temporary structures which have since been taken down.

That tells only part of the story.  Since back in the 1960s there has been talk of a new stadium for Venezia; one built on solid ground.  Yet with the club struggling for money and the local authority refusing to finance the move, the new stadium became a political football that each side regularly bitterly kicked in the other's direction.  The fallout of this has been the minimal maintenance on the Penzo with whatever work carried out being limited to the bare essential required to keep it going.

It is a cycle that Korablin wants to end.  His vision is to build a club owned stadium similar to the one that Juventus have pioneered.  It might spell the end to Italy's second oldest stadium but it would also be a game changer for Venezia.

The plans that were revealed earlier this year are certainly impressive.  These designs show an oval arena, apparently inspired by the Colosseum, that would hold up to 30,000 people.  There would be no running track – the bane of Italian stadiums – and would be wholly covered with photovoltaic panels that would produce 6 megawatts of energy.  All of this would cost around €150 million that the Russian owners are apparently willing to shell out.

Those figures inevitably plant a seed of doubt as to why they might be willing to do this.  Whilst Korablin's story on how he was attracted to the club might appeal to the fans, Russian millionaires don't tend to spend their money purely because of some romantic notion of building up a side languishing in the fifth division.

Certainly not Korablin, the former mayor of the Russian city of Khimki who helped set up professional football in that city and oversaw its rise to the Russian Premier division but who was also involved in a highly controversial highway being built through Khimki forest.

The rumours that the permission to build the stadium might also see (lucrative) casinos being included in the same development offer an indication of a possible motivation.  As yet it isn't clear what involvement Korablin might have in that (if at all) but surely he and his partners will be looking for a return on their investment and that is unlikely to come from the football side.

In the meantime, Venezia press on and currently sit seventh in the Lega Pro 2.  The side was rebuilt once again during the summer ensuring another slow start.  Yet the ambition for another promotion is undoubted; a message strengthened by the signing of lower-league bomber Denis Godeas and the appointment of the highly rated Diego Zanin - fresh from back-to-back promotions with Treviso - as manager.

It is all very exciting and very encouraging.  It is also almost too good to be true and that is a worry that many Venezia fans share.  Given how often football in this city has been kicked down, and how it has always got back up, one has to suspend doubts and dare hope that like many Shakespearean comedies, this one has a happy ending.

You can read more from Paul at Blueprint for Football

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