It was on the 6th of April 2009 that life in the central Italian town of L’Aquila changed forever. At three thirty-two in the morning of that fateful day, an earthquake registered at 5.9 on the Richter scale hit the whole region leaving devastation in its wake.
In total 309 people died whilst some 1,600 others were left injured – 200 of whom seriously - and in excess of 65,000 people were rendered homeless. Countless lives had been shattered, dreams snatched away from people and the town itself left in ruins.
Confronted by such human tragedies, it is impossible not to think of how ridiculous it is to waste so much time and energy worrying about the fate of a football team; it is impossible not to come to the conclusion that in the end football isn’t a matter of life and death no matter what we say or how we try to dress it up.
Yet it is also in such moments that sports’ most beautiful of characteristics, that power to unite and help in the healing process, shines brightest.
“The football club was extremely important in the days after the earthquake.”
Dottor Fabio Guido Aureli knows what he’s talking about as he was L’Aquila Calcio 1927’s marketing director at the time. He was also one of those who had to live both through the earthquake and its aftermath.
“A large number of Aquilani lived as refugees outside of the town yet on Sunday they returned with the excuse of following the fortunes of their own team,” he recounts by way of explanation. “It was a way through which they could show their belonging to the city. Through sport youths found a way to resume their lives once again, a kind of ‘normality’ that to this day is difficult to find in the city. It was why we also put up events that went beyond sports.”
In those days, the football club became more than a sporting institution; it became a vehicle to attract help for the people of the city.
“The solidarity the whole region received was astounding. All of Italy - and not only - came to support us.”
“As for the club we received a lot of different form of help, all of which were extremely important. First of all there were a lot of invitations that we - both the first team and the youth sides - received and which provided us with some distraction as well as helping us collect funds to get back on our feet.”
“We've kept in touch with some of those who helped us. I like to mention Massimo Carusi who in May 2009 organised three wonderful days in Milan for the whole squad. But there were a lot of people who supported us, including the F.I.G.C. with President Abete and Vice-President Tavecchio.”
Four years on, the town is still struggling. Some twenty thousand people are still waiting to go back to their houses, living in the hastily built “new towns” that were to serve as temporary allocations. Elsewhere churches, roads, public buildings all wait for the money to come in and aid in their rebuilding.
It is a dire situation, one that can’t fail to touch new visitors to L’Aquila such as those who come to play their football there.
“When someone comes to l’Aquila, the first thing they say is “I didn’t think it was like this”. They’re astonished to see the condition of the city four years and a half after the earthquake. Our players immediately understand that they aren’t playing for a normal club, that ours is a special institution where they have a lot more responsibility.”
A Tale of Tragedies and Failures
There are records of football being played in Aquila ever since 1910 but the first club to play league football was the GUF Aquila in 1931. This would only last one season before its place was taken by Associazione Sportiva L’Aquila, a team that featured the same players but a new administration which included Adelchi Serena, later a minister in a fascist government.
AS L’Aquila was immediately successful, winning promotion to play in the Serie B by 1934 where they remained with a certain degree of ease until tragedy struck early on in the 1936-37 season. Travelling to Verona for a league game the following day, the train carrying management, players, two committee members and kit manager collided with an oncoming postal train car. Attilio Buratti, the manager, died on the spot whilst the players were all left seriously injured so much that the majority never played football again.
In the days following the tragedy, the Italian federation offered AS L’Aquila the option of not taking part in that season’s competition but still maintaining their place in the Serie B the following year. It was a good offer but the club refused, asking only for some time to regroup. Two months after the tragedy they were back playing but the hurriedly assembled squad wasn’t good enough and was relegated. It was the last time they would play in the Serie B.
From then on, L’Aquila’s story would largely involve long spells in either the Serie C2 (fourth division) or the Italian amateur leagues. Then, at the turn of the century, came a historic but costly promotion to the Serie C1: four years later the club was wound up, unable to bear the financial cost of playing in the higher division. It was their second such experience in a decade, as the club had already been liquidated in 1994.
Life restarted in the Eccellenza - the regional league setup - and there L’Aquila Calcio seemed to find its level. That’s where it was playing when the earthquake struck yet, remarkably, by the end of that season they were celebrating both promotion back to the professional leagues and regional cup competition (Coppa Italia Dilettanti Abruzzo).
And it kept progressing and pushing to achieve more, acting as a beacon of hope in a town that was struggling to find any.
The culmination – at least at this point – came last May when, at the end of a very long season, they managed a historic promotion to the Prima Divisione (the third tier of Italian football) after beating local rivals Teramo in the play-off final.
“It seems like a dream,” Aureli admits as he thinks back to the rapid progress that the club has made. “However, behind these results there has been some unstinting work by the club and the desire to react after the earthquake was fundamental.”
“At the time the president was Elio Gizzi and he didn't want to give up. His two direct assistants were Ercole Di Nicola (the technical co-ordinator) and myself. Ercole took care of the team. Like me he has been at Aquila Calcio since 2008 and has had an important role in the club's progress given all the difficulties.”
“Whilst Gizzi has remained as CEO, in 2012 we got a new president in the form of Corrado Chiodi who, together with his brother Massimo, managed to attract other businessmen from the area and that gave us a platform to build. We began looking to win and thankfully managed to do it.”
“The secret was a combination of passion and ability. And many, many sacrifices”
Although Aureli is too modest to admit it, there has also been plenty of vision from him and the rest of the club’s management.
A prime example of that is the new stadium that the club is building and which, contrary to other stadia in Italy, will not cage in supporters.
“Football has to return to being a game; a feast for people and for families. Our house doesn’t have to be a prison but a place where we can celebrate: and we want to transmit a philosophy of a sporting culture to the whole city and not only.”
“It will take discipline and a respect for the rules and for everyone. It is a way to show that the tragedy we went through has to serve as a lesson for unity; that is why it is important for us.”
What’s more, the stadium will be managed by the club itself; another novelty for Italian football. “It is the future. Almost all Italian stadia are old; those built for the World Cup in 1990 don’t reflect the functionality and the comfort required of modern stadia.”
“When we look at Europe, particularly England and Germany, we see that they can be a source of revenue that supports the club and it is important that it is managed by the club even on the days when there aren’t any games on.”
“You need a business plan for its management so as to optimise commercial opportunities, events and whatever we might come across. This will require that our country matures.”
For a country that still has something of a problem with its support, it is indeed a big ask. Yet perhaps there’s no better place to start than a town that has witnessed so much pain, a place which understands so deeply the futility of fighting over a game but which also has an acute appreciation of how much of a uniting force football can be.
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