As dawn broke on the 2013-14 Serie A season, fans of the Sicilian club Catania were anticipating another successful season. This would be their eighth consecutive term in the highest tier of Italian football and they were hoping to build upon their previous record breaking campaign.
During the 2012-13 season, coach Rolando Maran and his team broke a multitude of club records, including the number of home wins in one season, number of victories in a single top flight campaign, as well as the club’s points total in Serie A, a record broken for the fifth consecutive season. In fact, it would have been a near perfect season had they not narrowly missed out on European qualification, this all under the guidance and financial investment of club president Antonino Pulvirenti.
Pulvirenti had become owner of “Gli Elefanti”, or the Elephants, prior to the 2005-06 season. He brought instant success as a second place finish in Serie B secured Catania automatic promotion to Serie A for the first time in 22 years.
Their first season back in Serie A had highs and lows. Being fourth after 20 games was the definite high but this was tempered by the lowest of lows as violence during the Sicilian derby with Palermo ended in the death of policeman Filippo Raciti. He was killed during riots perpetrated by Catania ultras outside the Stadio Angelo Massimino stadium, Catania’s home ground. This resulted in the temporary suspension of Serie A. On resumption Gli Elefanti, obviously affected by the tragedy, failed to replicate their early season form but still managed a respectable 13th place finish.
After escaping relegation by just two points the season after, Catania started to build the foundations of a solid Serie A team, often rewarding young coaches with a job in Italy’s top flight. Vincenzo Montella, Sinisa Mihajlovic and Diego Simone have all graced the Catania bench in their fledging coaching careers. After the departure of Montella at the end of the 2011-12 season, Rolando Maran was entrusted with the job and he guided the club to its best season in Serie A.
In complete contrast to the previous record breaking season, the 2013-14 campaign started disastrously for Gli Elefanti, recording only one win in their first dozen games.
Maran was removed as coach and Luigi de Canio replaced him in mid-October, only for Maran to return in January. Despite wining four of their last five fixtures, their early season form had condemned Catania to Serie B.
The 2014-15 season should have been one of renewed hope for Catania fan’s, dreaming of a return to Serie A at the first attempt. But instead it was to be a tumultuous campaign that would have far reaching consequences. The season opened at home to Virtus Lanciano with coach Giuseppe Sannino handed the daunting task of helping the club bounce straight back. An ill-tempered game ensued with both sides finishing with ten men and Lanciano scoring an injury time equaliser to make it 3-3.
Only three wins in their first ten games left the Sicilians languishing in the relegation places, a far cry from the halcyon days in which they had beaten the likes of Roma, Lazio and Sampdoria. Sannino resigned in December after a home draw with Brescia, citing a poor relationship with the president. Pulvirenti promoted Maurizio Pellegrino from the youth team but this act of desperation was soon rescinded three weeks later, Pellegrino returning to coach the primavera and Dario Marcolin was appointed.
Marcolin knew the club having been at Catania as an assistant to Sinisa Mihaljovic and he boasted coaching experience at Serie A heavyweights Fiorentina and Inter. However, form remained patchy under Marcolin until, after three months at the club, Gli Elefanti finally hit their stride. Catania only lost once in six games, including four wins, and this rich vein of form pushed them comfortably into mid-table during March, April and early May. Despite tailing off in the last few games, Catania had secured their Serie B status.
Just as fans, players and club officials were enjoying their summer break, in June 2015 news broke that Calcio Catania SpA were under investigation for match fixing. Three officials from Catania were being interviewed regarding allegations of fixing five matches in Serie B.
Club president Antonio Pulvirenti, former CEO Pablo Cosentino and club official Piero Di Luzio were all under the spotlight. Also under investigation was Fernando Antonio Arbotti, a former football agent. The FIGC also notified the club that it would be charged with ‘direct and objective liability’, meaning Catania would suffer the consequences for the actions of their executives.
Somewhat unsurprisingly, the matches fell during the Elefanti’s mini revival from March to May, a string of results that had essentially ensured Catania’s survival. Those games were against Varese, Trapani, Latina and Ternana, all of which Catania won. Their draw against Livorno was also under investigation. At the time, the reasons behind Catania’s resurgence had been scrutinised, but the club had attributed the upturn to the addition of a new fitness coach and the fact the squad contained several players with Serie A experience finally adjusting to the rigours of Serie B.
However, Pulvirenti had been the master of his own downfall. During his club’s terrible run of form before and after Christmas, the president had received several death threats and even had bullets sent to both him and family members. Fearing for his life, he reported these incidents to the authorities and, taking the threats seriously, the police started surveillance on his telephone during the month of March 2015.
Although the threats were genuine and not manufactured, the police did discover that the Catania president had been manufacturing results for his team.
The scandal was referred to as “Goal Trains”, a reference to the language used by the parties concerned in which the ‘trains’ were the players to approach and the ‘arrival times’ were their shirt numbers. One such recorded conversation cited a train arriving at four o’clock which inevitably meant player number four had been bribed.
Upon his subsequent arrest, Pulvirenti staunchly defended his innocence. However, this soon changed after it became clear that his chances of acquittal were limited. Pulvirenti divulged information, a turn accredited to the legislation implemented by Italian authorities in the aftermath of previous match-fixing scandals which allowed for prison sentences of up to nine years.
Along with his compatriot Pablo Cosentino, Pulvirenti confessed to bribing players for €100,000 per game. This prompted UEFA secretary general, Gianni Infantino, to opine “We are worried that a second-division club can fix five matches paying €100,000 per match. This is something that we would never like to see in football.” Infantino continued, “It is clear that persons who fix matches should have no role in football. They have to be excluded.”
Despite initially protesting his innocence, the Catania president came clean and said his actions were to save Catania from relegation. As of yet, no connections have been made between Pulvirenti and a wider betting scam which has been linked to the infamous five games in question. Seven people have been arrested, including four betting agents and three sports managers, yet Pulvirenti vehemently denies that he was involved in this element of the skulduggery, maintaining that his intentions were only for the good of the club.
Nonetheless, his efforts to evade relegation had proved futile. On the 20th August 2015, the FIGC confirmed that Catania were relegated to Lega Pro (Italy’s third tier) and docked 12 points (confirmed as ten points on appeal), essentially condemning them to two seasons in the division coupled with a €150,000 fine. The sentence sparked a protest of 3000 Catania fans as they vented their anger at those who had subjected their beloved club to such an ordeal. Pulvirenti was banned from football for five years and fined €300,000. Upon the decision, the president immediately put the club up for sale and vowed to leave football permanently.
The FIGC stated that Pulvirenti had cooperated from the outset, revealing new details such as the names of the players that were approached to throw the games. The eventual convictions and punishments of the Catania officials were:
Antonino Pulvirenti (President of Cataina) 5-year ban from football activities and €300,000 fine.
Pablo Cosentino (CEO of Cataina) 4-year ban from football activities and €50,000 fine.
Piero Di Luzio (Club official) 5-year ban from football activities and €150,000 fine.
Fernando Antonio Arbotti was found not guilty of any charges.
“Gli Elefanti” are now playing in Lega Pro Group C, under the guidance of former Lazio and Italian international defender Giuseppe Pancaro. Playing in front of crowds of 8000 loyal fans, and without the unscrupulous influence of Antonio Pulvirenti, the team can dream of promotion knowing that every result is merited and not reliant on the trains and their timetables.
Follow Mark Nealie on Twitter: @neale_mark