The anticipation is building. The fixtures have been released and the squads are being fine-tuned for the opening day.
Even after a summer filled with football, there remained that nagging feeling that something was missing from our lives. Thankfully, that void is soon set to be filled again with the return of Serie A is only weeks away, and the mayhem and passion we all love will be unleashed once more.
For some, the anticipation may be dampened by the relentless juggernaut that is Juventus. Their summer acquisitions, most notably signing Pjanic from Roma and Higuain from Napoli, speak for their European ambitions but also have ominous implications for the competitiveness of the Serie A title race. Nevertheless, there are plenty of other intriguing subplots in Serie A that should keep us more than entertained over the coming months.
Outside the top flight, things are also beginning to ramp up as the clubs in Italy’s lower divisions go about their business, far from the spotlight of media attention. For one division in particular, though, they may be wishing that the pre-season period can be extended for a while yet.
For many, Lega Pro is a division that only comes to the fore when something downright bizarre occurs, or something of the shadier nature is unearthed. For the more avid TV and book readers, Lega Pro is perhaps calcio’s equivalent of the Night’s Watch, from Game of Thrones. It is something of a forgotten relic, slowly perishing, out of thought and mind of the masses.
Yet it is the last bastion in the defence of Italy’s professional game, protecting it from the hordes of amateur football (Wildlings), and despite nobody seeing fit to save it, things would get very scary for the Italian game without it.
Despite this rather forced comparison – you can’t go an entire article without mentioning Game of Thrones – Lega Pro remains one of the most riveting leagues in Europe, at least for those willing to give it their time.
However, as the 2016/17 season fast approaches, the league is at a crossroads now more than ever, in desperate need of some TLC if it is going to survive as a viable professional division for years to come.
Just days after the fixtures had been released for the 2016/17 Serie A season, Lega Pro finds itself in a state of chaos. The original goal for the new season was to have a league consisting of 60 teams, split evenly into three groups of 20 by geographical location. However, as I hammer away on the keyboard, the league can only lay claim to have between 47 and 50 teams signed up for the new campaign. Even that number is on very shaky ground, as daily stories emerge of new clubs suffering financial concerns.
Since the end of last season, the likes of Martina Franca, Sporting Bellinzago and Virtus Lanciano have already gone bust. The others reported to be at death’s door are Pavia, Rimini, Paganese, Casertana, Lucchese Maceratese and Como, the latter being declared bankrupt as recently as July 24 this year.
Over the coming days and weeks, it is very possible that some more names will be added to that already lengthy list. In truth, none of this is novel to followers of the division. Financial plight has beset so many clubs at this level that the disappearance of a few of the division’s members is now just taken for granted.
The scale of these financial failures, though, is truly staggering. In an article that appeared on ItalianFootballDaily.com, it stated that the league was on course to hit 80 unregistered clubs over the course of the last eight seasons. That is a mind-boggling ten clubs a season who fade from memory, not as a result of relegation, but simply due to finances.
As previously mentioned, this season, the division is looking to put together a league consisting of 60 teams in three groups. As of now, Lega Pro only has 47 teams who are stable enough to fill these positions. The league is now set with the task of finding the necessary clubs to fill up the vacancies.
Usually, this is done by promoting Serie D clubs who narrowly missed out on promotion, as well as offering relegated clubs a chance to redeem their spots. However, there are a few potential flaws in this plan. For instance, of the nine relegated Lega Pro clubs from last season, only two are eligible for redemption, with one of them needing to find a suitable stadium for this to be possible.
Serie D paints a slightly better picture. Of the nine sides who won their respective play-offs, five have stated that they will apply for the redemption. Next in line are the clubs who lost their play-off finals, of those nine only one has categorically stated that it will apply.
This then leaves us with a total of eight clubs who are set to apply and even if all eight get the offer to join Lega Pro – by no means a guarantee – the division is still short of the 60 teams required. Next option would be to offer the posts to other Serie D clubs who performed well last season.
Of the 18 most likely clubs highlighted by Parmafanzine.it, only two have come out and said that they will apply for the vacant Lega Pro positions. Another two are 50/50, and a handful or more are yet to prove the league with a response.
All this paints a rather bleak picture for the league, which has been hit significantly by the financial problems that have beset the country as a whole. The ordinary Italian has a less disposable income to throw around, and it is hard to make a case for that money going towards a match in the third tier in dilapidated stadiums from bygone eras.
That being said, ticket prices remain more than affordable. When I travelled to Mantova last season, a ticket for the Curva cost only five euro.
To the casual fan of Italian football, this may not overly bother them. But for those of us who follow any level of the Italian game with a nerdy passion, it should be of great concern. Put simply, this is not just a Lega Pro problem, it has knock on effects further down the football chain. For instance, if clubs are taken from Serie D to fill the gap, then Serie D must take more clubs from the Eccellenza and so on and so forth.
Further up the ladder, there is also cause for concern. Consider, for example, Serie B clubs whose finances are perilous and thus play in the knowledge that they are one potential relegation away from oblivion. For Serie A clubs, Lega Pro offers a chance to send young players out on loan and gain valuable experience at a professional outfit. However, there is a chance that, with so many sides struggling financially, this outlet not only becomes less competitive, but also begins to dry up.
But the greatest annoyance caused by these problems lies in the fact that they detract from what could potentially be the most exciting Lega Pro season ever. Once a forgotten league, it is now home to illustrious names such as Parma, Padova (Del Piero’s first club) and Piacenza (in Serie A in 2002 and home of the Inzaghi brothers). Speaking of the Inzaghi’s, Filippo is now head coach of big spending Venezia, another former Serie A club who call Lega Pro home.
What about the famous communists of Livorno and the Ghibellines of Siena? Then there is Reggiana, who are now owned by Baseball Hall of Famer Mike Piazza. Further south, you have Lecce (Fabrizio Miccoli’s boyhood club) and Foggia, the place where Zemanlandia was invented, not to forget the Sicilian duo of Catania and Messina.
Maybe this piece is a panic over nothing and as I’ve already pointed out, clubs disappear from Lega Pro every year. But the scale of the problems this season has been staggering and reveals a more deep-rooted issue in Italian football. It may not be your favourite league, you may not even care one iota about it, but its survival and prosperity is vital for calico as a whole. Regardless of how this season turns out, it is set to be pure insanity once again.
Words by Kevin Nolan: @KevinNolan11
Kevin is an Irishman who loves to watch calcio no matter how lowly the level, Parma being his team of choice. Besides the @GentlemanUltra, he also writes for @ItalianFD.