From a distance all you can see is the floodlights, illuminating a dark Milanese night sky. The closer you get, the more you can sense the electricity in the air. The plethora of merchandise stalls and fast food vans seem to form an endless line guiding you to the ground. Then it all opens up before you, the concrete and steel behemoth, a cathedral of calcio. No matter how often you have been here, it never ceases to make you stand in awe. The mighty San Siro.
94kms away to the south west in the town of Novi Ligure, the Stadio Girardengo does not illicit the same heart fluttering response. Nor should it, its solitary stand holds only 3500 spectators and it is separated from the pitch by a running track, not really making it the most intimidating of venues. Still it is home to a fiercely proud little club. Evidence of this pride can be seen manifesting itself outside the stadium in a simple and humble way, with a small street sign that simply reads - Piazza U.S. Novese 1921/1922 Campioni d’italia F.I.G.C.
It may now be 94-years-ago, but being crowned champions of Italy is still the club’s crowning glory. Given that the club has achieved very little in the interim it is easy to see why. What makes the title that extra bit special is that alongside Casale, they are the only team not from a region’s capital to have won the Scudetto.
The story of how they achieved such a remarkable triumph is perhaps the strangest in the long history of calcio. In short, the club were beneficiaries of a large stroke of luck. But even at that, they still had to do it on the pitch when the time came.
Novese had only just been promoted into the top flight for the first time in their history and were expected to do nothing more than just make up the numbers. Calcio though was at a cross road. Back then the leagues were split between north and south, with the winners of each section meeting in the final. The rich industrial northern clubs would inevitably always win and as such controlled most of the power in the game.
This power among a select few of the biggest northern clubs would eventually lead to a stand-off with the F.I.G.C, calcio’s governing body. The crux of the argument was that the league had expanded to much and taken in too many clubs, such as Novese. The established clubs lobbied for this to be changed immediately but the F.I.G.C said no. This then lead to an extraordinary turn of events where the mutinous clubs threatened to walk away and form their own league.
Like two stubborn children unwilling to give in, the F.I.G.C allowed the intransigent mutineers to for their own league, which they promptly did. Italian football was then presented with the strange situation of having two separate top flight leagues come the 1921/22 season. Knowing that they had a better chance of competing in the original, Novese stayed loyal to the F.I.G.C competition. In the end it proved a shrewd move as the club would go on to win it’s one and only title.
Incidentally, in the other competition, Pro Vercelli would win the seventh and last of their titles. It remains to this day the only season that two clubs can lay legitimate claim to the league title with the current Serie A recognising both.
Fast forward 94-years and you will find a Novese club in entirely different circumstances. The club have spent most of that time pottering around the lower reaches of the Italian game but have always had their dignity. Sadly, this season has seen that dignity be slowly eroded by incompetence and neglect in the boardroom.
On the 6th of March, 2016, Novese were hammered 6-1 by Caronnese, the side who would eventually finish second in the table. While such a defeat can be immensely damaging to the psyche of a side battling relegation, it is what came in the aftermath that truly tore the heart out of the club’s slim survival hopes.
The following day, seven players would leave the club citing unpaid wages dating back months as their reason. Given that players at this level are considered only semi-professional, and wages are barely a fraction of what the top boys earn, it is a surprise that they had even stuck around as long.
The club had been struggling financially for a long time by this stage. But to pinpoint the time where things really took a turn for the worse, we must go back to November 2015. It was in this month, the one traditionally associated with the dead and all souls, that Novese began what looked to be its death kneel.
Owners Emanuella Giacomello and Renato Traverso came to the decision that they were no longer willing to fund the club’s everyday expenses and a buyer was sought. Into this void stepped Raffaele Retucci, a small business owner from the town of Castellamare di Stabia, just outside of Napoli. Very little was known of the reclusive Retucci but he soon took control of 80 per cent of the club’s shares with Traverso holding the remaining 20 per cent.
The deal saw Retucci basically take over the club free of charge, while just accepting the club’s debt which was considerable for a team of this level. However, the new owner would not bring an upturn in fortunes. Indeed, he brought quite the opposite.
On Tuesday the 23rd February, 2016, the club’s offices in the Piazza Dellepiane of Novi Ligure were raided by the Guardia di Finanza (Financial Police). Witnesses who were present at the scene told of seeing the police leave with boxes full of folders. Minority shareholder Traverso was asked to attend the scene while the raid was being carried out. Retucci’s whereabouts were unknown.
Local journalists quickly quizzed Traverso on the reason behind the raid. The 20 per cent shareholder stated that he did not know the reasons behind the raid but did say that it was accounting documents that were being taken away.
The club was in complete disarray, with wild rumours beginning to be spread throughout the town as to the club’s potential future. One such rumour that seemed to have a semblance of truth was that some kind of foreign consortium were interested in taking over the club.
The front man for such a deal was supposedly one Morris Pagniello, a man who had been banned from the sport for eight months only back in June of 2015 for match fixing with Monza. In the end, nothing ever came of Pagniello’s proposed takeover.
Two days before the raid on the club’s offices, Novese had drawn 2-2 with Ligorna. In the aftermath of the match, head coach Piero Lo Gatto told the local media:
“We are alone with no company but we have decided to continue until someone comes forward. We will play with heart and we will play to honour the city of Novi Ligure, and above all we will play to win.”
A noble gesture perhaps, but one that was easier said than done. Local websites soon began writing open letter pieces to the town’s Mayor, Rocchino Muliere, pleading with him to step in and help save the club from oblivion. Something he would do in late April, setting up what was known as the council of wise men to find solutions to the crisis.
That though was of little use to a club who were in dire straits in March, with the club being hit with a €7500 fine over non-payment to two former players. By the end of March, Lo Gatto could only call on 14 players to fill his match day squad, with a portion of them being taken from the club’s youth teams.
On the 22nd of March, things then took a further turn for the worse when Lo Gatto along with General manager Luca Carangelo resigned. More players continued to leave the squad meaning survival in Serie D was impossible, the main aim now was to simply just finish the season.
How that would be done however was not fully clear. Nevertheless, club’s youth team director, Daniele Artoli, was determined to see it done:
“The youth sector will go on at least until June, all leagues and tournaments that we have organised will not stop. And if the LND [Serie D’s governing body] will give the go ahead, we are ready to deploy the junior team in the last games of Serie D, we will do everything to honour the name of Novese.”
On the 25th of March, Retucci, who had still never been seen in the town brought back coach, Pierluigi Lepone, to take over the club after he had been sacked in November. Lepone faced the situation of having no players in his squad and a club on the brink of collapse. That same day, Retucci came out to reiterate his desire to sell the club as he had planned on doing only a few weeks before.
Most troubling for Novese fans was that Retucci expressed that he was preferably willing to sell the club to someone in Novi Ligure but was not beyond selling the naming rights of Novese to other towns. Some unknown towns were already said to have expressed an interest in buying the title.
By the 30th of March it becomes clear that Lepone would not actually be the one taking over the first team but rather youth director Artoli. Artoli then made a general plea to any and all players who had left the club to return and train with them for the final few matches of the season.
Few were expected to return as what remained of the club’s board made it perfectly clear that those that did would be doing it at their own expense. They would be guaranteed neither food nor board.
Incredibly however, eight players did decide to return, giving the club enough breathing space to just about finish the league campaign. Even at that, former owners Giacomello and Traverso (Minority shareholders now) were forced to stump up money so that the side could make the trips to the remaining away matches.
In late April, the man who had virtually destroyed the club, Retucci, resigned. His legacy had more or less left the club in a state of paralysis. Amazingly, on his departure, Mayor Muliere stated that “he [Retucci] has never been seen, we do not know what he looks like.” This despite him being the owner of the club for six months or so.
Needless to say, Novese were easily relegated come the end of the season with their final matches all being routs in the oppositions favour.
Where the club goes next is still very unclear. Those who are currently in control have assured the fans that the club will enrol in the Eccellenza for next season and have even been bullish enough to suggest applying for a reinstatement into Serie D.
This all, however, still seems very unlikely and the possibility of the club going bust and having to start again remains a real possibility.
One thing does remain true though. This is a proud club with a small loyal fan base and the uproar over the way the club has been treated showcases this. No matter what comes next, there will always be a Novese Calcio.
The men of the 1922 title may all be gone, but their memory remains in the heart of this club. It is one the fans are not about to let die any time soon.
Words by Kevin Nolan: @KevinNolan11