“Is (Walter) Mazzarri my Mourinho? He’s much better than the Inter coach.”
These were the words uttered in 2009 by the eccentric Napoli owner, Aurelio De Laurentiis. It’s a statement that brings a wry smile to the face of Inter fans and one which De Laurentiis eventually realised not to be true.
Yet perhaps it is not as outlandish as it seems, for while Mazzarri is now viewed as a slight figure of ridicule, he is responsible for what is one of the greatest and most understated miracles in the history of the Italian game. The Miracle in Calabria.
Heading into the 2006-07 season, Italian football was on its knees (Club football if not International football). Calciopoli had ripped the soul out of the game and along with the perceived anarchy in the stands, Calcio was gasping for air. Not only had Juventus been relegated to Serie B for their role in the scandal, but numerous other clubs had also been hit with severe penalties.
One such club was Reggina Calcio. As a result of actions by former club president Lilo Fotti, who was found guilty of sporting fraud dating back to the 2004 season, the club would have to start the season on minus 15 points, a total later reduced to minus eleven.
For a club like Reggina this was pretty much a relegation sentence. Other clubs received similar punishments, but these were the likes of AC Milan, Fiorentina and Lazio, clubs who had the financial means to ease their way to safety. Reggina though had none of these things. For all intents and purposes they were just another tiny provincial club filling up the numbers.
As such, nobody gave them a sniff of surviving. This was a club who found it difficult to stay up when they started on level terms, let alone having to cope with such a handicap. But while for other clubs the noose tightening around their neck would prove all too much, for the Calabrian’s it gave them an incentive, a new lease of life. As the saying goes, it is only when you stare death in the face that you feel truly alive.
Mazzarri and his men were free of any expectations, but they were about to make people sit up and take notice. However things would not get off to the best of starts and on the opening day of the season they lost 4-3 away to Palermo. In fact, the Amaranto would only win one of their opening five matches.
Things could not have looked bleaker for the southerners; if they were to have any chance of surviving a fast start was crucial. But the opposite happened and it wouldn’t be until a week eight home win against Parma that they finally managed to get back to zero points. However, Reggina had an ace in hand, something that every club battling to survive so desperately craves - a consistent goal scorer. In fact, the club had two, Nicola Amoruso and Rolando Bianchi.
Between them, the duo would score 35 of the clubs 52 goals that season, with the 18 scored by Bianchi later earning him an ill-fated move to Manchester City in England. Still despite the prolificacy of the front two, it would not be until after the winter break that things finally began to click for the side.
From January to May Reggina would only lose four of their 20 matches, winning six in the process and drawing the remaining ten. A 2-0 win at home to Milan on the final day proved the most crucial of all, as it propelled them up to fourteenth spot, one-point clear of Chievo in eighteenth and the final relegation spot. The great escape had been achieved.
Reggina would go on to compete in their sixth consecutive Serie A campaign, a record for a club from the region of Calabria. So grateful were the people of Reggio Calabria for what their football club had done for them that the players and Mazzarri were awarded honorary citizenship of the municipality.
For those Amaranto fans it was a time to cherish. Their team had defied the odds and achieved something that nobody had believed was possible. It is perhaps one of the greatest achievements in Serie A history yet it is forgotten by many due to the shadow that have been cast over Italian football by Calciopoli. Leaping forward to the present, it is a miracle that the Reggina faithful can only wish to come true. Eight years on from one of their greatest moments, this proud club lie in a state of disarray.
Last summer, the club slipped to its lowest ebb in many years after they suffered bankruptcy and liquidation. A new club was founded, but for now it cannot bear the name Reggina and is called Reggio Calabria instead.
All this after they thought they had pulled off another great escape in the Lega Pro relegation play-offs, in which they beat bitter rivals Messina to survive. Yet matters off the pitch eventually saw them ejected from the league and forced to start again in Serie D, while Messina were reinstated in Lega Pro.
In Serie D, Reggina have found the going tough. They currently sit dangerously close to the bottom and risk slipping down to the Eccellenza divisions if they do not come to life soon. It is an extremely trying time for the club, a club who have been through many difficult periods in the past. This is a club, however, that triumphs in the face of adversity. Eight years ago they pulled off a miracle when everyone doubted them.
Now they find themselves in a similar situation again. The club who performed a miracle must go in search of another, but if any club is capable of pulling the rabbit out the hat twice, it is the men from the deep-south.
Follow Kevin Nolan on Twitter: @KevinNolan11