As the ground staff made their way to Avellino’s Stadio Partenio on morning of 20 April 1992, their mood was dark. Over the weekend the team had lost once more, just the latest in a series of squalid performances which had pushed them ever closer to relegation from Serie B.
All their troubled thoughts, however, could hardly have prepared them for the sight that greeted them as they entered the stadium, where a row of crosses stretching from one goal to the other had been planted on the pitch overnight.
Written on each cross were the names of Avellino’s squad – including reserve players and head coach Ciccio Graziani. These names were accompanied by the date 14 June 1992, which signified the last day of the season. The message was clear and left no room for interpretation: the ultras’ hopes of staying up were dead and with them any respect for the players.
This was a particularly difficult time for Avellino. No longer willing to handle the pressure that came with the job, Gaetano Tedeschi – the club’s owner and local businessman – was actively looking to sell and as a result, had limited his investment. The ultras weren’t having it and their displeasure was expressed both through the crosses they had planted on the pitch, and the insults they hurled at anyone who attempted to remove them.
What made the situation even more surreal – apart from the grounds staff’s refusal to remove the crosses on the basis that they too agreed with the protest – was that a return to the third tier was hardly going to be a new experience for the club.
For most of its history, UC Avellino have been a lesser light of Italian football; a club that has mostly played in Serie C (the third tier) or lower. In spite of all this, expectations during the early 1990s’ were unreasonably and irrationally high – the lasting legacy of a 10-year period starting from the end of the 1970s’, during which UC Avellino had been a fixture in Serie A.
The driving force behind much of that unprecedented success was the man known to Avellino fans as the Commendatore (Commander): president Antonio Sibilia. Born in the nearby town of Mercogliano, Sibilia had started out as a manual labourer, later to work his way up to become one of the region’s biggest estate magnates. He looked very much like a typical meridionale (southerner) of the era, complete with a natural tan and a pencil thin moustache. Furthermore, he thought like the most traditional of southerners too, which included a famous distaste for men who in any way embellished their appearances through long hair, earrings or tattoos.
Sibilia also achieved a certain degree of fame thanks to his colourful turn of phrase in local dialect. “Fummo andati in Brasile e comprammo Juary” (“We had gone to Brazil and bought Juary”) he told reporters when, in 1980, they bought the Brazilian striker. “Presidè, 'siamo!'” (“President, we went!”) a journalist replied, correcting his grammar, only to be brusquely told “ma perché si venut’pur tu?” (“why, did you come as well?”)
Yet Sibilia knew his football. He became Avellino’s president at the start of the 1970s’ with the club in Serie C, and within three years managed to oversee their promotion to Serie B for the first time in their history. Two years later, he made way to local politician, Arcangelo Lapicca, but remained within the club, overseeing their progress as they made it to Italy’s top flight in 1978.
It was a historic achievement and against all expectations, the Biancoverdi (Green and Whites) managed to retain their place in the top flight and were still there by 1981, when Sibilia returned as president once more. It was during this second spell that Avellino’s president made some of his best moves. Three of the players he recruited from the lower divisions, goalkeeper Stefano Tacconi, central defender Luciano Faveri and midfielder Beniamino Vignola, later went on to help Juventus win the European Cup in 1985, whereas another of his finds, midfielder Fernando de Napoli, eventually became one of the understated stars of Diego Maradona’s Scudetto winning Napoli side.
Then there was Juary. Brought to the peninsula as Avellino’s foreign player – at a time when Italian football was just lifting its ban on foreigners – he was largely an unknown quantity and Sibilia initially wasn’t too convinced by the player’s slight build. He, along with the rest of Avellino’s support, was soon won over by the forward and his unique goal celebration, which involved running around the corner flag.
During this period, Avellino were achieving their stated ambition of avoiding relegation with relative ease thanks to Sibilia’s purchases. Yet this wasn’t a period devoid of controversy and Sibilia was often at the centre.
On one occasion, he attended the court hearing of Raffaele Cutolo – a renowned boss of Campania's notorious crime syndicate, Camorra. With him, Sibilia took star striker Juary, who handed Cutolo – who according to Sibilia was a huge fan of the club, in particular the striker – a gold medal which bore the enscription “To Rafaele Cutolo, from Avellino Calcio”.
Eventually Sibilia himself wound up in the dock, accused of planning to kill local judge Antonio Gagliardi. Despite the fact he was eventually found not guilty, he had already opted to resign from his presidency at Avellino.
That was in 1983 and Sibilia stayed away from the club for over a decade, a period during which the Biancoverdi fell away. When he returned in 1994 – two years after the crosses on the pitch episode – Avellino were in Serie C.
Apart from his club's standing in Italian football, little had changed in Sibilia, who retained his old fashioned values. This was a man who had once refused to buy gloves for his goalkeeper (“Our goalkeeper wants gloves?” he queried “no, either we buy them for everyone or for no one”), and had berated Argentine midfielder Leonardo Ricatti for his personal appearance when he arrived for a trial at Avellino. “First you cut your hair, then we can talk about trials and contracts. There has never been any place at Avellino for capelloni (men with long hair). You have 24-hours to decide” the Argentine was told.
He also had a distaste for football agents. In his biography, Dario Canovi – one of the earliest to take up this role in Italy – recounted how Sibilia used to keep a pistol on his desk because it made him “uncomfortable to wear it under his jacket”. The threat was allegedly not meant to be ‘malicious’, but it was there nevertheless.
The coaches didn’t have it much better either. With the cub second in Serie C, Gigi Papadopulo was a fan favourite, but a very public and live television falling out between him and Sibilia saw Avellino’s Mister sacked. Then again, this was the same president who, in the early 1980s, had jettisoned Luis Vinicio because “he was acting like a cock in a henhouse”, despite the coach doing extremely well by keeping the club in the Serie A.
Despite these antics, Sibilia’s third tenure as Avellino president brought success once again, as the Lupi (Wolves) returned to Serie B within a season of his return, moving a step closer to his ambition of returning them to Serie A. However, in his haste to return to Avellino, Sibilia had been careless, not realising just how desperate the club’s financial situation was. Only with the passing of time did he come to understand that there was no way to remedy this situation. Within a year, the club was back in Serie C and by 1999, he bid the Biancoverdi farewell, this time forever.
The club’s fans never forgot him, however. When he passed away in 2014, at the age of 93, thousands made the trip to Mercogliano to pay their respects at his funeral. With them, they took a banner that read “Unico ed indimenticabile”: ‘Unique and Unforgettable’
Words by Paul Grech: @paul_grech
Paul is the author of Il Re Calcio, an e-book featuring ten little-known stories from the history of Italian football. You can get a copy here.