Stadium: Mapei Stadium - Città del Tricolore, capacity 21,584
The Mapei Stadium is a multi-purpose venue in Reggio-Emilia. It was christened “Stadio Città Del Tricolore” but was renamed in March 2012 due to sponsorship purposes. Sassuolo’s owner at the time, Giorgio Squinzi, decided to purchase the stadium in 2013, making them, along with Juventus and Udinese, the only Serie A clubs to own their home grounds.
The stadium is also home to Reggiana, who rent the space. Zebre, a local rugby union side, are also tenants. The ground is the largest sporting facility in the region, which is a huge achievement for a club of Sassuolo’s size.
When the Neroverdi (Black and greens) were promoted back to the top flight in the 2013-14 season as the champions of Serie B they promptly upgraded the facilities. These were small but essential changes, such as new scoreboards, fresh turf for the pitch and the seating. The stadium is similar in structure to the Stadio Luigi Ferraris in Genoa. It has an English feel to it, in that the four stands are close to the pitch. There is not an athletics track around the pitch and the atmosphere can be felt, especially when Sassuolo play the bigger clubs.
The club are somewhat revolutionary. They sell various levels of tickets and have 32 executive boxes, which is far from standard for an Italian club, especially at this level. The match-day experience on the Peninsula needs to improve while keeping a place for the ultras and this is something Sassuolo do well, despite having a ground that is not based in their home town.
Their Bundesliga-style model allows everyone to customise their own match-day experience. Fans keep coming back, with attendances at Sassuolo more consistent than at other clubs in Italy. The success of the team on the pitch, the atmosphere around the ground and the financial model they are employing is truly exemplary and should be noted throughout Italian football.
Unlike many of the teams and regions documented in this series, Sassuolo and Emilia-Romagna are unknown quantities. Sassuolo lies southwest of its more distinguished, super-car manufacturing neighbour, Modena. It’s not a destination that sits high on the priority list of the average tourist. That is unless you happen to belong to the coterie of calcio aficionados. Then you may feel a trip to this remote industrial town is worth its weight in gold, or more pertinently, ceramics. For while Sassuolo is renowned for being at the nexus of Italy’s tile industry, the town has been slapped firmly on the footballing map thanks to the seemingly inexorable rise of US Sassuolo Calcio.
Sassuolo have one of the lowest followings in Serie A. Speaking to Silvia and Giulio, two season ticket holders who have followed Sassuolo home and away for the last two years, they were quick to acknowledge the club’s modest history: “Sassuolo don’t have a prestigious footballing tradition. It was only after Giorgio Squinzi bought the club and Sassuolo began to climb up the leagues that the people became passionate.”
Their story is similar to that of Chievo’s, a footballing parvenu whose extraordinary rise to prominence has left supporters incredulous. The Sassolesi are minnows in the landscape of Italy’s ultras. They don’t have strength in numbers. Nor are they renowned for their braggart choreographies or tumultuous atmospheres. But whether it is home or away, in Modena or Reggio Calabria, a small contingent is always present to support the Neroverdi.
Their paucity in numbers is unsurprising. Sassuolo is the smallest town to boast a team in Serie A, with a population of around 41,000. The club have spent much of their history toiling in the doldrums of the amateur leagues, a slab of brick plastered firmly at the base of the calcio pyramid. The more established teams in the region (Bologna, Modena and Reggiana) have traditionally attracted the support of the town’s football fans.
However, with the club enjoying a period of footballing transcendence, their organised support has – to a much smaller extent – enjoyed its own renaissance. The story of the club’s ultras can be told through the looking glass of the club’s rise. Unbeknown to many, during Sassuolo’s fledgling years, an English club called Lancaster Rovers FC left an indelible mark on their identity. During their tour of Italy in 1921, Lancaster were unable to fulfil a fixture commitment and, as a means of apology, donated their black and green kit to the Italians. The strip was adopted and the colours promptly embraced, earning Sassuolo their nickname: I Neroverdi.
After years of anonymity, in 1974 Sassuolo’s fortunes began to turn after they merged with the cities other football club, Giofil San Giorgio. Ten years later the Neroverdi earned a much awaited promotion to Serie C2. It was the first time the town had a team competing in a professional league. This success on the field inspired movement off it. The ‘Ultras Saxolum 1988’ established themselves as a clique of fanatics whose Campanilismo (local pride and identity) was their raison d’etre.
Their name reveals all. The town’s title, Sassuolo, is thought to have derived from the word ‘Saxolum’, the etymology of which is said to stem from the Latin words ‘Saxum’ (large stone) and ‘Solum’ (soil or location). It is thought that Sassuolo was once a military fortification housing a legion during Roman epoch and thus the denomination celebrates the town’s ancient origins. It’s worth speculating whether this association with ancient Rome may also be in keeping with their alleged sympathy towards the far-right. Symbols from the Roman Empire are often embraced by the neo-fascist Ultras of AS Roma and the correlate between right-wing political ideology and ancient Rome has been discussed earlier in this series.
For the majority of the late 1980’s and 1990’s the Neroverdi oscillated between Serie C2 and Serie D. Despite a period of relative stagnation on the field, their Ultra movement continued to evolve. New groups appeared, most notably Gioventù and Alkatraz. In 2002, Giorgio Squinzi – owner of the multinational MAPEI company – sponsored the club and a year later he acquired ownership. This proved to be the harbinger of a new era and Sassuolo’s subsequent success has beggared belief.
However, while Squinzi set about developing a concrete club structure which was the precursor for Sassuolo’s climb up the professional ladder, support for the team became desultory. In 2003, the emergence of ‘Head Out’ helped reinvigorate the atmosphere at the Stadio Enzo Ricci. The stadiums tiny capacity meant there were no curve and thus the Ultras positioned themselves in the tribuna (the side stand). Despite rarely filling 4,000 seats, their homebecame something of a fortress and during their promotions to Serie C1 in 2006 and Serie B in 2008, the Neroverdi lost just three home games in each season.
Success didn’t come without its problems, both for the club and their supporters. They were forced to relocate to Modena’s Stadio Alberto Braglia due to the size of the Ricci. The Ricci was used for training while the supporters faced the prospect of a 12 mile trip to watch home games. Having struggled to fill a venue of 4,000, the Sassolesi barely filled a corner of Modena’s 20,000-seat arena. Every home game was a reminder of Sassuolo’s size but also one that emphasised just how far the club had come.
Under the tenure of coach Eusebio di Francesco, the Emilians scaled the mountain top in 2013, winning the Serie B title. 15,157 watched the Neroverdi secure their historic promotion to Serie A with a 1-0 over Livorno, Simone Missiroli’s last gasp strike sparking scenes of jubilation as the Sassolesi flooded the pitch to celebrate with their heroes.
That said, their new venture in Serie A did not alleviate their stadium woes. Sassuolo’s home changed once again, this time to the Stadio Citta del Tricolore, the home of Lega Pro side Reggiana. In December, 2013, Squinzi bought the stadium and renamed it after his company – Stadium Mapei. It was a deal that angered the Ultras of Sassuolo’s Curva Nord.
How many times have we reaffirmed our sense of belonging and love for our city, and how important it is not to constantly feel like guests; but unfortunately economic interests have prevailed over the passion and attachment to our colours… One more time, we do not belong in this stadium.
Later that month, for the first 15 minutes of Sassuolo’s game against Chievo, 500 Reggiana supporters sat with the Sassolesi in the Curva Nord expressing their indignation. “Per Squinzi: Un Affare Perfetto, Per Sassuolo: Nessun Rispetto” ‘For Squinzi: a perfect deal, for
Sassuolo: no respect’ one banner proclaimed while another read ‘Never at home’. The supporters chagrin has yet to be ameliorated however the team’s performances on the pitch have provided a welcome distraction.
Sassuolo are now thriving in Serie A. Unsurprisingly the clubs achievements have seen the Ultras ranks swell. A group named Clan Curva Nord, formerly Saxolum proclaim to be Sassuolo’s only ‘real’ ultras. They are joined by two supporter groups known as Sasol and gli Antenati. They ensure the Mapei Stadium is not without atmosphere and spectacle, indulging in the customary flag waving and relentless chanting.
That said the movement remains small and their following away from home modest, especially given that the Clan Curva Nord refuse to accept the controversial Tessera del Tifoso (supports ID card), thus making them unable to attend away games. According to Silvia and Giulio, around 100 supporters usually follow the team on the road.
With success comes envy. Sassuolo’s following is often taunted regarding their allegiance to other clubs, especially before the Neroverdi reached Serie A. These disparaging attitudes are exemplified in the following statement made by a Parma supporter. “They are Juventus fans who used to support Modena during the two years the latter competed in Serie A. They returned to Juve and now they support Sassuolo. That is apart from when they play against Juve and then they revert back to being Juventini.”
Ultras or not, Sassuolo’s supporters can remind the naysayers that at this point in time they sit highest placed of all the clubs in Emilia Romagna. In a city where the fires traditionally burn in kilns, Sassuolo have ignited a footballing passion. The Neroverdi are re-shuffling Italian football’s hierarchy but as Silvia affirmed, the supporters will never forget the clubs humble beginnings.
Being a supporter or player of Sassuolo is different to that of other clubs in Italy. Sassuolo is pride, simply, Sassuolo is our colours. The result is not important, we want players who fight for our shirt and who give their hearts. Here, in contrast to the rest of Italy, we enjoy a friendly and personal relationship with our players.
With thanks to season ticket holders, Silvia Mezzadri and Giulio Mucci, for their knowledge and expertise. In the two years they have been following Sassuolo home and away they have missed just one match!
Classic Player: Francesco Magnanelli
Francesco Magnanelli may not be a household name in Italy and he may not sell newspapers but he is loved by Sassuolo fans. Their short history does not give them many star names and it does not leave them speaking over late-night glasses of wine about that great player in 1934, who was part of Vittorio Pozzo’s World Cup-winning squad. Sassuolo have no Paolo Maldini; they have no Giuseppe Meazza; they have no Dino Zoff; and they have never had a Diego Maradona.
Maganelli is their captain, however, and he has played 308 times for the club, scoring five goals. He is a hard-working midfielder who embodies what Sassuolo are as a team: he is talented, purposeful and certainly not pretentious. There are better players but his endeavour and humility make him likeable. Aged only 30, he still has some years to go before he retires, especially as he doesn’t rely on pace. After being with the club since 2005, it is unlikely we will see him anywhere else in the future.
Magnanelli grew up in Gubbio, where he started his career aged 16. He played 14 games for them in Serie C2 in the 2001-02 season and look promising. The scouts swarmed in and he was watched by Torino and Chievo. He signed for Chievo in 2002 for €50,000 and spent a season there failing to make the first team. A move to Fiorentina in the 2003-04 season saw him once again fail to make the grade – he did not play a single game. In 2004 he moved to Sangiovannese in Serie C1, where he played seven games before the end of the season.
Scouts from Sassuolo watched him during these seven matches and picked him up, promising him that he would start in their then-Serie C2 outfit. It was a long way from where he had started but Magnanelli wanted to play football so took up the challenge. He made 26 league appearances in his first season in Serie C2, where he impressed with his mixture of passes, through-balls, interceptions, tough tackles and blocks. His will to win was exceptional, even if he lost his head and his discipline once in a while.
In first first season, Sassuolo won promotion to Serie C1, where he played another 26 games and scored his first goal. He was now the focal point of the team. The club were soon in Serie B and he was now establishing himself as an anchoring midfielder who was able to mix with a much better calibre of player. Under the guidance of Andrea Mandorlini, Stefano Poli and then Daniele Arrigoni he improved even more, even managing to score in Serie B in the derby against Modena. Now he was becoming a legend and he extended his contract when Fulvio Pea came in as coach.
On 18 May 2013 he and his team, now managed by Eusebio Di Francesco, won promotion to Serie A as champions of Serie B. At the ripe old age of 28, he played his first Serie A match against Torino, the team that once wanted him. They may have lost 2-0 on the day, but Captain Maganelli is now leading his team against the great and the good of Serie A and they are holding their own. He may not be Javier Zanetti or Raimundo Orsi, but to Sassuolo he is more than that. He isn’t on a list of greats, he is the great, and for that, they will be eternally grateful.
Words by Luca Hodges-Ramon: @LH_Ramon25 and Richard Hall: @Gentleman_Ultra