As featured on Guardian Sport
On 15 September 2016, the small town of Sassuolo in the north-west of Italy geared up for something special. With a population of 41,000, the Province of Modena awaited the arrival of Athletic Bilbao to the Città del Tricolore for Sassuolo’s first ever European outing – something the town could never have imagined a mere decade ago.
Theirs is a story that makes one understand why they love the sport and believe in miracles. The club were in the third tier of Italian football in 2006 with little or no ambition of making it this far, this quick. But on that fine September evening reality hit the town, and the 7,000 that were at the stadium that evening made an atmosphere that won’t be forgotten in a hurry.
The Neroverdi won 3-0 on the night and announced their arrival on the European stage in the finest fashion. Having wandered between Serie C2 and Serie D between the 1980s and ‘90s, the club exemplified miracles and had grown men crying that night.
Sassoulo’s tale begins in Serie C1 – Italy’s third tier – under the guidance of current Juventus boss Max Allegri. Having dominated the season, the ambitious owners of the side invested smartly, making an instant leap to Serie B for the 2008-09 season. Allegri had made enough of an impact in the lower leagues for Serie A side Cagliari to appoint him as their head coach. His credentials would later take him to Scudetti with AC Milan and Juventus as well as a Champions League final with the latter.
While in Serie B, Sassoulo announced their intentions early on. After finishing in seventh in the 2009-10 season, they improved drastically to make the promotion play-offs the following season under the guidance of former Juventus and Fiorentina centre-half Stefano Pioli, only to lose out in the semi-finals to Torino over two legs.
The club achieved a similar feat in the 2011-12 season when they finished third in the league and lost in the play-off semi-final, this time to eventual promotion winners Sampdoria. The side were aspiring and determined, but couldn’t find the right mind at the head of the team to take them to the promised land of the Serie A. The club’s owner, Giorgio Squinzi, an avid AC Milan supporter and Chief Executive Officer of Mapei Industries, made a move and appointed ex-Roma and Italy veteran Eusebio Di Francesco.
Di Francesco is often compared to current Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp for his enthusiasm towards the game and exuberant dressing style. Personifying the Italian aura, he turns up for matches in a finely tailored suit with burnished hipster glasses. Named after the legendary Portuguese footballer Eusébio, Di Francesco’s skill and undisputed talent as a manager reflects his name.
Honed by the great Zdenek Zeman, the Italian inherits some of his mentor’s qualities, such as the effective use of the Dutch-inspired 4-3-3 formation. A pragmatist, optimist and a voracious disciplinarian, Di Francesco made Squinzi certain that he was the right man to take the club forward.
Di Francesco bought a blistering style of football to the city in the 2012-13 campaign. With players like the explosive Domenico Berardi, Simone Missiroli and the evergreen Francesco Magnanelli amongst their ranks, the fearless green and blacks dominated the second division and were on top of the table for most of the season in the hope of gaining automatic promotion. And while Sassuolo were making waves on the pitch in the Serie B, Di Francesco was being talked up in the biggest boardrooms in Italy, with AC Milan and Fiorentina reportedly interested.
On the final day of the season against Livorno, with a win required to seal a historic promotion, Simone Missiroli scored in the sixth minute of stoppage time to send the side to the Serie A. The goal prompted jubilant celebrations from the staff and fans alike. What seemed nearly impossible just a couple of years ago, had just been achieved in the most dramatic fashion.
The very next day, almost every Sassuolo native was present at the infamous Garibaldi Square to celebrate their heroes. The mayor of Modena, Claudio Pistoni, proudly declared Sassuolo as a “Serie A city”, sending the cheering crowd into indulgence.
With the club now a part of the Serie A manifest, bigger things were set to happen for them. In December 2013, the club acquired full rights to the nearby Mapei Stadium in Reggio Emilia after owner Giorgio Squinzi bought it at an auction that winter. The move made them only the third side, after Juventus and Udinese, to have complete control of their own arena.
The purchase was a statement of intent and an indication of the owner’s mission. The owner also showed his fearlessness in spending, by signing a reported €22 million a season shirt sponsorship deal with Mapei.
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Read | The Football Italia Years
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Visiting the most historic clubs and grounds in the region became a regularity, albeit the results bought the antithesis. In Sassuolo’s first season, the side lost to the traditional powerhouses of Italian football; Lazio, Roma, Juventus and Inter Milan all overcame the Sassuolo challenge, with the latter winning 7-0 at the Modena side’s home. However, there was one memorable win over AC Milan in a game that finished 4-3, with the ever-present Domenico Berardi scoring all four Sassuolo goals. The result was a bittersweet pill to swallow for the owner, who supported the red side of Milan.
With inconsistent form serenading their campaign, Sassuolo were in a deep flirtation with the relegation zones. The AC Milan pluck was a morale booster, but not one to keep them going for the entire campaign. Consecutive losses to Torino and Livorno followed and Di Francesco was given the boot, with relegation looming.
Giorgio Squinzi phoned up his friends at AC Milan hoping to lure a certain ex-forward as their head coach, a man who went by the name of Filippo Inzaghi. Their advances were rejected, and Sassuolo had to go for Alberto Malesani – a man best known for his UEFA Cup triumph with a Parma in 1999, and famously, a rant while manager of Greek side Panathinaikos where he launched a certain four-letter imprecation over 20 times.
His stint didn’t last long – five games in fact, winning none. He was out of the door, and in came Eusebio Di Francesco once again, proclaiming that he never unpacked his bags. Four points away from the safety zone upon his arrival, he guided them to an impressive 17 points in the final 12 games, wrapping up survival with a game to spare. The Sassuolo story in the top division would carry on for one more season, at least.
Having ended the previous campaign in scintillating form, Sassuolo entered the 2014-15 season with great optimism. They now had a side that were together and blooming with talent and aspiration, with likes of Paolo Cannavaro, brother of the legendary Fabio, and Francesco Acerbi, who rose to become one of Italy’s most improved defenders after several years of struggling with testicular cancer, amongst the ranks.
In midfield, Francesco Magnanelli, the indubitable captain and a legendary figure who has been with the club since they were in the fourth division, was still a star attraction. In front of him was the aforementioned Domenico Berardi and Simone Zaza, who were creating a formidable partnership in attack.
The side, largely dominated by an Italian contingent, which is a rarity in the country, were ready to take on the biggest and the best in Serie A. With a smart boardroom and an equally gifted manager, Sassuolo laid the foundations for their future with a decent 2014-15 campaign.
Despite a poor start to the season, which included another humiliating 7-0 thumping at the hands of Inter, Sassuolo finished the season in 12th, five places above their finish the previous year. They claimed two wins over AC Milan as well as one over Inter Milan in the reverse fixture, much to the delight of the owner. The side could easily have finished in the top half of the table had it not been for late goals against them in several games; Roma, Genoa and Palermo all got the better of the rigid Sassuolo defence in the final minutes of the game to salvage a point. Nevertheless, there were positives to be taken from that season.
Sassuolo furthered their Italian heritage by the signing of Matteo Politano from Pescara. The then 22-year-old was a member of the Roma youth system, but failed to cut it at the club. The midfielder impressed with Pescara and caught the eye of the Sassuolo staff. He was joined in midfield by Ghanaian Alfred Duncan, a former member of the Inter Milan youth setup. The ex-Sampdoria player was an immense addition to the side and would be crucial to the club over the coming year. Croatian Šime Vrsaljko was improving and was tipped for great things by local as well as Croatian media, who saw the full-back as the long-term successor to the distinguished Darijo Srna.
Unlike previous seasons, Sassuolo made a good start to the 2015-16 campaign, going unbeaten for the first six games, including a well-drilled performance to claim a Napoli scalp at home on the opening day. Empoli were the first to beat Sassuolo but that didn’t put them down as they went on to win against Lazio and, famously, Juventus in the coming weeks.
Their home was their fortress and they were compact as well as smart with and without the ball. Bloated with confidence, they seemed unbeatable and unbreakable at through the course of the season and claimed further morale-boosting victories over Sampdoria, AC Milan and Torino. Remarkably, they banished the sour memories of conceding seven against Inter Milan and did the double over them.
The season saw them finish in a historic sixth place, ahead of traditional powerhouses AC Milan and Lazio and just three points behind Fiorentina and an automatic Europa League birth. They were aided by the Milan side’s defeat to Juventus in the Coppa Italia final to claim a Europa League qualifying spot. What seemed impossible less than 10 years ago had just been achieved. Sassuolo would welcome European football to Modena.
The sales of Šime Vrsaljko and Nicola Sansone to Spanish giants Atlético Madrid and Villareal for lucrative fees over the summer was evidence that the Sassuolo plan was working and saw them pocket sizable profits. They overcame Switzerland’s FC Luzern and Serbia’s Red Star Belgrade in the Europa League qualifying rounds, both by an aggregate score of 4-1, to qualify for the group stage and enhance the club’s image. And despite a relatively slow start to the Serie A season, the management remains calm.
Right now, Sassuolo are being talked up as Italy’s reply to Leicester City. With a dramatic rise which had its fair share of bumps and potholes, the club is stable on and off the pitch. Unbreakable desire, unmatched ambition and the right blend of experience and youth have made Sassuolo the talk of the country. Should they continue in this vein, they could be Italy’s next best export to football and Europe’s next big thing.
By Karan Tejwani. Follow @karan_tejwani26