It was in the second leg of the playoff tie between Benevento and Carpi that George Pușcaș’ clinical goal in the 33rd minute sealed promotion for the Beneventani. The Stadio Ciro Vigorito was sent into a frenzy as the fans realised that the impossible had just occurred. 

Football has a habit of delivering incredible underdog stories, like when Leicester City won the Premier League last year or when RB Leipzig finished second in the Bundesliga and secured a Champions League place in their first ever top-flight season. But we are here to talk about another fairytale, the extraordinary rise of Benevento Calcio.

The city of Benevento has a population of just over 60,000 people, it lies within the region of Campania, and is only – rather aptly – 90 minutes from Naples. The club was founded in 1929 and are nicknamed the Stregoni – Witches – having played in their vibrant red and yellow colours for their entire existence. The history behind their nickname comes from Benevento being termed the ‘City of Witches’, going back a long thousand years to when the Lombards were in control of the area and practising pagan rituals. In some respects, ancient rituals strike a chord with Benevento’s recent rise to the top tier of Italian football.

This is a club that has spent virtually their entire history playing in Italy’s third division. From 1929 they have played in Serie C2 and Serie C1, the latter being renamed the Lega Pro. For any club, it is extremely difficult to gain promotion from Lega Pro as there are a total of 60 teams categorised into three groups based in the north-east, north-west and south.

The Beneventani endured tough times in the early stages of the 21st century after their predecessors, Sporting Benevento, declared bankruptcy. In 2005, it was two businessmen from the local area that facilitated the birth of the new Benevento Calcio. At the time, it would have been ludicrous to imagine that the newly-formed amateur club would go on to play in Serie A just 12 years down the road, but here we are, the wild dream a reality.

The two businessmen, brothers Ciro and Oreste Vigorito, refounded the club and helped to finance the development of the Stregoni in all areas, both on and off the pitch.

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After a few years of languishing in the Lega Pro, in 2010 Benevento suffered a massive blow when it was announced that Ciro Vigorito had passed away. Ciro was part-owner with his brother, chief executive, and head of the team’s youth academy, and the city fittingly paid tribute to one of its loyal owners by successfully campaigning to rename the Stadio Santa Colomba to Stadio Ciro Vigorito. The fans and players immediately felt the connection and presence of Ciro whenever at their 12,800-seater stadium.

The 2015/16 campaign proved to be difficult in early stages as Oreste stepped down from his presidency, although he continued to support the club financially in their Lega Pro title race, an act that would prove as important as any in their ultimate quest for Serie A football.

It was the intelligent tactics of manager Gaetano Autera – in his first job – that guided the club to Serie B promotion. Benevento officially won the Girone C group, with a mammoth 70 points, when they defeated Lecce 3-0 at home in front of 20,000 fans – a third of the city. It was at this point that the team and its players knew they were making a name for themselves in Italian football.

The mentality of being a semi-professional club quickly switched, and it’s the speed at which they moved to becoming professional that helped them succeed in the second tier. Being promoted to Italy’s Serie B wasn’t going to be straightforward, but somehow this passionate club defied the odds once again, in a league where third tier promotees often struggle.

The 2016-17 off-season began is crushing fashion for the Beneventani as their hero-worshipped manager, Gaetano Autera, parted with the club after encountering differences with the reinstated Oreste Vigorito regarding the direction of the southerners. From there, Marco Baroni was appointed as the new manager, openly willing to meet the owner’s ambitions of promotion.

No club had ever been promoted to Serie A at their first attempt, but if any team could create this unique piece of history, surely it had to be the Campanians spreading joy around the country and playing football with smiles etched across their faces.

The Giallorossi started their debut Serie B season comfortably by overcoming newly-promoted and equally ambitious SPAL 2-0 in their opener. Claiming four wins from the first seven rounds was a dream start for the team, which showed their attacking approach was working in the division. Italy’s Lega Pro and the Serie B are worlds apart in terms of competitiveness and class, however this didn’t prevent Benevento from playing consistently every week and scraping significant wins with a dogged determination that won them many neutral admirers across the peninsula.

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The Campania side managed to clinch a playoff spot by finishing the regular season in fifth place. The Stregoni began the convoluted playoff system with an elimination match against Spezia and managed to beat them 2-1. They then took on a confident Perugia side, who they beat 2-1 on aggregate, before clinching promotion against an intent Carpi. In the end, the determination of the Benevento players was too strong for a Carpi outfit that knows what promotion to Serie A feels like.

Baroni commended his team’s efforts throughout the season, especially in the difficult playoffs, and suggested that the Campania outfit would be looking towards mid-table in Serie A next season. Such wild dreams perhaps won’t be written off as quickly now that Benevento have completed one of calcio’s most unlikely rises.

Oreste Vigorito, who returned to the club in the memory of his brother and with the aim of fulfilling his ambitions, was equally forward in his evaluation: “I promised promotion and I said that we would try forever to achieve it,” he told Italian news agency Ansa. “We chose a good coach and we were good at not getting carried away when we started playing the best football in Serie B.”

Baroni started his excellent work ahead of 2016-17 in the off-season by recruiting players who would become key figures in the club’s historic campaign, signing Sassuolo midfielder Raman Chibsah and Inter striker George Pușcaș on loan deals to bolster the squad’s chances of finishing as high up in the league as possible. They represented Serie A quality in a squad that still boasted part-timers.

Chibsah was decisive for Benevento by playing in the deep midfield role and chipped in with some crucial goals. The 24-year-old Ghanaian’s dribbling was one of his key strengths in pushing the team forward during their counter-attacks. The other loanee, George Pușcaș, became the hero of many Benevento fans – who have since clamoured to sign him on a permanent basis – after scoring in the second leg of the playoff final against Carpi. The Romanian under-21 international proved why he is on the books of the Milanese giants, who still rate him highly.

Another notable performer, who bagged 21 crucial goals, was Fabio Ceravolo, who bounced around from club to club until he found his best form at Ternana between 2013 and the start of last term. Despite never being a prolific goalscorer, the undeniably talented striker showed flair and finishing ability previously unseen on a consistent basis that transformed Benevento’s attack and made them one of the hardest teams to play against when they countered.

Amato Ciciretti, formerly at Roma and the jewel in the club’s armoury, was perhaps their most influential midfielder over the course of the season, his technique and speed of play impressing many in the division. At just 23, the Italian midfielder has already received interest from Serie A giants Napoli after he registered eight assists and six goals for the team. His strong work ethic and hunger made Benevento a dangerous team on the counter, especially when pushing the ball down the flanks. Benevento will have to ensure they retain their Roman wonderkid if they are to successfully compete in one of the world’s most demanding leagues.

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With their promotion assured, Benevento become just the fourth club from Campania to feature in Serie A, after Napoli, Salernitana and Avellino, and with their extraordinary rise to the top tier, a Campania derby – always fierce, skilled and passionate – makes a return once again.

The last Campania derby in the top division was back in the 1987/88 season – at a time when many of today’s fans weren’t even born – when Napoli played out gruelling ties against local rivals Avellino. This will be the first Campanian derby featuring Napoli and Benevento in Serie A, and you can be sure that it won’t disappoint. Napoli’s president, Aurelio De Laurentiis, was one of the first people to congratulate Benevento on their successful promotion, also mentioning how excited he is to see a Campania derby and welcoming their rivals to the San Paolo.

Napoli has been the most successful club in the south, claimed two famous scudetti, however, other clubs surrounding the city of Naples are expressing their desire to be playing on the biggest stage of Italian football and to create more competition around the Campania region, bolstering the game’s success in the traditionally under-represented south.

Despite many claiming that Naples and Benevento share a number of similarities, the reality is that these only extend as far as the division that their football teams will play in, with the lifestyles and dialects between the two cities differing markedly. It all makes for what will surely be a fascinating derby next season, on and off the pitch, with the hope that violence doesn’t become the lasting image of a game that many in the region have waited almost 30 years to see.

With their long-term ambition to challenge Napoli and qualify for Europe, Benevento have been making all the right sounds ahead of their debut campaign.

This promotion will go down in calcio folklore for many years to come. Who would have thought that a small club from Campania, semi-professional third tier regulars, would have been promoted to Serie A just 12 years after their reformation? Despite his bravado, even Oreste Vigorito, considered the great saviour of the club alongside his brother, surely couldn’t have pictured this. But here they are, ready to rub shoulders with the good and the great of Serie A.

With locals now excited to see some of calcio’s greatest talent on their doorstep, in a town of just 60,000, don’t be surprised if their passion and never-say-die attitude provides us with another season of shocks and success in the beautiful, historic town of Benevento 

By Anthony Barbagallo    @AnthonyB1996