A QUICK GOOGLE SEARCH for ‘art and football’ conjures the proverbial mixed bag of results. Online stores pedalling various prints and t-shirts, YouTube clips featuring an array of Brazilian World Cup dream teams, Alex Leonard’s These Football Times essay on the subject, and a spring 2014 museum exhibition from Los Angeles, are all listed.
Curiously, perhaps, the search renders no mention of Total Football, no selection of iconic football shirts, and no highlights reel featuring the flawless flow of David Ginola, Andrea Pirlo, or Matt Le Tissier in their prime. Inexplicably, not an Eric Cantona quote in sight.
Art and it’s relationship to football is clearly open to interpretation. Is football a form of artistic expression? Or is football purely an anatomical and psychological exertion? Does it perhaps encompass elements of art? If so, does art in football occur naturally or by design? In Milan, a city whose very foundations seemingly lay in art, design, and football, A.S. Velasca are living and breathing a unique take on the answers.
The phrase ‘Sunday best’ has never been apter than in Milan. This particular Sunday hovers between late autumn and early winter. Crisp blue skies are the backdrop. Alluringly well-dressed men and women punctuate the scene. Male, female, young and old, they amble between their mid-morning cappuccino and lavish brunch appointments. A slow-motion scurry of refinement. For one of the world’s most famous footballing cities, there’s not an AC Milan or Internazionale shirt in sight.
Beneath the hues of mobile elegance, the recently opened M5 metro line makes a stop. Its futuristic carriages are awash with animated chatter and splashed with blue and black. A rare Sunday afternoon kick-off pits one half of the city’s fallen giants, Internazionale, against Cagliari. The team are underwhelming, the stadium will be far from sold out, and club captain Mauro Icardi is in the midst of an ugly public spat with the ultras. The mood is best described as somewhere between discontented pride and confused disdain.
Less than a kilometre away from the Giuseppe Meazza, players and officials of A.S. Velasca begin to arrive for their match against Santa Cecilia. Much like amateur football clubs the world over, pleasure is the purpose, and one suspects a couple of players may be masking hangovers. The last player to arrive suffers the quintessentially Italian forfeit of buying the squad a round of pre-match espresso. The mood is jovial.
Formed in May 2015, A.S. Velasca play their home matches at the ground of US Triestina, and compete in the lowest tier of Italian football. Co-founder and vice-president, Loris Mandelli, tells me historically it has been a church league: “There are still many church teams in the league, like today’s opposition, Santa Cecilia, but not all. The CSI now stands for Centro Sportivo Italiano, not church,” Mandelli confirms.
Starting at the very bottom was deeply purposeful. “Where our journey takes us, we do not know,” says Mandelli, “but what we take and what we do, we’ll do it ourselves, and slowly.”
Relegation is not possible, which is fortunate as they finished their inaugural 2015-16 season 11th in a 12 team division. This season’s first two fixtures signal some improvement by means of two goalless draws. Despite humble beginnings, A.S. Velasca have achieved much in terms of notoriety.
‘Part football club, part work of art’ is the club’s slogan, which only hints at explaining the swaths of publicity, and a steadily growing fan-base. Founded by four Milanese friends, and led by President Wolfgang Natlacen, a French visual artist based in both Milan and Paris, A.S. Velasca is a literal and physical coexistence of art and football.
Other than a particularly stylish kit, action on and around the pitch offers few clues to A.S. Velasca’s significance. The playing squad is made up of 25 humble mere mortals, roughly two-thirds of whom are students and local to the San Siro area of Milan. Current form dictates they’re decidedly average. Off the pitch, however, the club’s existence is anything but.
For starters, the shirt sponsor isn’t the central midfielders plumbing company, or the neighbourhood cafe. Anonymous yet world-renowned French artist ‘Zevs’ (pronounced zeus, and real name Aguirre Schwarz) is this year’s main benefactor. By providing a platform for a different artist each season, the club becomes a boundless, versatile art gallery and exhibition. The 2015-16 debut season featured Régis Sénèque. His cinder block creation decorated the team shirts and stood for the club’s philosophy of a ‘part of a whole’.
The current campaign sees Zevs pit Nike against Adidas in the guise of his famous liquidation print form. The hotly topical artwork adorns Velasca’s home and away shirts, and waves a dismissive gesture at AC Milan and Inter (sponsored by Adidas and Nike, respectively). As the season’s resident artist and sponsor, Zevs also contributes to the design and production of season tickets, monthly publications, and the clubs impressive website.
Velasca’s online presence is available in six languages and links to an impressive back catalogue of coverage in, amongst others, La Gazzetta Dello Sport, The Football Pink and a FIFA TV documentary.
Synonymous with style, and ever enthused by something groundbreaking, Hummel, the Danish sportswear company, were also enticed on board. Following an ambitious yet unique pitch by President Natlacen, Velasca count themselves in illustrious and eclectic company. Hummel also sponsor the likes of Denmark, Afghanistan, Lithuania, Copenhagen-based Christiana Sports Club, Dutch club Go Ahead Eagles, the Southern California Sports Club, and South Korea’s Jeonbuk Hyundai.
“The two entities (A.S. Velasca and Hummel) can by no means be described as ‘wallflowers’,” explains Anna Skorider, Hummel’s export and marketing manager, “but are distinguished by their uniqueness and their courage to be different in a rather commercial industry.” Amen.
Objects around the football team have also received careful and artistic attention. Milanese artist and acclaimed footballer, Patrizia Novello, spent weeks making the substitution numbers board, il numeratore. Carefully considered, beautifully crafted and entirely pragmatic, it is a piece of Milanese art in itself. Simplistic design and quality materials render an attractive visual. Form and function mean even a Sunday league football coach can use it.
Prior to each match, the referee is invited to begin proceedings using a specially designed coin. A serpent of club colours adorns a small ceramic coin. Heads and tails become reds or whites. Even the assistant referee’s flags have been given a stylish and unique makeover.
In addition, Francesco Fioretto has drafted an entirely original font for the club. Based upon the lines, curves and morphology of Milan’s Torre Velasca, after which the club is named, the font is used for names and numbers on the shirts, and in the club’s monthly fanzine, Il Bolletino. It can be downloaded free of charge.
Beginning to wonder how the other teams in the division react to such attention and detail, I put the question to Loris: “Sometimes a bit jealous, yes. Maybe they see the nice kit and tracksuits, or they see a visiting journalist or photographer or something, and they play a bit stronger. But it’s never a big problem I think”.
In their quest to marry art and football, Velasca are, in their own words, ‘an oversized micro football club’. Operating at many different levels, they are an embodiment of the notion that a collective of seemingly insignificant pieces can combine to become noteworthy.
Best described by the German word Gesamtkunstwerk, the club is essentially a collection of extraneous objects and intentions. Individually, these things and thoughts don’t amount to much. However, when carefully layered upon each other, and thoughtfully branded together, their influence runs deep. The collective sum is worth far more than simply adding the individual values together.
If art and design are synonymous with Milano, so too is Velasca’s dismissive stance to completely adhering to tradition. Daring to go against the grain takes bravery, especially in Italy.
In mirroring Milan’s ability to carefully balance the scales between honouring certain traditions, and opposing others as an acceptable loss for the sake of progression, A.S. Velasca are a true representation of 21st century Milan. This is, arguably, something that the city’s established clubs cannot boast.
For all Milan’s pragmatic industry, its constantly evolving worlds of fashion, tourism, finance, and technology, AC Milan and Inter find themselves lodged in an increasingly insignificant past. As rich, powerful,and successful as Silvio Berlusconi and Massimo Moratti once built their clubs to be, theirs is a bygone era. Having only recently relinquished control of AC Milan and Inter respectively, they now represent how Italian institutions used to be managed.
It’s a notion A.S. Velasca are motivated by and sense an opportunity to capitalise upon. “It’s a small aim and a hope to attract more people from Milan, yes. Perhaps some fans of Milan and Inter are bored, they can come here and have fun and join us,” states Mandelli.
Turning the tables on football club ownership and management is something Velasca pride themselves upon. Riches of opportunity, rather than financial gain, are assimilated through opening the borders, doors and heads – metaphorically – of the club.
Comparisons with Milan or Inter, though, come strictly from outside the club. In conversation with players, co-founders and directors, it becomes apparent that originality is everything for Velasca. Wholesome ideals are kept and a sense of groundedness is the foundation. Not dismissing anyone else’s failure and refusing to copy another’s success are cornerstones.
It is no coincidence to note the movement ‘against modern football’ originated in Italy. ‘Non al calcio moderne’, was a direct and stubborn response to rising ticket prices, alien kick-off times, and the growing distance between clubs and supporters. For A.S. Velasca, the stance against modern football becomes another aspect interpreted and extended. They’re undoubtedly against modern football, yet more importantly, they’re all for foraging their own definition of what a modern football club should look and feel like.
Back to the match and the generous low sun has given way to a crisp early evening. At the time the final whistle blows, Velasca’s tifosi are five beers deep and in full voice. Undeterred by the 1-0 reverse, singing, shouting and laughter continue to decorate the air. Purposefully, the home players meander towards the 40 or so spectators in the ground’s only stand. Applause, gratitude and respect is mutual.
Arenas of professional football, and the vast chasms between supporters and players which they aide, have almost rendered this exchange pointless. Other than those rare managers and players who nurture a true cult following, applauding the fans can often appear a forced or redundant act. From row z of the second tier, it’s sometimes hard to tell if you’re applauding actual living beings or a pixelated image.
Despite Velasca’s modest crowd consisting primarily of players’ family and friends, and despite the fact many will share a post-match birra or ride home, the exchange of respect felt symbolic. It seems that every element within the Gesamtkunstwerk of Velasca is purposefully shared and appreciated.
So, what for the future of A.S. Velasca? A modest stadium of their own designed by a team of conceptual artists and architects? Persuading the artistry of, say, Andrea Pirlo to end his career in Milan? Matching Inter or AC Milan for social media followers? A scudetto by 2050? The natural assumption is that potential for growth is as boundless as the definition of art itself.
Impressively, though somewhat unsurprisingly, Mandelli’s response is both humble and grounded. “We only want to continue our journey,” he states. “If it’s possible that we can inspire other clubs to do something similar, that’s also great. Nothing else.”
It is often said that beauty, undeniably synonymous with art and design, lay in the eyes of the beholder. If so, then art can be anything anywhere. In a footballing context, art and beauty may take the form of anything from a low-socked playmaker slipping through a sumptuous assist to a gorgeously simplistic and symmetric club crest. It may be poetic yet fervent expletive scorn from the stands or the taught stitching of a goal net.
For all the above, and more, capacity for appreciation is limitless once framed by the ideals and philosophy of A.S. Velasca. Forza, Velasca: enjoy your journey.
By Glenn Billingham. Follow @glennbills