ON 15 APRIL 2017, a packed Stadio Pierluigi Penzo celebrated an occasion now etched forever in Venice’s sparkling history. So rarely has this 7,500-capacity stadium been so full in recent years, but on that day, the arriving fans were in expectation of something special. Following the final whistle of the game between Venezia and Fano, there was an eruption heard around Italy, an eruption of joy, after Venezia had secured promotion from the Italian Lega Pro to Serie B.
Italy’s most historic cities – Milan, Naples, Turin and Rome – have famous football teams to celebrate, but Venice have had one lingering in the bottom tiers of the Italian league system for some time now. The islands, known mainly for their history and glamour, have rarely paid much attention to its football, having last won a major trophy in 1941 – the Coppa Italia. Ever since then, they’ve spent decades in obscurity and have never won a major trophy, or even finished in the top half of Serie A.
The club last won promotion in 1998 following a merger with another local club, AC Mestre, much to the joy of the Venetians, but were relegated in 2002 following inconsistent years in which they were yo-yoing between divisions once again. The relegation in 2002 changed the club forever, and it’s what brings us to their impressive feat of the current era.
Venezia’s then-president, Maurizio Zamparini, purchased Palermo in 2002 and took the club’s best players with him. A depleted side with an uncertain future, they did well to survive in Serie B for two years, before eventually going under and later filing for bankruptcy in 2005. Rebranded that year, they would start again in the fifth tier, with worries still aplenty. It wasn’t until 2011 that Venezia looked to have a clear path for the future when Russian businessman Jurij Korablin took over the club, with the ambition of taking the fallen side back to the top of the Italian football tree.
Three years after taking over, he was given plenty of support by the locals following back to back promotions and announced his plans to build a new stadium, which is one of the hardest objectives in Italy, not least Venice, much to the delight of the public. The Stadio Pierluigi Penzo, commonly known as the Penzo, was built in 1913 and is the second oldest stadium in Italy. Destroyed several times by the islands’ dubious weather conditions – especially a tornado that struck in 1971 – and negligent repair works, the club needed a new venue; the ground that once held nearly 30,000 people can now only hold around 7,500.
The stadium is unique and the best way to arrive there is by boat, as the first team does on several occasions. It currently holds no way of expansion other than a vague method of increasing the number of terraces on each stand. Despite this, it is still a wonderful venue to host a game of football, and although it is unlike Venice’s other landmarks which epitomise grandeur, it holds a place in the fans’ hearts.
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Korablin’s plans were put on hold following the arrest of Giorgio Orsoni, Venice’s mayor, who was embroiled in a corruption scandal that forced him to resign. By 2004, the club was unsettled again, and Korablin put Venezia up for sale. Unable to find a buyer who could clear Venezia’s large bills, the club filed for bankruptcy once again – their third in 10 years.
For a man who has previously legally represented the likes of Maroon 5, Jay-Z and former New York Yankees superstar Alex Rodriguez, famous celebrity lawyer Joe Tacopina took on his toughest case in bringing broken Venezia back to the top. Tacopina, who is based in New York, inherited his love for the game from his parents, who were Italian immigrants.
His aim of taking the club back to the top had already been completed once and his experience in Italian football was well renowned, which proved to be good reading for Venezia’s supporters. He bought the club only 20 days after leaving Bologna, after taking the club northerners to Serie A. Ideally, he would still be there had it not been for a rift with Canadian investor Joey Saputo, and he was off just 11 months after taking up the project, leaving with his reputation intact having quadrupled the club’s valuation in that period. Prior to that, he was on the board of directors at Roma, which became the first foreign-owned club in Serie A in 2011.
Tacopina envisioned Venezia becoming a global brand; another grand international representation of calcio on the foreign scene. This was by far his most comprehensive – some would say delicate – project, and so far in the two years that he has been at the club, he has done a commendable job.
One of his major coups at the club was that of Sporting Director Giorgio Perinetti, a well-travelled veteran with previous experience at the top of the pile with the likes or Roma, Juventus and a Diego Maradona-inspired Napoli. His work is famous all over the country, and it’s currently paying its dividends for the national team and Torino as he was the man who discovered and signed hitman Andrea Belotti for Palermo.
Perinetti didn’t have much experience in the lower leagues after leading teams at the top, so his role as sporting director would have been much harder than he thought. It was difficult to find players at that level, to kickstart their careers in the fourth division of Italian football, but this was where his experience and knowledge, earned over a career that spanned 43 years., came to the fore His first major deal came with the appointment of manager Paolo Favaretto, who, unlike Perinetti, was experienced in managing at this level.
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The club post-bankruptcy was short of a talent pool, but within weeks of Tacopina’s takeover and Perinetti’s appointment, they had 21 players on their books. Although many of the players they signed weren’t popular names in the lower leagues – many even unknown to Perinetti – a year later, they were celebrating promotion to Serie C.
At the heart of their success was captain Evans Soligo, a man born on the Venetian islands and the only player in the squad to have been at the club when they were playing in Serie A. He never made an appearance in the Italian top-flight for them due to a series of loan spells away, and he left the Venetians along with Maurizio Zamparini for Palermo, but at the age of 36, after 12 years away from them including stints at the likes of Salernitana and Vincenza amongst others, he was back to lead them into a new era. A rock-hard midfielder, he has spent all his career in the second and third tiers; there was no better man to take the club back to the top.
In the summer of 2016, as the club prepared for the Lega Pro season, they made the biggest appointment in the Tacopina regime. The American wanted to make Venice famous for its football team, along with its culture, and the right man to help them do that suddenly became available – former AC Milan and Juventus icon, Filippo Inzaghi.
Inzaghi’s appointment was a shock to most. A former Italian international with 70 European goals, two Champions League titles, a World Cup success and numerous other titles, Tacopina’s ambition to make Venezia a global brand had found the right manager, and according to him, it was Inzaghi himself who insinuated his ambition of being part of the Venezia revolution, rather than the other way round.
It was, however, a risky move. Inzaghi’s only previous managerial experience was an underwhelming stint at AC Milan, where they finished 10th in Serie A.
The appointment of Inzaghi was also met with several new signings intended to help Venezia gain back to back promotions. Tacopina opened his chequebook to bring in experienced names such as Italian forward Nicola Ferrari, a 33-year-old with a proven record of scoring goals with lower leagues side, who would be partnered up top with Alexandre Geijo, a 34-year-old Spaniard who has played at the highest level with the likes of Udinese, Watford and Granada.
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Other signings included former Italy youth international Simone Bentivoglio, a midfielder who started his career at Juventus and played 13 times for the Italian under-20 national side, and Vittorio Fabris, another midfielder with success in the lower leagues. With the squad now stacked with some of the finest players you could find at this level, the club was ready to take on their biggest challenge in a decade.
The Inzaghi era started off well – as it needed to – in the complexity of the Lega Pro. If you are unfamiliar with how the league works, there are 60 teams in this division split across three groups of 20 each, with the highest finisher in each group gaining one of three automatic spots in Serie B. If a team finishes below first, they play a long and convoluted playoff from which only one team gains promotion.
Over the course of the past two years, in addition to his ground-breaking recruits, Tacopina has done a resounding job in maintaining Venezia’s brand in adherence to the local community and instilling a love for calcio amongst the locals again. He would get hotels around Venice to sell tickets to residents and tourists for cut prices, and considering Venice averages 20 million tourists a year, this was a smart move.
Within six weeks of taking over, Venezia had sold more than a thousand club shirts – a huge increase on the handful they sold in the year before he took over. His care of the club has attracted larger attendances at games with average figures being at their highest since they last played in Serie A.
All this continues to grow, just as his and the fans’ dreams of visiting a stadium that they themselves own. Only Juventus, Udinese and Sassuolo own their grounds, but within the next five years, Tacopina hopes to host Serie A games at a venue that can hold up to 25,000 supporters as they look to relive the pre-World War II glory days.
On the pitch, Inzaghi’s aggression and emotion on the touchline inspired the side as they looked hard to defeat. They’re most impressive run was a 10-game spell, spread over three months, where they won nine and drew just once, which gave them an edge over their rivals at the top, including another fallen giant in Parma.
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Venezia ended the season with 80 points, having won 23 of their 38 games, losing just four and drawing 11 as they were 10 points clear of Parma at the top of the league, earning promotion as champions of their group. The promotion they sealed against Fano also turned out to be the perfect gift for birthday boy Joe Tacopina, whose time and effort into the club deserved such reward.
They also won another trophy this season – highlighting Inzaghi’s improvement and calibre in management – in the Copa Italia Lega Pro, a knockout competition for the 60 Lega Pro sides. In unconvincing fashion, they beat their promotion rivals Reggiana and Padova on the way before topping Matera in a two-legged final, winning the first leg at home 3-1 and losing the second leg three days later 1-0 to seal a memorable league and cup double.
There’s only one direction that Venezia are going in at the moment: upwards. Everyone in Venice now recognises the owner, with his name continuously chanted whenever he’s spotted on the island. His unmatched desire, along with Inzaghi and Perinetti’s cunning plans, makes anything possible for the club, and he is looking to the future as much as he is trying to make good of the present.
The club’s senior side is visiting the United States to play friendlies this summer, while at the same time he is looking to the American market to pick up some bright young players, with trials in his native New York being heavily promoted.
Tacopina’s other major off-field success has seen a rise in Venezia’s social media popularity. Few Italian clubs at that level consistently maintain their accounts, but Venezia are doing it well on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter – the latter of which is maintained in Italian as well as English.
Nothing looks impossible for the club; in just two years, they have risen from the dead and are just a division blow the elite. A task which looked impossible half a decade ago is in touching distance of becoming a reality. It will be very difficult to find an owner as passionate and committed as Joe Tacopina anywhere in the world
By Karan Tejwani @karan_tejwani26