People like underdog stories. Football fans love them. It is part of that indescribable mixture of meanings and feelings that make football what it is. This is why two years ago the entire planet was following the final fixtures of the Premier League with bated breath, pushing Leicester to the title, and why so few felt empathy for Portugal losing the final of Euro 2004 at home against Greece.
The new season in Italy – a reservoir for football reminiscence aficionados – holds great potential for underdog stories, from the Serie A debut of small provincial side Benevento to the enduring Chievo Verona, and the dramatic start of Serie B pitting 4-3-3 guru Zdeněk Zeman against the club who made him famous in the 1990s, Foggia.
However, in the midst of all this, SPAL’s story is particularly remarkable. The club’s rise to Serie A, half a century after its last appearance, is not just a story of tactics and performance. It’s a story of passion, resilience and carries in it some big dose of nostalgia.
“Success has many fathers.” Many people working in big corporations have heard this sentence from some deceived employee in a bitter, sarcastic fashion. But in the case of SPAL, this is absolutely true. If this were a movie, the end credits would showcase the likes of coach Leonardo Semplici, sporting director Davide Vagnati, president Walter Mattioli, patrons Francesco and Simone Colombarini, and many more.
The promotion of SPAL to Serie A awarded Mattioli and the Colombarinis with a unique achievement: they are the first ever president and chairman in Italian football to bring a club from the lowest level of amateur football in Italy to Serie A – the dream of any virtual football manager. While such a feat is generally the result of a long-term relationship, surprisingly, SPAL and the Colombarinis’ paths didn’t cross until 2013.
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To understand how this was possible, we need to go back to 1907, when Pietro Acerbi, a Salesian priest, founded an art circle in Ferrara, a beautiful small town lying on the shores of the Po river in northern Italy. A spinoff of the then-called Ars et Labor circle, in 1913 SPAL became an independent sporting club featuring athletics, cycling and, of course, football, and was named Società Polisportiva Ars et Labor.
It was only after a few troubled decades that the golden age of SPAL started. At a time when Italy was entering a period of extraordinary economic boom, the team rose to Serie A in 1951, the result of winning Serie B ahead of another small underdog, Legnano. SPAL’s fans enjoyed 15 glorious seasons until 1968, when the team was relegated for a second and definitive time.
During those years the club had earned respect, in part due to some famous players treading the boards such as Fabio Capello, Armando Picchi, Edy Reja and Albertino Bigon. While their best ever season came in 1959/60, when the team finished fifth in Serie A, the most noteworthy memory of SPAL in Italian football has a specific date: 31 May 1962.
On this day, the club hosted Juventus in the semi-final of one the most dramatic editions of the Coppa Italia. Chanceless for many, SPAL crushed the most successful ever Italian side with a stunning 4-1 victory in a match they completely dominated. Sadly, the Spallini did not follow up on that magnificent afternoon and lost the final to Napoli in a tense game that saw a Serie B team lift the Coppa Italia for the second time in calcio history.
During those years a young Francesco Colombarini was selling ice cream cones for a living with his dad. After many years, his family entered a new business, setting up a company to produce glass reinforced polyester resin laminates. It was 1968, a critical year for this story.
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At a time when the world was witnessing escalations of social conflicts which shaped generations to come, a young man, Walter Mattioli, was playing football with friends for a small team based in the vicinity of Ferrara. An avid SPAL fan, Mattioli never managed to make it as a player for the Biancoazzurri side, and was destined to forever remain a third category player. It was a tough year for SPAL fans as it marked the last year of their Serie A odyssey – a stunning coincidence when laid next to the new start for the Colombarini family.
The paths of the Colombarinis, SPAL, and Mattioli took different directions over the following decades. At one end, the vetroresina business of the Colombarinis grew exponentially, expanding beyond Italy, making the company one of the most successful secondary sector ventures in the country. At the other, SPAL entered an perpetual downward spiral as the club was relegated from Serie B down to Serie D, until bankruptcy arrived in 2012.
At the end of 1980s, the family had started backing AC Giacomense, the local football side of the village where their business was based, Masi San Giacomo. It was a team for enthusiasts, playing third category amateur football in a community of just 466, according to 2001 data. At the helm of tiny Giacomense sat Walter Mattioli, the same young man who had never made it as a SPAL player. The Colombarini family applied their successful business blueprint to football, and the tiny side climbed several amateur divisions, reaching the former Lega Pro after only two decades in 2008.
AC Giacomense and SPAL were due to meet in the 2012/13 season in the lower tier of Lega Pro. While it would have been a historic match for many, it never happened, as SPAL filed for bankruptcy for a second time and were only admitted for the next season in the lower Serie D.
After a troubled period in the amateur division, when players didn’t receive their salaries until February 2013, forcing them to go through the media in a public demonstration against the club’s management, in July 2013, the then-mayor of Ferrara asked the Colombarinis to step up and save SPAL from a third and likely fatal bankruptcy.
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The family accepted the deal and acquired the historic brand, changing AC Giacomense’s name to SPAL and moving the club to Ferrara. Mattioli, who had headed the tiny Giacomense for 25 years, was named president of SPAL, the club who had refused to sign him as a young player so many times and that he had never stopped loving. Mattioli named former Giacomense player Davide Vagnati as the sporting director, which proved to be a brilliant choice as they formed a tight amalgam with the Colombarini family. After that, SPAL rose like a rocket, and have won every tournament they have participated in since 2015.
Passion and resilience are two sides of the same coin. Mattioli, the most resilient president in Italian football, is the perfect poster-child for the club. Many Spallini still remember the heated press conference when, while announcing the new coach Semplici in 2014, the president criticised both former coach Oscar Brevi and striker Guiseppe Cozzolino. SPAL’s fans are not short of passion either, cherishing the club as an actual goddess.
Unlike any other fans in the world, to indicate they’re going to watch the match of their team at the stadium, they simply say: “I am going to SPAL.” With such a passionate, grassroots-focused president and adoring fans back in Serie A, calcio purists are salivating. SPAL’s story helps bring the whole movement back to its roots, in an era where foreign financial powerhouses are conquering historic elements of Serie A. Milan has seen its two clubs fall in the hands of Chinese investors, while Bologna and Roma are owned by North American businessmen.
SPAL’s miracle is an inspiring example for many struggling clubs in Italy, demonstrating that the deep province can rise up to the main stage if sport, culture and local entrepreneurship align. In the summer that saw a single player bought for a fee 10 times higher than the value of SPAL’s whole squad; football nostalgia has found its redemption.
By Mario Ottiglio @MarioOttiglio