THE CONFINES OF WHAT MAKES VENICE UNIQUE AS A CITY are seemingly restrictive factors for a football team. Extremely limited physical space to train and play, a tiny permanent population from which to gain a fan base, and the preposterous cost that comes with attempting to do literally anything in the city. However, as the season begins to take shape, Venezia FC are defying those limitations, with a top-two finish a distinct possibility in the intense Serie B promotion palaver.
Now more than ever, the issue of what next for the club on the lagoon emerges. The road between ambition and reality is a precarious one, on which much can be lost. Many fans have seen the soul of their club fall by the wayside as collateral to the hubris of owners, something Venezia know better than most. It was a backlash against Maurizio Zamparini’s infamous plans for a larger stadium that took him to Palermo, signalling the start of a spiral of decline for the club, with relegation and bankruptcy in 2002 just the start of their 13-year troubles. Their remarkable resurrection to the point of potential top-flight football has been documented already on this website. Instead, we must now look to the future, rather than eulogise the past.
For the club to expand, both in revenue and image, exposure is key, and the planned construction of a new 25,000-seater stadium along with training facilities is seen by the club hierarchy as the perfect way to do so. Thus far the only definitive confirmation has been a leaked set of plans, but both owner Joe Tacopina and Venetian Mayor Luigi Brugnaro have made no secret of their desire for a new stadium, as early as the ambitious date of 2019.
In September 2017, in fact, during an interview with Tuttosport, Tacopina boldly claimed: “I’ll take the club to Serie A and then into Europe with a new stadium.” One only has to look at the advantage stadium revenue has given Juventus to see why this idea is appealing. However, this would mean abandoning the unique Stadio Penzo on the eastern point of the island in favour of the Tessera area on the mainland, necessitated by the availability of land and transport links.
To understand why this would be such an issue, a description of Venezia’s home is required. Although attending a game at Venezia’s Stadio Penzo makes you forget all the unnecessary complications surrounding football, often the beautiful simplicity of attending a match and engaging in a collective embrace of a team is lost. The game has become so commercialised that the decision between Sky Sports or a matchday ticket has become a genuinely tricky one.
Refreshingly, this is not the case in Venice. From my flat in Cannaregio, a 40-minute walk takes me right through the heart of the city, passing palaces, churches and pizza vendors in equal measure, before arriving at the stadium at the south-east tip of the main island. During the walk the excitement before kick-off builds in a palpable manner; with the majority of tourists now gone, 3pm on a Saturday becomes somewhat free time.
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The docking point next to the stadium is packed with a stream of boats from the mainland, with some I spoke to having travelled over two hours to support this second division team. The close feel of the stadium is that akin to a non-league ground, as the fans are almost on top of the pitch. From the infamously rancorous south stand, one can view the close-knit maze that is the Castello district, the tranquil and docile lagoon disturbed by a constant buzz of ferrying, and the Chiesa Parrocchiale di Sant’Elena Imperatrice, a bastion towering over the eastern point of the island.
Even sat on an old wooden seat in a rickety stand, you still feel like you are in Venice. Having been brought up in the sanitised English footballing environment, the atmosphere the stadium creates represents quite the culture shock, as a recent last-minute winner against then-top of the table Empoli saw the stadium erupt in a manner rarely seen at an English ground. It’s easy to imagine why potentially abandoning such an important site of active collective memory would be a risky move for the club.
This issue throws into sharp relief a debate over traditional values versus international expansion, which is endemic of wider issues troubling residents of La Serenissima. In the last few years, relations between natives and tourists have become strained to say the least. This is due to both the increasing price of housing on the island forcing away many locals, and the invasion of tourists during the summer months often showing little respect for Venetian tradition, both on an individual and collective level.
As a tour guide at the Jewish Ghetto mournfully put it: “Venice … does not exist anymore. A city is more than stones, it is people too.” With the city now having only 50,000 indigenous residents, a figure which only looks like decreasing, it is easy to sympathise with Venetians who feel they have lost their city, so much so that a mock funeral was held for the death of Venice in 2009.
The future path of Venezia FC is a microcosm of this, as to expand the club would mean sacrificing some of the integral features which made it such an attractive proposition in the first place. This is manifested in the physical space of the Pierluigi Penzo, a roaring micro-colosseum full of rabid, bouncing support ignited under the light of pyrotechnics. The sharp juxtaposition of this ravenous atmosphere to the tranquil beauty of the lagoon is what makes Venezia such a unique club – and city.
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Much like areas of religious reverence that have become year-round guided tours, moving stadiums would mean locals losing yet another traditional point of veneration. Fans often arrive by more than an hour-long boat journey to be part of such a collective embrace of Venetian spirit, with little separation in the stands between supporters and club staff or guests.
What Tacopina has done so well, especially when contrasted with the patchy record of foreign owners in Italy, is to really assimilate himself in Venetian culture. A visible presence both at games and in the city, he is now readily embraced by the majority of the population, who recognise the difficult balancing act he has conducted in maintaining the club’s spirit, and enhancing its profile, such as initiating a dedicated English-language social media account. However, with the club now only one rung below the imposing figures of titans Juventus and Roma, not progressing forward can be seen as moving backwards.
Fans’ views on the potential relocation are mixed. Whilst some recognise it as the only practical solution to a very real problem, it is a tone of reluctant acceptance rather than genuine optimism that pervades their mannerisms. Other Venetians are totally opposed to a stadium away from the actual island, overseen by Americans isolated in a director’s box and detached on numerous levels. Although that is unfair given the current climate in the city, the fans’ fears of losing yet another facet of their identity to commercial machinery are understandable.
This is exemplified by a recent outcry from notable ultras group, the Curva Sud VeneziaMestre 1987, over the number 110 appearing on the shirt. It was intended to celebrate the club’s founding in 1907, a controversial move considering some feel it is disrespectful to the mainland club Mestre FC, which was fused with Venezia in 1987. This illustrates the minefield that must be navigated when trying to turn the club’s traditions into marketable assets, such as the attempt to create a Venezia brand with Nike.
It also relates to the tensions between the island and the mainland. The idea of Venice as one of the world’s most mythical cities has been predicated on a disassociation with the mainland, as it looked to the sea to form its unique identity. Urban centrism of Venetian imaging that has dominated its history can partly help us understand why this proposed move to the mainland would sit uneasily with locals, as the very isolation and impossibility of the city, which the stadium perfectly typifies, illustrates the mythical nature of the city.
All these issues leave the club with the perhaps unanswerable question of how to move forward, without destroying the very basis on which it floats