The 71-year-old man wept. “Do not do this,” he said, his words barely audible through the tears. “Do not do it.” He stood at the locked gate of the Reggiana headquarters, a once proud football club headed into the unknown. The man, Ernesto Melauri, or ‘Melo’ to his friends, could often be found at the training ground before games, bellowing words of encouragement to the players of his beloved Granata.
When the news broke, Melo knew he had to be near his club. He arrived at Via Mogadiscio with the flag he took with him to every game and attached it to the gate: “I leave it here as my last goodbye to Reggiana.” Other fans come and go, but no one dares move it. The flag stands as a symbol of Reggiana and Reggio-Emilia, a club bankrupt and abandoned, and a community betrayed.
Some 145 miles away, a private jet lands at Caselle airport and Cristiano Ronaldo sets foot on Italian soil as the eyes of the football world descend on Turin. No sooner had the dust settled on France’s second World Cup win, the next huge football story was breaking. The following day, as the media congregated at the Allianz Stadium, the sheer scale of what was happening hit home. There were reports of over half a million shirt sales through the club website, an additional one million followers on Twitter as well a 28 percent rise in club shares. Tthe CR7 brand was here to help put calcio back at the top of the football food chain.
While many players of Ronaldo’s age seek employment in lesser challenging leagues, this was an opportunity to add another string to an already otherworldly bow. On the same day, former Serie A sides Bari and Reggiana went to the wall, and questions were raised over whether the Italian footballing castle is built on a foundation of sand.
Football in Italy is never far from the headlines, whether good or bad. Bribery, corruption and financial mismanagement have long been associated with the game on Lo Stivale. The Calciopoli scandal of the previous decade left scars from wounds which have not long healed. No other major European league system sees teams go bust at the same rate as they do in Italy.
The latest chapter of the Reggiana story, however, is not your usual tale of overspending and living beyond their means. It is a story of genuine hope for the future and the rug being pulled from underneath. It is a story that fans of i Granata thought they would never see repeated following the catastrophes of recent times.
Reggiana had bounced about the lower tiers of Italian football for most of their unremarkable but proud history. All of this changed in 1993 when they achieved promotion to Serie A. Officials declared their Stadio Mirabello as unsuitable for top-flight football, however, so an unprecedented decision was made: they would fund and build their own stadium.
Over a thousand fans purchased 10-year season tickets as the project of raising €11m got underway, with further investment secured through a naming rights deal and bank credits. Additional land around the new stadium was earmarked for a shopping complex, and with all that in place, Reggiana were ready to put a spade in the ground on the first Italian stadium to be built without public funding.
On the pitch, Reggiana had accrued several star names to raise the profile of the club. Paulo Futre, Johnny Ekström and Cláudio Taffarel all joined as Italy became the go-to place for any and all international football stars. Injuries to Futre and Ekström, however, meant all did not go to plan, and with a lot of finance tied up in the new stadium, investment in the first team scaled back, relegation back to Serie B was inevitable, and by 1997, i Granata were back in the second tier. A further relegation in the 1998/99 season saw Reggiana now way down in the regional depths of Serie C.
The downward spiral continued: by 2005, delays with the shopping complex construction had cut off much-needed income for the club, and without this, the future looked bleak. The local government refused to step in and with the all-important revenue stream still tied up in red tape, Reggiana were left with no other choice than to fold and begin again in the amateur ranks of Serie D.
Insult was added to injury when their stadium went up for auction. Fans cobbled together enough money to meet the expected asking price only for construction magnate Giorgio Squinzi to gazump them with a €3.6m bid. Squinzi owned Modena-based club Sassuolo, and with his financial clout they had charged through the leagues. Now they needed a stadium. With the deal complete, Reggiana were now a tenant in their own ground; yet another bitter pill for the fans to swallow.
Hope returned when United States baseball Hall of Famer Mike Piazza intimated he was looking to get involved in buying a football club. The retired catcher for the New York Mets and Los Angeles Dodgers first hit on the idea during the 2014 World Cup. He had gained an interest in Italian football through coaching the country’s baseball team back in 2006 and was a keen follower of Palermo. He was consumed by the passionate fans and rich history of the game back in the land of his grandparents.
Eager to use the business acumen he had picked up from his father, Vince, a successful entrepreneur back in their home state of Pennsylvania, Piazza set about finding the right club to invest his baseball millions in.
Parma had fallen on tough times following the collapse of key financier Parmalat and were working their way back through the Italian football pyramid. With domestic and European successes in the not too distant past, they appeared to be the ideal club for Piazza to take to the next level. However, when the sheer size of the financial problems at the club was discovered, it became abundantly clear that rescuing a fallen giant may not be the way to go.
The answer lay a 40-minute drive away in the northern city of Reggio-Emilia, home to the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta and reformed Serie C side AC Reggiana. A reported €3m later and amidst much fanfare, Piazza was unveiled as the new owner of the club.
He introduced himself to the city and its people during a large ceremony in the city’s main square. His passion was evident immediately; Piazza impressed the fans, conversing in the little Italian he knew, laying out his grand plans. No stone would be left unturned as he worked to turn the club into a global name by using the many contacts he had both in Italy and back home in the United States. When he stated that he would resolve the controversial stadium situation, the Granata faithful were sold.
Despite his millions, Piazza knew he would need help to turn this dream into a reality. With modern football rapidly becoming a game for billionaires, not millionaires, he sought out other investment from the get-go. Piazza was the head of the club. but due to commitments across the Atlantic. he installed his wife, former Playboy model Alicia. as vice president. She described herself as a journalist for a lifestyle magazine, although with no sporting or business experience, she’d be tasked with the decision making whenever her husband was away.
The initial response to the investment was positive, Piazza having a team working back in the US to find someone willing to get on board with his plans. Reggiana was advertised as a sleeping giant playing in a modern stadium located in a sophisticated part of Italy. Indeed, despite low attendances, the area was a hotbed of football.
What Piazza hadn’t considered was the success of rival teams in the locale. Sassuolo had since gained promotion to Serie A, and with Squinzi’s vast fortune behind them had secured European qualification at the first time of asking. On the other side, Parma gained promotion from Serie C and were now only one step away from being back in the top flight.
With their regional rivals’ success and Reggiana still floundering in Serie C, Piazza decided his initial two-year plan needed to be fast-tracked. With his wife back home, Piazza and his team put ‘Operation Promotion’ in place. He increased the wage bill and oversaw a managerial change with the hopes of promotion to Serie B in only his first full season in charge of the club.
He angrily spoke out against what he saw as extortionate rental fees that Squinzi was charging the club to play in the stadium that their fans helped build, saying he was “sick and tired of the club being pushed around”. Reggiana secured a place in the convoluted Serie C playoff system and were cautiously optimistic about promotion and the subsequent increase in both investment and stature.
This was by no means a boom or bust scenario, with plans put in place for all eventualities. Results were going i Granata’s way, and after eliminating Juve Stabia in the playoff quarter-finals, they were now only two rounds away from promotion. Rivals Parma, meanwhile, had themselves gained promotion from Serie B, with nostalgic calcio fans from around the world joining in the celebrations with Gialloblu fans back in their homeland.
The second leg of the semi-final playoff match with Robur Siena would have serious repercussions for Reggiana. Trailing 1-0 having won the first leg 2-1, i Granata were staring down the barrel of a playoff exit due to Siena’s superior league position. With the game deep in injury time, Christian Altinier scored a vital goal that looked to have rescued not only the game but the season.
However, in the 10th minute of injury time, Siena were awarded a controversial penalty for handball, with replays showing the Reggiana defender had been pushed into the ball by the opposition attacker. Claudio Santini stepped up for Siena and the number nine sealed his club’s place in the playoff final with virtually the last kick of the match.
Piazza flew into a rage and called out the FIGC, throwing around allegations of corruption as his club faced up to another season in Serie C. What happened next, however, came as a bolt out of the blue for everyone involved with the club: Piazza announced that without external investment he would be walking away from the club, going against the previous plans laid out should promotion not be achieved. Emilio-Romagna is a wealthy region but with neighbouring clubs streaking ahead of Reggiana, this latest blow would prove cataclysmic.
With the deadline for league registration fast approaching, Piazza set up several meetings to secure funds to complement his own cash injection into the club. Dubai-based businessman Victor Pablo Dana claimed to have an agreement to take over 60 percent of the club, only for Piazza to mysteriously pull out of the deal.
The day eventually arrived for the league registration fee to be paid, with the money a bond the league held to cover expenses such as player wages and stadium rent should any financial problems arise over the coming season. By making this payment and registering the club, Piazza would buy himself more time to get the much-needed investment, while simultaneously securing the club’s position in the league.
The day, however, came and went, with registration not met and Piazza uncontactable. Reggiana were out of the league and rudderless. Alicia Piazza incurred the wrath of the community by posting an Instagram picture of herself and her husband with the words “Time to say goodbye”. The only further communication from the Piazza’s came through social media with more pictures as they enjoyed a family holiday.
Meanwhile, back in Reggio-Emilia, Reggiana look to rebuild again, seemingly left high and dry by the whim of an owner who decided he wanted to do something else with his money. It’s an all too familiar tale of lower league clubs throughout the world, where an owner sinks under the weight of responsibility that being the head of a football institution brings.
Reggiana have no debts or creditors but without the luxury of time to find a solution, they are headed to the amateur wilderness of Serie D to restart yet again. While the door may not be completely closed for Piazza to somehow return to Reggiana, he would have many bridges to build, not least with a certain lifelong fan who hoped these days were long behind him.
By Matthew Evans @Matt_The_Met