The rise of Italy’s southern clubs and why it matters

The rise of Italy’s southern clubs and why it matters

Over ten matches into its 36-game run, a trend has started to appear in the standings of the 2019/20 Serie B season. Benevento, Crotone and Salernitana are maintaining spots in the top six, including two of the top three. In addition, Pescara maintain a place in the middle of the table, not far from the playoff bracket. Three more clubs, Cosenza, Trapani, and Juve Stabia, sit towards the bottom, though none are too far from escaping the relegation zone and all are set for a big fight.

Why does this matter? All of the clubs just mentioned are from southern Italy – and the momentum is beginning to grow in their favour.

Largely determined by the medieval borders of the Kingdoms of Naples and Sicily, and eventually the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, southern Italy is a region characterised by unique cultures, societies and history. By most standards, the regions of Abruzzo, Apulia, Basilicata, Calabria, Campania, Molise, Sicily and Sardinia make up the south. 

The Istituto Nazionale di Statistica (ISTAT) recognises south Italy and insular Italy as two separate regions, with the former representing the southern portion of the peninsula and the latter representing Sicily and Sardinia.

In general, southern clubs, including those from Sicily and Sardinia, have taken up roughly 35 of the 200 Serie A spots available throughout the last two decades, with the 2010s set to repeat the pattern. Per decade, southern clubs have made up about 19 percent of Serie A participants.

A strong period from 2004 to 2013 saw the south represented by five to six clubs every year, though this still leaves the southern regions, which make up around 40 percent of Italy, struggling to make up much more than a quarter of the top tier. Ultimately, an average of 3.5 clubs from the south, Sicily or Sardinia have taken part in a Serie A season over the last 30 years.

Both Benevento and Crotone spent recent seasons in Serie A, with the latter playing in the top flight for two seasons, from 2016 to 2018, and Benevento featuring in 2017/18 before succumbing to relegation after a sole season. Both clubs had never appeared in Serie A prior to that 2016 to 2018 period. Salernitana haven’t featured in Serie A since 1999, when they were relegated in their first top-flight season since 1947/48. Indeed, they are the only one of the three to have won the Serie B title, which they’ve done twice.

Read  |  The lies and the legacy of the 2004/05 Serie B season, the most chaotic in recent history

There are currently three southern clubs in Serie A. Lecce are one of them, though it’s unclear whether they will repeat the yo-yo lives of most or manage to maintain a presence in the top flight as they have in the past. The club has previously produced some notable names, ranging from hometown talent Antonio Conte to Graziano Pellè.

Lecce are joined by two far more sustained names in recent Serie A history. One is Cagliari, a club that has suffered tough relegation in its time, but one that has a long history in Serie A. Since suffering and earning relegation and promotion from 2015 to 2016, the club has maintained a spot in mid-table since.

The unmissable champion, however, of southern clubs in recent Serie A history is Napoli. The Partenopei are a safe bet for a top-four finish in the current landscape and have won a spread of trophies, domestic and otherwise. Three parts of that collection have come in the 2010s, with two Coppa Italia and one Supercopppa Italiana joining the list in recent times. 

While most of southern Italy has struggled to get past the status of Serie A relegation fodder, Napoli have managed to become one of Italy’s best, a powerful reminder that the curse floating over the region’s clubs is not unbreakable.

That curse, it should be said, may well not be one of magic, but rather the lasting imprint of history. It is not solely bad luck that has resulted in the Scudetto avoiding southern hands since the 1989/90 season, when Napoli won it for the second time. Those two titles are almost all of those held by the people of the southern peninsula, Sicily or Sardinia. The other arrived in the 1969/70 season when Cagliari managed glory led by the unstoppable Gigi Riva.

The same pattern goes for the Coppa Italia. While Napoli hold five of said silverware, they are the only southern club to have won it. This is in comparison to the clubs of north and central Italy, 15 of which have won the Coppa Italia. So here we are again at the ultimate question: why? There is a long list of theories based on recent and/or historic reasoning.

The roots of division between the north and south of Italy go back to the early history of modern Italy, not long after the late reunification conflicts of the 1860s and 1870s. Many historical tensions between the north and south can be traced back to the level of authority northern kingdoms like that of Piedmont had during reunification. The assertion of Piedmont-based ideas throughout reunified Italy was nicknamed ‘Piedmontization’.

Order  |  Calcio II

In his book The Force of Destiny, Christopher Duggan discusses the various ways northern-led policies bettered Italy but harmed the status of southern regions. “’Piedmontization’ started in 1860 and gathered pace in 1861,” Duggan explains, “culminating in the autumn in a series of decrees that transferred Piedmont’s administrative and political structures almost in their entirety to the rest of Italy.”

Issues between Piedmontization and the southern regions culminated in various forms, including dramatic changes in military, taxing and political norms. This was disingenuous,” Duggan continues. “For example, in southern Italy the imposition of military service was causing huge problems, especially in Sicily, which had no previous experience of the draft, while Piedmontese tariffs were resulting in thousands of people losing their jobs. Outside Piedmont, experience of parliamentary government had been very limited and there was little clear idea of exactly how national politics were to be conducted under such a system.”

These issues, starting in the 1860s, predate the founding of some of Italy’s oldest football clubs, like Genoa, by about 30 years. The original format of Serie A itself, otherwise called the Italian Football Championship, took place just under 40 years after, in 1898.

The lines dividing the north, central and south of Italy, however, are not limited to dust-gathering history books. A 2015 article published by The Economist cites a stronger dip during the global recession of the late 2000s as a key factor in southern Italy’s various economic and social obstacles. The article, written anonymously, as is tradition for The Economist, states: “The south grew more slowly than the north before the financial crisis. But the main source of the divergence has been the south’s disastrous performance since then: its economy contracted almost twice as fast as the north’s in 2008-13 – by 13% compared with 7%.”

In addition to mass waves of migration over time from southern Italy to anywhere from northern Italy to the United States and Australia, the region also suffers from being further back in the line of development than the north. “Most of Italy lags behind Europe in terms of digital infrastructure, but the south is especially backward,” The Economist explains. “The same is true of civil justice and the bureaucracy, both of which are generally slower in the south.” 

The lacking financial and digital state of many regions in southern Italy have surely affected their standing in a game in which both are becoming increasingly important. 

Read  |  How Gheorghe Hagi rebuilt his career in Serie B with Brescia

A considerable amount of the relevant clubs have lost their spots in Serie A and Serie B due to financial issues, with the recent fall of Palermo providing a current and especially stark example.

With recent and historical events in mind, the present provides a reason to believe progress is coming to calcio in southern Italy. Football in the south is highly present in the top two tiers of Italy, needing only a little more success to return to the consistency of the 2000s, or perhaps to go further.

Benevento hold the best chance for promotion at the moment, holding top spot in the table and managing the best defence in the league with just seven goals conceded in 11 games. Crotone and Salernitana are tied for third place with 18 points, though the former’s six-goal differential is far better than the latter’s two. Both clubs are just one point off of second-placed Perugia.

Southern clubs also feature several of the league’s top goal scorers this season, with Crotone’s Simeon Nwankwo holding second spot with seven goals. Cristian Galano sits in fourth place for Pescara, while his teammate, José Machín, is tied for fifth, scoring six and five goals respectively this season. An additional two players from Salernitana, Lazio loanee Sofian Kiyine and Lamin Jallow, are tied for ninth place in the line-up with four goals apiece.

Andreas Barberis of Crotone is tied for the most assists this season with four. Players from Cosenza, Juve Stabia, and Pescara are tied for third in that stat.

Benevento and Crotone also feature some of the league’s best defensive records, with Lorenzo Montipò holding the most clean sheets in Serie B for the former this season and Alex Cordaz tied for third for the latter.

The end results of the 2019/20 Serie A and Serie B seasons are far from being determined, but this year’s strong start for Benevento, Crotone and Salernitana is a promising sign. Combined with reasonable progress in Serie A for Lecce, Cagliari and of course Napoli, and the struggles of many otherwise historic northern clubs in 2019, including the likes of Sampdoria and Genoa, the signs are there that the south may be well on its way to improved relevance in the Italian top flight.

By Dominic José Bisogno @DJBisogno

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