Lessons from the mad Serie B season of 2003/04 – and what it could mean today

Lessons from the mad Serie B season of 2003/04 – and what it could mean today

On 9 March 2020, Sassuolo defeated Brescia 3-0 in an empty Mapei Stadium in what is currently the most recently played Serie A match. That date also saw the entirety of Italy go into lockdown, with some 60 million people told to stay at home in light of the coronavirus pandemic. Such actions have now been replicated across Europe to varying degrees in an aim to stop the virus spreading. It is a fast-moving, uncertain situation, with borders closed, flights cancelled, and mass public gatherings banned.

One affected area has been football, with virtually all major leagues suspended across Europe. In times of such crisis, sport is arguably a trivial matter, however that has failed to stem the debate on what is going to happen to these partly-played seasons. Various ideas have been proposed, but few realise that by rewinding the clock, an example of what to do already exists.

Fittingly this comes from Italy, with the 2003/04 Serie B season crippled by a problem far more common to calcio, namely that of corruption. Prior to exploring this scenario, it is worth noting the situation differs slightly, lack of global pandemic aside. The problem season, namely the 2002/03 Serie B campaign, had been completed in its entirety as opposed to being left in limbo in the middle of March. Nevertheless, the response to the issue is something that leagues can use as a model for how to deal with off-field complications to seasons.

To explain this, we must travel to Catania on the island of Sicily. The city’s football club are the main protagonist in this story, commonly known as Caso Catania. For its 2002/03 edition, Serie B had 20 teams, with the bottom four relegated. At the end of the season, Catania had finished 17th, banishing them to Serie C1. However, the club claimed that in their home match with Siena, a 1-1 draw on 12 April 2003, the eventual runners-up had fielded an illegible player.

The unassuming man in question was centre back Luigi Martinelli. Two weeks prior to the Catania-Siena match, he had received a yellow card in a home win over Cosenza. An accumulation of bookings meant a suspension, with Martinelli sitting out a 2-0 victory over Napoli. Having served this, Siena then assumed he was eligible to feature in the match with Catania. The Sicilians disagreed, however, arguing Martinelli was ineligible owing to his appearance in a youth match.

This would not have been such a big deal had, as mentioned, Catania not finished in the relegation zone. Ending on 43 points, two behind Napoli, the club claimed Martinelli’s presence had condemned them to the drop, whereas a victory would have seen Catania finish ahead of the Neapolitans on head-to-head record. This premise is highly questionable, given Martinelli did not directly affect the result of the Catania-Siena match.

Order  |  Calcio II

Nevertheless, Catania appealed the result, although 12 days later it was dismissed. Two weeks further on, another appeal by Catania was accepted and the Sicilians were assigned a 2-0 victory. This meant Catania moved above Napoli, only for the decision to be reverted to the original 1-1 draw to re-relegate Catania after Napoli appealed.

Catania followed suit, with the FIGC accepting and deciding to register them in Serie B. The working theory was either a 21-team league, with both Catania and Napoli staying up, or 24-team competition that saw no club relegated. Such a decision was then appealed by eight other clubs in Serie B, particularly Cagliari, whose president Massimo Cellino stated he would refuse to partake in an enlarged league.

By the end of July 2003, such protests had made an impact, and the FIGC reversed their decision to declare the 2003/04 Serie B would in fact contain only 20 teams. Once more, Catania found themselves relegated. In response, the Sicilians lodged another complaint on 6 August; on 12 August their Serie C1 fixtures were released and the case appeared closed. The very next day, however, in a situation of now comic proportions, Catania were readmitted to Serie B at the expense of Napoli.

With the season fast approaching, such toing and froing needed to be stopped quickly by the FIGC. The convoluted process of reinstating Catania triggered a series of events that saw a temporary restructuring of divisions. This is something that would arguably be the best strategy to deal with the trouble caused by Covid-19.

This is reportedly being considered in both England and Germany, with a proposal of keeping the current league structure, enlarged to include the current top two in the respective second tiers. Whilst this would seem sensible, the situation is complicated in England by the playoff system. Questions exist concerning how it would be decided who partakes, and if they would even take place at all. In the Championship, for example, only six points separate Preston in sixth from QPR in 13th. Sorting out qualification is arguably the biggest problem, with simple cancellation undoubtedly seeking to trigger mass protests across Europe. 

An alternative idea proposed by West Ham vice-chair Karren Brady is that the current season should be declared null and void. This would see leagues restarting from scratch in 2020/21 with the same teams. Such an idea, though, is evidently designed to protect Brady’s club, who sit perilously close to being relegated from the Premier League for the first time since 2011. This solution would certainly not appease Liverpool fans and arguably lead to a plethora of legal battles over titles and European qualification.

Read  |  Behind closed doors: what football is like when there’s no one there to watch it

This solution is also unfeasible given the questions of promotion and relegation. The current top-two in the Championship of Leeds and West Brom would be less than thrilled to see potential returns to the Premier League foiled with just nine matches remaining. Further down the pyramid, the same applies to the likes of Coventry, Rotherham and National League leaders Barrow. In the same way, is it right that teams such as Bolton, Southend and Stevenage, who have endured poor seasons, are granted a reprieve from the drop?

One solution could be the acceptance of today’s tables as final and resuming of the 2020/21 season with the standard process of promotion/relegation. Another would see playoffs introduced for say the top eight in each league. Both, however, assume the pandemic will soon be under control and matches will be able to resume within the next few months. It may well transpire that football is unable to restart until the end of the year.

This brings us back to 2003/04 Serie B, which can offer a blueprint on how to resolve a disputed season. As mentioned, the league being completed meant the situation was slightly easier, however such is the confusion already detailed, the two have a series of overlaps.

In a league that at the time had a simple four up, four down structure, this aspect was relatively simple. Serie A’s bottom four of Atalanta, Como, Piacenza and Torino were replaced in the top-flight by Siena, Sampdoria, Lecce and Ancona. This, however, is where the simplicity ends, owing to the influence of Catania at the bottom of Serie B.

In ascending order, the bottom five finished as Salernitana, Cosenza, Genoa, Catania and Napoli. What should have occurred was the first four relegated to Serie C1, replaced by Albinoleffe, Avellino, Pescara and Treviso. These clubs had already won promotion by the middle of June 2003, as the chaos in Catania was just unfolding. This is where the issue centred, given it was impossible for the FIGC to revoke promotions won in a legitimate way.

The contention over whether Catania or Napoli should be relegated led to a unique solution from the FIGC. It was decided on 20 August 2003 that all relegated clubs would be allowed to remain in Serie B, reverting to the decision of temporarily expanding the league from 20 to 24 teams. This was further complicated when 19th place Cosenza folded due to debts to create a vacant space.

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

This led to arguably the most controversial part of the restructuring. Rather than going with a 23-team league or holding a contest of Serie C1 playoff losers for the place, the organisation decided to simply choose a club. That this ended up being a team not even in the league below only added fuel to the fire. The newly reformed Fiorentina, who had won their Serie C2 group, were chosen on “sporting merit” to jump one division to Serie B. 

This justification seemed extremely questionable given that the club with the most national titles below Serie B was actually Pro Vercelli, with seven compared to La Viola’s two. Conspiracies raged that the league were keen to get a club of Fiorentina’s reputation back up into Serie A, given their far greater fan base and marketability than other, smaller clubs.

Unsurprisingly this triggered a wave of protests from various clubs. Central to this were Pisa, who had lost to Albinoleffe in extra-time in their playoff final. They claimed legitimacy to Cosenza’s spot, owing to their stable financial position and agonising closeness to promotion. Despite appeals, these fell on deaf ears and the league went ahead in a unique 24-team edition.

The following season saw Serie A expand from 18 to 20 teams, meaning for one time only, Serie B possessed a remarkable six promotion spots. These were filled by Palermo, Cagliari, Livorno, Messina, Atalanta and, ironically, Fiorentina, and meant the 2004/05 Serie B campaign would be correspondingly reduced to 22 teams.

This brings us back to the problems caused by coronavirus. As demonstrated by the 2003/04 edition of Serie B, the best approach to off-field complications is temporary league expansions. In Italy this served to solve the Martinelli dispute, whilst also allowing all four promoted Serie C1 teams their right to go up. The case of Fiorentina was the only source of grievance, however it is highly unlikely such a bizarre situation shall occur anywhere given the rather obvious ulterior motives existing.

The alternative of voiding seasons would be disrespectful to mostly completed competitions, another example of football being geared towards the elite. Another option would be resuming seasons to completion when coronavirus is under control – but this would cause a domino effect for both international tournaments and the 2020/21 season.

Whilst awarding honours and league places based on unfinished campaigns is also controversial, in such troubling conditions this is arguably the best solution. When paired with temporary league expansions, this will keep grievances to a minimum. The alternative would be a series of Catanias across Europe, and given how complicated the current situation is, that’s the last thing we need.

By James Kelly @jkell403

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