The tragic legend of Erasmo Iacovone, the man who made Taranto dream

The tragic legend of Erasmo Iacovone, the man who made Taranto dream

With the exception of Prato, whose digits have been greatly inflated by Far East Asian immigration in recent decades, there’s just one name amongst the 23 most populous cities in Italy never to have been linked to a Serie A team: Taranto.

Taranto is a city of contrasts. Lying on the inner coast of the southern region of Apulia, it was founded as a Greek colony in the 8th century, and has since thrived on its fame of a city rich in ancient art and archeological remains, not to mention the beauty of its crystal-clear sea, its mild climate all year long, the freshness of its fish and the abundance of products sprouting from the sun-drenched earth surrounding the urban centre.

After World War Two, though, a nation torn apart by the fighting needed a boost to achieve the so-called “Italian economic miracle” of the 1960s, and everyone had to do their share. For Taranto, such a share took the shape of the Italsider steel mill unveiled by the head of state, Giuseppe Saragat, in 1965.

The biggest of its kind in Europe, with a pipeline to refurbish the country with Siberian gas, it blazed a trail to a new era for the city. It was an era comprised of state-of-the-art foundries, oil refineries, chemical works, cement plants and food-processing factories that, despite skyrocketing the city’s GDP, made the air a little heavier, the seawater a little blurrier, the sun a little hazier and, eventually, resulted, half a century down the line, in Taranto producing 92 percent of Italy’s dioxin.

No other event in the city’s long history has had such a social impact. Below a sky now half blue and half grey, a new, disenchanted and despairing kind of humanity felt, more than ever, the need for something capable of reuniting the city’s two souls. Something to hold on to in case Taranto’s essence were to slip away through the rusty grate at the end of a drain pouring effluent into the sea.

Taranto has always been a city fond of its football team, even without any major achievements to revel in. It’s always been all about identity paired with the pride in rallying together to represent the city at what was once known as the Stadio Salinella – from the name of the neighbourhood it embellishes with its presence. But there was something different in the 1977/78 season.

After a solid eight consecutive Serie B campaigns, the Ionians started off their ninth one in great fashion. If by January record-breaking Ascoli already had a foot in the top division, Taranto were one of the main candidates to follow suit, trailing the Bianconeri by a handful of points halfway through the season.

With the exception of a few additions in goalkeeper Željko Petrović, centre-back Stefano Dradi and inside-forward Franco Panizza, the roster was the same that had comfortably dodged relegation the season before, earning a solid ninth place on the table. The biggest difference was represented by Erasmo Iacovone, now at the height of his footballing maturity.

Within the class of ’52, the moustachioed striker had joined the year before from Mantova, bagging eight goals in 27 appearances during his first year in Apulia. By the halfway point of the 1977/78 campaign, he was already at nine. By no means was he the one with good feet up front, especially when compared to Franco Selvaggi, who would go on to win the World Cup in 1982, or Graziano Gori. He wasn’t particularly tall either, standing at a mere 1,74m, even though his outstanding elevation had allowed him to head home each one of the eight strikes he’d had to his name in the first year with the red and blues.

At first, thrifty chairman Giovanni Fico wasn’t convinced to spend all that money on him. It took assistant coach Tommaso De Pietri, who’d worked with Iacovone at Carpi in 1973/74, to persuade him that it was a bargain. Fico himself didn’t stay sceptical for too long either, as Iacovone flew higher than any of Novara’s centre-backs to score his first goal on the day of his debut in late October 1976.

And yet, the love Iacovone received from the city was never a matter of pure goalscoring ability. He was admired by those who recognised themselves in his gentle smile, his good manners and his genuine affection for Taranto.

Born in the diminutive town of Capracotta, perched atop the Molisian Appenines and covered with snow for the biggest part of the year, Erasmo was a simple man rather than a superstar. Way before that reassuring, brown moustache started to adorn his good-natured face, Iacovone’s father decided to move to Tivoli in order to ensure a better future for his family.

It was here that his son started to kick a ball around, something quite difficult to do on Capracotta’s climbs and descents. Before turning 20, he’d already joined the ranks of OMI Roma, the team of the capital’s steelworkers. It proved somewhat of an omen, given that it would need a working-class city like Taranto to bloom once and for all, after years spent wandering between Trieste, Carpi and Mantova with mixed success.

Few people are more suited to describe what did Iacovone mean for his adoptive city than Pasquale Martemucci and Luigi Di Bella, the minds behind, the most comprehensive database on all things Taranto, from its foundation to today.

“Talking of Iacovone is no easy task. For we Tarantinos he’s been, and still is, a myth and a legend,” the two pointed out. “Just like all myths and legends, it’s hard to find the right words to describe him. You always run the risk of getting stuck in the banality of small-town parochialism, which can tarnish a memory that should be passed on to new generations that haven’t lived in the 1970s, when football meant everything for Taranto.

“Not just the team, but the whole city was known elsewhere thanks to his name. ‘Iaco Gol’, as we usually refer to him, embodies the history of an entire city that saw in him an occasion for rebirth and for the redemption of its territory. He also symbolises the role Taranto longed to play not only in Serie A, but also in civil society. The city had never had someone to make it immediately identifiable elsewhere. Iacovone was Taranto, and Taranto was Iacovone.”

The most iconic Iaco Gol moment of all came on 20 November 1977, when Taranto hosted regional rivals Bari in a packed Salinella. It wasn’t a boring match. Opportunities rained down copiously, but each of them either hit the woodwork or was denied by the goalkeepers.

On 73 minutes, just as the game looked bound for a scoreless draw, a two-touch free-kick for Taranto in the attacking third was taken so quickly that, when the ball ended up at Iacovone’s boots, the gap between him and the defensive line was so big that everyone would have encircled the referee asking him to resort to the VAR had the game been played at another point in history.

Despite this, Graziano De Luca’s black gloves were only centimetres away from Iacovone, ready to protect the goalmouth from all dangers. The Taranto poster boy stopped the ball nonchalantly then, just as the Bari custodian was rushing towards him, he impudently chipped it over his body, keeping the other foot firmly planted on the ground. Maybe he wasn’t as technically modest as everybody thought.

“His goals were scored by everybody. Whenever he kicked or headed the ball, the whole city was there to push it across the goal-line,” Martemucci and Di Bella recalled. “The goal he scored versus Bari was particularly unforgettable. They were our historic rivals, a team all of us hated. It seemed like that ball, dexterously lifted up in the sky, was never meant to end up in the goal. It left all the almost 30,000 people sitting in the stands with baited breath.

“They all stood up, trying to give strength to the leather sphere. They all envisioned the goal and then there was silence, something rarely seen in a football stadium. Then, just like a miracle, the ball started its descending parable, with the goalkeeper diving desperately.

“Finally, there was a liberating roar, a frenzy took hold of the bystanders, who were exchanging hugs and kisses with strangers that suddenly felt like family, for the sheer fact of being there. Iacovone scored, but it was the whole city who took the lead. It’s a memory made up of images and feelings that each of those present on that November Sunday has passed on to their children, just like a testament.”

When Cremonese visited Taranto on 5 February 1978, the Apulians came off a run of seven games without a win, yet thanks to their chemistry and to the presence of one of the league’s most promising forwards in Iacovone, they still were widely regarded as one of the main candidates for promotion – provided that they could change the tide immediately.

That’s why it was particularly harsh on Iacovone to see the clash with Cremonese end 0-0. Everything seemed to be against him that day. The woodwork denied him the joy of scoring on multiple occasions, and when he successfully aimed at the empty space between the goalposts, he found an inspired Alberto Ginulfi on his way, a former Serie A goalkeeper mostly remembered for the penalty he denied none other than Pelé in a 1972 friendly between Roma and Santos, then lightheartedly savouring the last season of his career.

That day, Iaco Gol’s pregnant wife Paola was off to Carpi, where the two had first met, for a gynaecological check-up. The air was heavy in the dressing room after the draw with Cremonese. His teammates tried to persuade Iacovone to join them for a stand-up comedy night in a restaurant immersed in the countryside near the small town of San Giorgio Ionico.

“You’ll feel better, you need to take your mind off the game,” they told him, understanding how frustrating it’d been for him to fire blanks for 90 minutes at a time when the team, and the city they represented, needed him the most.

But the 25-year-old wasn’t the kind of guy who looks forward to a night out, the tranquillity of his home way more tempting than a loud table filled with good wine and local delicacies. And home he went, because it was time to call Paola and ask her about the check-up.

“Don’t stay on the couch brooding over today’s game all night. Go out and have some fun,” she must have said to him before hanging up. A few hours later, Iacovone stepped out of his humble Citroën Dyane 6, license plate MO 215872, in the parking lot of La Masseria, more as a way to avoid letting down the people who cared for him than for the actual desire to be there. Around midnight, when his tipsy dining companions asked him to stay a little longer, he firmly refused and headed back to his car.

It was pitch dark. In such a road bereft of lampposts, nothing could help Iacovone – about to take the provincial road that would have led him back to Taranto – to notice small-time criminal Marcello Friuli aboard a stolen Alfa Romeo 2000 GT rushing towards him. The latter had just burst his way through a police checkpoint and was now driving at full speed with the headlights off. The impact was tremendous.

When the police found the body of the only victim, lying in a roadside ditch tens of metres from the car, they immediately recognised him. Iacovone, aged just 25, had passed away without any suffering as a result of a severe head trauma, the golden Virgin Mary medal still in his mouth, as it was typical of him whenever he got lost in thought.

A few hours later, the city woke up and realised that the man who’d allowed it to dream was gone forever. The Santissima Annunziata Hospital, where the body was first stored, became a pilgrimage of sorts. The following day, Taranto came together to mourn its adopted son at the Robert Bellarmine Church.

Then, Iacovone was granted one last appearance at the Salinella, which would take on his name two days later by the will of chairman Fico. The latter was amongst the most touched after by tragedy, his soul quivering with remorse for having turned down Fiorentina’s bid for his best player a few weeks earlier. “Players are just like sons,” he stated, his voice broken with sorrow. “But you were even more, and now you’re with our Lord. As long as I’ll be alive, this stadium will be called by your name.”

The team never fully recovered from such a blow. Taranto was deprived not only of their top-scorer, but also of their guiding light, the man whose lifestyle, grit and kind heart everybody felt represented by; the player whose shirt every kid wanted to wear; the forward who made the sun above Taranto shine a little brighter every time he flew next to it to head the ball into the net.

From then on, the grey sky standing above Taranto’s industrial area took over the rest of this now dispirited city. It filtered through the soul of its inhabitants and undermined the spirit of its footballers. Form dipped and the Ionians ended up eighth, falling agonisingly short of their Serie A dreams.

In subsequent decades, the club mostly wandered through Serie B and a couple of league levels below it, never again coming close to such heights as they did in the Iaco Gol era. A statue unveiled in October 2002 at the entrance of the Stadio Erasmo Iacovone – financed through 13,000 donations of €1.50 each – is something a true hero deserves, and pays homage to the joy and the desperation Taranto has gone through for the love of its dear Erasmo.

“Those who were out of town for work or study reasons would have jumped through hoops to be at the Salinella on Sunday afternoon,” the founders of reminisced. “On Wednesday night, there were people already lining up in front of the ticket offices to get their hands on a ticket, so that they could see the game and cheer with him. Then the day of such a tragic fatality came. With his demise, the whole city slipped back into a never-ending greyness, aware that it would have taken years to lift up once again. Iacovone has been all this.”

By Franco Ficetola @Franco92C14

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