One of the more romantic stories in football this season revolves around Serie A newcomers Carpi. Ben Cullimore looks at the meteoric rise of Carpi in this article.
It has been a truly remarkable ride for Carpi over the last few years. Based in the northern province of Modena, the modest-sized club from the small industrial town from which it gets its name have enjoyed a meteoric rise over the past several seasons, one that has seen them return from the dead and climb up the ranks at a rate of knots, culminating in them gaining a place in Serie A for the first time in their history.
Founded as AC Carpi in 1909, the club spent the majority of their life battling in the lower tiers of Italian football, finding it difficult to carve out any success in the provincial leagues. They came closest to triumphing in 1997, when an impressive third-place finish in Serie C1 led them to the play-off final, presenting them with the chance to reach Serie B for the first time. They were unable to see off Monza, however, and were forced to start from the beginning all over again.
After a lacklustre 1997-98 campaign in which they finished in 11th place, disaster struck the following year, as a truly woeful season ended with them finishing bottom of the table with just 20 points from 34 games, sending them down to Serie D. They would never play in the fifth tier, however, as dire financial troubles hit the club hard and mercilessly, forcing them into bankruptcy and bringing an end to 91 years of AC Carpi.
A new club, this time named Calcio Carpi, were quickly formed and placed in the Emilia-Romagna regional championship in Eccellenza, the sixth tier, from which they were promoted at the first attempt. Back in Serie D, a merger with the city’s second team, Dorado Pietri Carpi, resulted in the club adopting the name Carpi FC 1909, under which it has continued to play to this day.
If the late 1990s and early 2000s were chaotic, then the middle of the first decade of the 21st century was anything but. Carpi found it difficult to fight their way out of Serie D, spending eight seasons in the division until, finally, they were handed a lifeline. The 2009-10 season proved to be the most fruitful for the reformed club, who, after impressing throughout the campaign, made it to the semi-finals of the play-offs. They thrashed opponents Pianura 5-0 in the first leg only to collapse away from home, with the side from Naples pulling off the most unlikely of comebacks in an 8-2 thumping.
It looked as if another year in the fifth tier beckoned, but financial difficulties for several other clubs resulted in a repêchage for Carpi, who were handed a place in the Lega Pro Seconda Divisione. They stormed through the league, losing just three times on their way to a first-place finish, to reach the top division of the Lega Pro, where they had their quick rise stopped by Pro Vercelli, who beat them 3-1 over two legs in the play-off final. They refused to let that deter them, however, and another impressive season in the 2012-13 campaign resulted in a second consecutive play-off appearance. This time they did not falter, beating Lecce 2-1 on aggregate to finally reach Serie B, bringing their excellent rise to even greater heights.
Carpi continued to impress in the second tier (despite many critics writing them off before the start of the season) and enjoyed a great campaign in their first Serie B season to finish in a very respectable 12th place, just three points outside of the promotion play-off zone. But it was last season when they really showed just how good they are, embarking on a wonderful run that took everyone by surprise. Under their impressive new coach Fabrizio Castori, Carpi ploughed their way through the rest of the field to top the table with 80 points, losing just six games in the process – the joint-lowest of any Serie B champion since Chievo seven years ago.
Carpi’s magical rise to the top tier owes much to the forward-thinking tactics and shrewd business acumen of Castori, who has proven to be something of a revelation since taking over in June 2014. Over the course of last season, the veteran coach built on the team’s impressive foundations whilst also adding depth in areas that needed strengthening. Their fantastic record of conceding just 28 goals, 21 less than nearest challengers Frosinone, was largely down to Brazilian goalkeeper Gabriel, who was signed on loan from Milan before the start of the campaign. Meanwhile, up front, Jerry Mbakogu, who had spent the previous season on loan from Padova, was the undisputed star of the show, scoring 15 goals in 30 games alongside talented wingers Antonio Di Gaudio and Lorenzo Pasciuti, both of whom have been with the club since their time in the Lega Pro. Similar figures are central defensive pairing Fabrizio Poli and Simone Romagnoli, who formed an impressive partnership to guide Carpi to the top of the table with an outstanding 21 clean sheets.
It is within that final fact that we discover what is arguably Carpi’s greatest skill, and that was their ability to sit back and successfully grind out results when needed. Filippo Porcari, the wise and well-organised former Milan defensive midfielder, was an almost ever-present figure in front of Poli and Romagnoli, operating effectively at the base of a deep-lying 4-3-3 or alongside the equally trustworthy Raffaele Bianco in the centre of a midfield four. Castori’s Carpi knew when to push forward and when to sit back and hold on to what they have, and that was central to their ability to take Serie B by storm.
It is unsurprising that a club as small as Carpi have started the new Serie A season with a transfer budget of little over £2m. As a result, pricey new recruits are few and far between, leaving the club to do what they have previously done so well and bring in talented players on loan deals. One of the most recognisable names to team up with the Biancorossi is Chelsea defender Wallace, who spent much of last season as the first-choice right-back for Eredivisie side Vitesse. Gabriel’s spellbinding performances during the last campaign resulted in the youngster joining Napoli on loan for the new season, but Castori has replaced the Brazilian shot-stopper with two experienced goalkeepers in Željko Brkić and Francesco Benussi, who have joined from Udinese and Hellas Verona, respectively.
With the club facing a brand new challenge against some of the most impressive players in the world, goals are going to be incredibly important if they are to have any chance of avoiding dropping straight back down to Serie B. 22-year-old Brazilian winger Ryder Matos has joined on loan from Fiorentina and has immediately hit the ground running, scoring both of Carpi’s goals in their 2-0 victory against Livorno in the third round of the Coppa Italia as well as netting one of two consolations goals in a 5-2 defeat away to Sampdoria on the opening day of the new Serie A season. They have also wisely recruited a suitable strike partner for Mbakogu in Polish forward Kamil Wilczek, last season’s Ekstraklasa top scorer thanks to 20 goals in 35 appearances for Piast Gliwice. In Mbakogu and Wilczek the club have two exciting strikers that will no doubt be chomping at the bit to prove their worth against the big boys of Serie A.
With a club like Carpi, it is difficult to predict how they will fare over the course of nine months in what is for them the unknown heights of the top tier. There is no doubt that it will be a tough task, as the clash against Sampdoria proved, with the vast majority of their players having little or no experience of the demands of Serie A. However, starting the new season as underdogs will suit them just fine, as it is when the critics have written them off that they arguably perform at the highest level, as they perfectly showcased last year. The club will also be quietly confident about their chances of survival after adding much-needed experience to their ranks, knowing that last season’s young team, no matter how good they were, required further depth if they are to keep up the intensity that saw them top Serie B in such fine fashion.
The aforementioned Coppa Italia win against Livorno got Carpi off to a good start but they were sent crashing back down to earth by Sampdoria on the opening day of the season. Whilst there were no doubt positives to take from the defeat, a heavy loss would have been the last thing that Castori would have wanted. It may prove to get even worse as his side have a difficult few weeks to now contend with, as they will have to face Internazionale, Fiorentina, Napoli and Roma in four of their next five games. There will be no time for them to ease into their new surroundings, leaving them with no option but to put their foot down and battle as hard as they have done since their meteoric rise started six years ago. They are certainly capable of putting up an almighty fight when required, however, and it will be interesting to see how they fare in what will always be remembered as a truly historic campaign for the little club from Modena, no matter what ends up happening.
Written by Ben Cullimore