Jack Flanagan takes a leaf out of the history books to talk about Vicenza Calcio, the oldest club in Veneto.
Without question, the “Ballon D’Or” is one of the most prestigious awards to be handed to an individual during his professional career. Awarded annually to the best individual footballer of that calendar year since 1956, past winners have included Zidane, Rivaldo, Platini and Cruyff, amongst countless others. Interestingly, only 5 Italians have ever won the award. Omar Sívori in 1961, Gianni Rivera in 1969, Paolo Rossi in 1982, Roberto Baggio in 1993, and Fabio Cannavaro in 2006, all legends of the game, in Italy and across the globe.
You may wonder why I would bring this up, in an article about an obscure Italian team from the Veneto region, currently hovering above the bottom of Serie B. The answer to this query is that two of these five winners started their career at Vicenza. Paolo Rossi played for Vicenza for four years, scoring more goals there than at any other club. Believe it or not, so did Roberto Baggio, one of the icons of Italian football, playing there for five years. In fact, both Rossi and Baggio were at the club at the same time as each other. Name another club that can boast having two Ballon D’Or winners playing for their team, simultaneously. Go on. I dare you.
Founded in 1902, Vicenza Calcio has a long and proud history. The town itself is several thousand years old, and is a world heritage site for its architecture. It would only be right that such history is also reflected in the local team. The large red “R”, seen spread across scarves and flags on matchdays, is the symbol of the club. This letter, a trademark symbol, is so chosen because Vicenza Calcio was one of the first teams in Italy to have its kit manufactured by a public company, a feature seen all over the globe today. Umbro took the reigns in 1970, a full 11 years before Milan and 9 years before Juventus also started using outside manufacturers. Besides this, the club itself was also one of the first in the country to have a mascot. The animal chosen was a cat, clad in Vicenza kit, and named Gatton Gattoni, derived from the Italian word for cat, “gatto”. The cat was supposedly chosen because the region has a historical reputation for cat eating. Or so I am told.
On the pitch, the club have had some very bright days. The best of these came towards the end of the 1990’s, when they reached the semi finals of the Cup Winners’ Cup, losing to Chelsea on aggregate in 1998. The previous year saw the capture of the Italian Cup, the club’s only domestic honour, defeating Napoli in the final. Although trophy success has been historically limited, there is more to football than just trophies. And on that note, the club holds the honour of spending more than 30 years in the highest division of Italian football, an amount of time many clubs can only dream of.
Currently, things are a little less promising. Despite finishing 3rd in Serie B last year, this season sees Vicenza fighting relegation. To be expected perhaps, provided the only reason they were even in the competition last year was because Siena had dissolved, and Vicenza was promoted from the league below as a replacement. This is not the first time this slice of fortune has struck the club. Lecce’s involvement in match-fixing in 2013 saw Vicenza placed in the Serie B at their expense, and the same thing occurred with Genoa in 2005. Essentially, the only reason Vicenza are where they are today is because of other clubs’ failings. If it weren’t for match-fixing, or financial problems in Serie B, they would almost certainly be one division lower down the ladder.
This would not necessary be an alien prospect for Vicenza. Despite 20 years of consistent top division appearances between 1955 and 1975, the club has always flirted with the lower of reaches of Italian football, and has, for the majority of its existence, been in these lower divisions. However, fans are beginning to grow impatient of recent stunted progress and who can blame them? They’re fans – they want to win.
Many clubs in Italy have ceased to exist due to financial problems. In the Veneto region, Treviso and Venezia are recent casualties. The most notable victim in recent times is perhaps Parma, who just last year were plying their trade in Serie A, but now have had to reform in the Serie D, the top level of non-professional football in Italy. Vicenza has been safe from these problems, possessing an owner who has enough financial clout to keep the club afloat.
For this, many are grateful. But the frustration is with the idea that the club is under-performing. With a history that boasts superb players, a Coppa Italia triumph and many years in the top division, fans feel the club is bigger than its current position resonates. The owner, although comfortably wealthy, has limited his spending in recent times, and the current manager would’ve left for Sicily by now, if the team that weren’t interested in him, Catania, hadn’t been caught up in match-fixing. You can see why so many are beginning to question their commitment to the club. A tepid 1-1 draw at home to fellow strugglers Pro Vercelli, followed by a 4-0 smashing away from home by Novara this past week did very little to persuade fans otherwise. Worrying times indeed.
Free of match-fixing and financial struggles that plague clubs across the country, Vicenza fans have a lot to be proud of. Add this to their long and intriguing history, and you have one great club on your hands. Over the years, Italian football has claimed many victims, and some clubs have never been able to recapture past successes. Let’s hope Italian football doesn’t claim another victim with the relegation of Vicenza to the third tier. Italian football has seen clubs in dire straits make success stories of themselves – Fiorentina and Napoli have been on the brink of administration in the past, and more recently Carpi and Sassuolo have shot up the footballing pyramid to the top tier. Let’s hope that Vicenza can follow their successes, consolidating their place in Serie B and pushing onwards. The great thing about football is, you just never know. An away day at the San Siro might be peeking just around the corner.
Written by Jack Flanagan
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