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James Kelly takes a look at Italian side Treviso FBC, a club whose rise and fall owes as much to off field issues as what happened on the pitch.
On 8th January 2006, Francesco Totti played in a Serie A match for AS Roma against Treviso FBC. Eleven years later and he is still in the eternal city, coming on for the final nine minutes of last Tuesday’s win over Fiorentina at the age of 40. This season is going well; his side currently sit 2nd in Serie A and are into the semi-finals of the Coppa Italia. What of his opposition that January afternoon though? Well they should never have been in Serie A, and after a dramatic fall are now fighting for their very existence, with the fact they held a training session on the day of the Roma -Fiorentina match big news.
Treviso can be found a forty minutes north of Venice, tucked away in the north-eastern corner of Italy. The city is home to some 80,000 and renowned as home of prosecco, tiramisu and fashion label Benetton. Owners of the rugby team and former sponsor of the city’s basketball and volleyball sides, this company has no involvement with the football club. That’s a massive problem, with a company that annually turns over €1.5 billion, and massive potential backer, seemingly ignoring them. As a result, pretty much all of Treviso’s history has been spent as a semi-pro team in the regional leagues, with the initial team going bankrupt in 1993.
Reinstated to Serie D, the refounded Treviso Foot-Ball Club 1993 then underwent a truly meteoric rise under former player Giuseppe Pillon. Three consecutive promotions were secured, winning Serie D Girone (Group) D in 1995, Serie C2 Girone B in 1996 and Serie C1 Girone A in 1997. Pillon departed for Padova, but the side then recorded three successive 8th place finishes under Gianfranco Bellotto in Serie B. Despite relegation in 2001 and a defeat in the 2002 playoffs, another C1 title was secured a year later. After surviving relegation in 2003/04, new manager Giancarlo D’Astoli was relieved of his duties in late October with the club languishing in 18th and in danger of another relegation. In came Pillon for a second spell at the club, where the seemingly perfect fit led to another charge up the table. Treviso finished the 2004/05 Serie B in a record equalling 5th place, lost 3-0 in the playoff semi-final to Perugia, and were promoted to Serie A. What?
That’s not a misprint, as a bizarre chain of events led to their ascension to Italy’s premier division. The top six of Serie B finished that season, in descending order: Genoa, Empoli, Torino, Perugia, Treviso and Ascoli. League winners Genoa and Empoli therefore went up, with the latter four making up the playoffs. In the other semi, Torino defeated Ascoli 3-1 and won the immaterial final against Perugia. Firstly, Genoa were found to have fixed the final game with Venezia, meaning their title was revoked and they were assigned bottom place. Then playoff winners Torino were unable to provide the Italian FA with suitable financial guarantees to allow promotion. Perugia were suffering under financial problems too, and were also relegated. It was therefore left to the ill-prepared semi-finalists Treviso, along with Ascoli, to make up the numbers in Serie A. Just 12 years after restarting as a club in the 5th tier, Treviso had reached the promised land by default.
Whilst both the basketball and rugby teams won their leagues in 2005-06, Treviso’s football club weren’t quite as successful. The campaign started with the side still not sure which league they would be playing in. Confirmation only came through on 16th August, eleven days before the opening day, where a trip to face Inter Milan awaited. Prior to this though top scorer Barreto had been sold to Udinese, albeit for over €5 million, Pillon departed once again, this time taking up the reigns at Chievo, and the side had been eliminated from the Coppa Italia by lowly AS Manfredonia.
Suitably worried by this result, new manager Ezio Rossi set about attracting players in a bid to build a squad capable of at least competing in Serie A. Within a fortnight the team was almost unrecognisable. By the end of September twenty-two players were signed, albeit some before the promotion was confirmed. Amongst these were experienced brothers Antonio and Emanuele Filippini, star of Torino’s promotion bid Pinga, future Liverpool defender Andrea Dossena, and current Inter Milan goalkeeper Samir Handanović. Only three players from the cup defeat kept their places for the Inter match, which unsurprisingly ended in a 3-0 defeat as Adriano scored a hat-trick.
It took until October to record a first top division point, from a 0-0 draw with Pillon’s Chievo. He probably looked at his floundering former club and told his players to go easy on the supporters for which he had done so much. Many fans didn’t actually get to see the first three matches, played 55km away in Padova due to the tiny capacity of Treviso’s own stadium, the Omobono Tanni. It wasn’t until the Italian FA bent the rules on stadium capacity that a game was actually hosted in the club’s city in late October. Requirements for top flight stadia to have a minimum of 20,000 seats were ruled exempt for settlements under 100,000 people, who could get away with a 10,000 seater. The move didn’t help though as, predictably, Treviso lost 2-1 to Empoli.
Three days later, over 1200km away in the southern port of Reggio Calabria, came a welcome 2-1 victory over Reggina. Two games after that though and manager Ezio Rossi was fired. Replacement Alberto Cavasin hardly fared better, with his only results by the winter break a 2-1 win over fellow strugglers Lecce and 0-0 draws with Cagliari and Messina. Despite being bottom with 11 points and their horrendous form, all was not lost, as there were only 2 points between Treviso and safety. Hopes were further raised when Belgian midfielder Walter Baseggio, once linked with Inter, and Slovak striker Blažej Vaščák arrived in the January transfer window. They’d both spent the first half of the season playing in the Champions League, whilst future Italy internationals Marco Borriello and Christian Maggio came in on loan. Furthermore, Cavasin genuinely seemed to be improving the side, with an away draw against Udinese and narrow 1-0 defeats to Roma and Inter in their first three games of 2006. It seemed entirely plausible that the club who shouldn’t have even had the chance to avoid relegation from Serie A had just that.
Then on 22nd January came an away game with Livorno, where leading until the 90th minute, Fabio Galante equalised to rob Treviso of 2 points. The following week, drawing 0-0 with Lazio, a 90th minute Tommaso Rocchi goal took another point. Put it down to mentality, poor fitness levels or something more sinister, in total 9 points were lost in the final three minutes of games from January to April. The second half of the season yielded no more wins for Cavasin, who was fired in February. In came third boss Diego Bortoluzzi who, despite managing a highly credible home draw with Juventus, had to wait 97 days for his first win; 2-1 on the final day against Udinese. By this stage all hopes of survival had evaporated, as a dismal final points total of 21 left them 18 points off safety. There was also a league worst goal difference to consider. Then Calciopoli broke.
Also known as the 2006 Italian football scandal, this involved an investigation into telephone calls where certain clubs were implicated to have chosen favourable referees for matches. Fiorentina, Juventus and Lazio were relegated on 14th July 2006 for their part. Serie A has three relegation places, and with these now occupied by the disgraced clubs, Treviso were safe. The team who only got into the league by way of a scandal looked set to have a second season thanks to further corruption.
There was to be one final blow though, as Fiorentina and Lazio successfully appealed their relegations and were re-instated to Serie A. This meant Treviso were now 19th, albeit above the now pointless Juve, and relegated. Not many teams can claim to have finished above their country’s most successful team in their only top flight season, but a title that hollow was only the beginning. They did try and appeal the decision, taking it to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, but their evidence was declared as invalid.
Having not been equipped for Serie A, the same was true of Serie B, for different reasons. The club now had a higher payroll than ever thanks to the stream of signings to try and keep them up. The players who had performed well in the top flight left. These included joint top scorers Reginaldo and Marco Borriello, with the former sold to Fiorentina and latter recalled from loan by AC Milan. Around €7m was reclaimed in sales and removed wages, but this was still short of clearing the mounting debts as they slumped to a 13th place finish in their first season back in Serie B.
The 2007/08 season was hailed as the renaissance, with arguably one of the best squads in the league and Pillon re-appointed for a third spell. Club president Ettore Setten was desperate to get back into Serie A, with his appetite whetted for more top division football. In reality this campaign killed the club. In came lots of loanees from Serie A clubs, along with their Serie A wages. Bear in mind this was in Serie B, a league where Treviso averaged attendances of 3500, received little TV money and still had no sponsorship deal with Benetton. Inacio Piá on a six-month loan, costing some €400,000, was the big expense. The Brazilian arrived along with Ivano Trotta and Nicolás Amodio from Napoli. Former striker Barreto also returned from Udinese, along with Alex Calderoni from Atalanta and future Juventus star Leonardo Bonucci. The plan was something like signing good players would lead to promotion, and the debts would be outweighed in the long term by the increased riches on offer in Serie A.
As is the norm for Treviso, the plan didn’t work. In the 22 team league they sat 19th at Christmas. Cue further signings, with veteran defender Lorenzo D’Anna from Piacenza, Arturo Lupoli from Fiorentina, Andrea D’Agostino from Atalanta and worst of all, €1 million spent on Federico Giunti, a 32 year old defensive midfielder who retired at the end of the season. No matter how much money Setten threw at the club, the 21 point gap to the play-offs proved insurmountable. They did climb to 17th, but things hardly got any better after the season when 23 year old midfielder Gionata Mingozzi tragically died in a car accident. In the resulting 2008/09 campaign, Treviso ended even further from the playoffs, over 30 points, and were relegated in last place. Once again though, final league standing did not determine their division for next season. This time Treviso were not given a league, instead being declared bankrupt by the Italian FA.
The club was refounded again, this time taking the name ASD Treviso 2009, and entered into the 5th division Eccellenza. The name ironically translating as “excellence”, this league consisted of 28 groups divided by region, with Treviso placed in Veneto Girone B. The season ended in 7th, and points wise the club were closer to relegation than promotion. As usual though, this was not the end. Due to the amount of teams that went bankrupt in the 2009-10 Lega Pro Seconda, lots of teams were promoted from Serie D to make up the numbers. These however were not replaced by teams relegated from the Lega Pro, many of whom ceased to exist. This therefore created mass vacancies in the upcoming Serie D season, with Treviso one of 21 Eccellenza teams picked for promotion by the league’s administration, owing to their past history and financial status. Once more they’d been promoted through the boardroom.
The following season they actually managed to win promotion on the pitch, finishing 4 points clear of bitter rivals Venezia to win Serie D Girone C. Mastermind of this Diego Zanin then jumped ship, or should that be gondola, to Venice. Since their last spell in Serie C though, the league had once more been reformed, changing from Serie C1 and C2 to Lega Pro Prima and Seconda. Treviso stormed to the Seconda title to mean a third promotion in three years yet again, and as a result started the 2012-13 season just one league below Serie B. The problem however was they finished bottom of Prima Girone B, then going bankrupt for a second time in four years.
As a result ACD Treviso 2013 was founded, once more entering Veneto Girone B, although this time in the then 7thth tier Promozione, one level below the Eccellenza. They finished 3rd, going up via the playoffs after an 88th minute goal against Godigese in the final. 540 spectators were present, and their opponents were such a big club they don’t even have a Wikipedia page. Cue more league changes, as the Lega Pro abandoned its two-tiered structure in favour of three regional leagues, thus moving all leagues below up by one level and restoring the Eccellenza as the fifth division of the pyramid. In Veneto Girone B, Treviso ended in 8th place, whilst last season reached the regional playoff final. This time though luck was against them, as they lost 1-0 to San Donà thanks to a 77th minute penalty.
At this point I would love to tell you how the current season is going swimmingly and promotion is firmly set in Treviso’s sights. Unfortunately not, as the club are now dangerously close to dying for a third time in eight years. This is mainly down to a new president, Tiziano Nardin, who assumed control on 8th July 2016.
During his short period in charge, the club have once again racked up debts. No player has been paid all season and the local council aren’t receiving rent for use of the stadium. All the first team when he took over have left, with only the youth players helping them to get this far into the season. It is now a case of the club, i.e. the fans and players, at war with the owner. In a literal sense too, as after a 2-1 loss to Liapiave in December, during which suspended defender Alessio Romeo was tasked with selling tickets, a group of ultras drove to Nardin’s house and beat him up.
On 22nd January, the team didn’t show up for an away game against Portomansuè, the first time in club history a match had to be forfeited. In response, the supporter page on Facebook posted a black screen with the caption “the saddest Sunday in our history”. The next two games were also not played, resulting in 3-0 wins for their opponents. Two weeks ago, the youth players went on strike. The club website, previously dormant for two months, was used to publish a list of those expected to travel for the game against Liventina. Seen as a move by the owner to pressurise his team into playing, the only response Nardin got was a letter. Openly addressed to the fans, most of whom supported their actions, the squad outlined their reasons for staying away, sarcastically thanking Mr Nardin for “ruining 108 years of history”. Striker Nima Oulomi went further than this, taking to Facebook to write, “Treviso cannot continue to receive humiliations by teams that do not deserve these victories”.
This left the club without a team for their upcoming match with San Donà, and if this one was forfeited, it would mean more than a 3-0 loss. If the game didn’t go ahead, then Treviso would be thrown out the league and cease to exist. Alessio Sundas, the sports agent involved in the sale of the club, promised to solve the matter, commenting a few days before the match that he had twenty of the best free agents around ready to sign. His Facebook profile 24 hours before the match told a very different story though, reading “urgently needed, striker and midfielder, ready to play”.
After this frantic search for bodies, eighteen players were assembled for Sunday’s match; it ended in a club record 10-1 defeat. That was unsurprising, given only two of the ten new players were defenders, whilst the rest of the squad was composed of eight long-suffering youth players who had agreed to don their boots once more. The fact the match went ahead at all can be argued to be a fantastic result as, for the moment, the club have survived.
There’s apparently more players on the way, but what platform of social media Sundas uses to recruit them this time is anyone’s guess. The prolonged sale by Nardin is finally due to be completed this week after more than three months of negotiations. Supporters are increasingly calling to end the madness and simply restart the club. How exactly they’d do that is another question, with one suggestion I saw on Facebook being “kidnapping the squad so they miss a fourth match and are then excluded from the league”. It sounds completely ludicrous, but then again that has become the norm at Treviso.