If you were to visit Italy for the first time and spent your entire trip in Emilia Romagna you would end up going home very much in love with the region, it’s cities, the cuisine, the wine and all its culture, but you might have the wrong idea of Italy because Emilia is freakishly flat! It’s so flat the Dutch must feel at home here!!
A train through the region from Lombardia will see you stop at a host of towns, famous for culinary gems as well as football! Parma, the ham and smelly hard cheese capital of the region, as well as having a once glorious wee team football who knocked on the door of the big boys with Cup Winners Cup and Coppa Italia successes on their CV as well as being regular bridesmaids in lo Scudetto ahead of the Parmalat demise and the eventual fall from grace of the club. The long and winding road back is now complete with Parma nestled back into Serie A this season. I have never been to the Ennio Tardini stadium, the only absentee in any shape or form from the teams mentioned in this article! I did see them at Venezia last season winning 1-0 en route to A!
The next major station is Reggio Emilia, less famous perhaps in the food marketing business but Reggiano to the Parmigiano is still a name to conjure with! Reggio Emilia was home to Reggiana before they went bust last summer, and they have relaunched, as Audace Reggio in the fourth tier. The city also play host to nearby small town team Sassuolo who haven’t just moved into Reggio, but as they have established themselves in Serie A, they have bought, nurtured and expanded Stadio Mappei into a shopping mall, cinema and gym revenue earner! Audace Reggio still use the stadium as tenants! Sassuolo continue to grow and progress in the top flight. I saw two games at the Mapei last term, both ended in draws, with Reggiana ahead of bankruptcy drawing with Marche boys Sambenedettese 1-1, and then Sassuolo held Sampdoria 0-0, providing me with a third Samp game and I have yet to see them do anything but draw 0-0!!
The next town down the line is Modena, home of Ferrari, Balsamic oil, and Luciano Pavarotti! Like the towns above, prosperity is everywhere, and yet the tales of these clubs is a sad essay on the state of the Italian game in the modern era. Modena did make it to Serie A more than a decade ago, a mere fleeting visit, followed by a slow decline into the lower reaches of the third tier last season where the whole thing imploded and they retired from the championship having gone bust by September! They are back, jousting with Audace in Serie D this term, but neither are desperately well placed for an immediate return to C. Modena also had to suffer hosting local side Carpi when their wee neighbour hit Serie A for a season, a classic case of another small team punching above its weight, but with Carpi back in Serie B after their one glorious term in the top flight, they play at their own modified and expanded 5,500 capacity Sandro Cabassi stadium in little Carpi.
The train will then pull into Bologna the capital of the region, the culinary hot bed that gave its name to a particularly tasty variety of sauce for dolloping on spaghetti! Without doubt Bologna Calcio 1909 are the most famous club in the region. They certainly are the biggest team, with the best stadium and the best support, but largely they just exist, when did you last recall Bologna setting the heather on fire? Indeed, as you’ll discover when we set off south of Bologna, the region is vast and prosperous economically but with a startling poor return in terms of footballing success in the modern era! However before we head south, a bowl of Spaghetti Bolognese with lashings of Parmesan cheese, complete with Modenese balsamic oil poured over the classic hard italian bread, washed down with a local Lambrusco wine anyone?!!
The Renato Dall ‘Ara stadium in Bologna is a fabulous place with neo-classical facades outside on the side of the famous tower. Plans are afoot to dramatically alter the look of the ground, bringing the seats closer to the action and roof the majority of the fans. When trotted the lengthy walk out of the magnificent city centre to see Bologna host Torino, it was a dreadful match, mid-table April joust with limited ambition for either team. Toro won it merely by waking up in the last few minutes when Bologna didn’t take enough heid of one breakaway, and minutes later they paid the price, pulling the attacker down, and the resulted penalty dispatched with almost the last kick off the ball. In September, just a few months later I was back to see Italy play their first Nation’s League game against Poland. It was also Roberto Mancini’s first game in charge and an entertaining game ended 1-1, with the colourful Polish fans a highlight of the game and indeed the day, painting the city red and white!
South of Bologna the terrain doesn’t change at all, it is still flat, with lots of agriculture and wine groves. All in the name of capturing journalistic flavour (food and wine sampling also undertaken in similar name!) for this piece I spent a few days in April last year investigating the region, and even managed to bag 4 games in the process! The first stop a mere 20 minutes outside the capital is perhaps more famous for its Grand Prix circuit, Imola. The San Marino Grand Prix used to whirr around the track, and while I doubt Imolese would ever be at home on the same day, if they were, it would be a right old din in the background as their sleepy, yet very tidy 4,000 capacity stadio Romeo Galli is right across from the race track! Imolese of course are a small club with limited resources and ambition, but last season they were knocking on the door of the third tier embroiled in a three way tussle for the one automatic promotion slot. The other two involved were playing each other that weekend, and as luck would have it, the game was in this region further “south”, stayed tuned!! Imolese missed out on automatic promotion, but they did go up courtesy of the number of teams that went out of business, and they are immediately in the mix to have a shot at promotion to Serie B, which would be an unbelievable rise!
The next football “hotspot” (I put in inverted commas as I guess it is meant ironically!) is the beautiful town of Forli, another 20 minutes on train from Imola! Again a team with no pedigree of any note, and having been jousting with some bigger named clubs in the third tier for a few seasons such occasions would be considered comparatively successful for Forli! When you first cast your eye over the Tullo Morgagni stadium (small capacity 3,466) with it’s velodrome cycle track around it, you can see that football isn’t always the number one sport, and with a rugby stadium across the back, calcio has a few rivals in town! Forli were managed last term by a hero of mine, Massimo Gadda, who was worshipped in the heyday of Ancona, if they had one?!! Sadly Forli only got a crack a staying in the re-branded Serie C via the Play Outs because Ancona were so bad, but Forli weren’t much better and in the two matches I witnessed here, both Maceratese and Bassano Virtus ran out easy winners! Although in the Maceratese match it took me ten minutes to realise that the side in the red and white stripes were the visitors and not the hosts!! Oddly, despite no clash of colours versus Bassano they still trotted out bereft of red stripes!! Forli lost in the Play Outs, a uniquely Italian last gasp saloon to stay up, and Gadda was gone too. They are struggling in the fourth tier jousting with a much “bigger” team further down the track, coming soon! Forli as a town is a rather splendid place, well worth a days visit and not just for the football. The main square is fabulous as are the streets in and around it, as well as its famous “Rocca” castle.
Back on the train for another twenty minutes (are these places all equidistant ?!!) and the next big stop is maybe finally a name you have come across in football, Cesena. Not just a quaint, well ordered town; not just a major Bologna University campus town, but home to one of the best run provincial clubs anywhere in Italy, let alone Emilia Romagna, or so we thought!! They traditionally make periodic appearances in the top flight, last promoted to Serie A in 2010 which was a fourth promotion to the top table for a club only founded in 1940! The high point was in 75/76 with a 6th place finish in Serie A being good enough to qualify for Europe, where they suffered a round one exit in the UEFA Cup against then East German side Magdeburg, losing 4-3 on aggregate but they gave it a real go having lost the first leg away 3-0! They became only the second Emilia side to play in Europe, and 40 years on, only Parma and Sassuolo have been added to that roster!! But the aforementioned sides have perhaps rumbled Cesena’s status as once being the second team of the region behind Bologna! Cesena’s strength has always been it’s youth policy and to this day the clubs younger talents will always be highly sought throughout Italy. The Dino Manuzzi stadium is one of the best all seaters in Italy (capacity 23,900, not bad for a town/catchment area of 97,000), with the double tiered stands tight to the field on three sides, aiding the creation of an intimidating atmosphere. I first stepped off a train in Cesena in June 1987 (yip twenty minutes coming the other way! Our next destination on this odyssey!) to see the “Seahorses” play (it is ironic that the emblem of a landlocked town team should be a seahorse!), it was my first game in Italy! Thinking back, it was incredible we got tickets but having arrived 6 hours before kick off we went straight to the stadium to get our briefs as promotion to Serie A was on that day! The stadium was absolutely full, the last game in the ground with the enormously high and bouncing temporary stands, before it was very quickly reconstructed to its magnificent present day look! A 2-1 win versus Catania didn’t get them up automatically that day as other results hadn’t all gone their way, but they did make it up via a convoluted three way play off, with a “final” play off win 2-1 against Lecce in San Benedetto del Tronto! I have had the pleasure of four subsequent matches in Cesena over the intervening years which capture the see-saw fortunes of the club. I earned my stripes with third tier action v Pro Sesto (2008), Serie B versus Bari (2006) and Serie A v Inter (2011) which saw another full house and a very memorable match! Cesena were leading right until the end, when two late strikes from the visitors broke the bianconeri hearts! In April last year Brescia were in town for a mid week league fixture, and while both clubs have Serie A pedigree, last season they were both struggling to make it clear of the relegation zone. I know Brescia is a fair distance from Cesena for a midweek game, but it was surprising to see no away fans, after all, these two clubs have “fan” friendship! Indeed, the local Ultras were operating a first half protest of their own, with their “zone” empty and no singing. Cesena played relaxed and well to the polite applause of a sizeable crowd, and deserved the lead at the break. Protest over, the tape was removed and the Ultras banners were swaying and the atmosphere returned to normality, but oddly their first ditty was “Brescia, Brescia”, an acknowledgement of their absent friends! Brescia had upped their game and were much more menacing and got the equaliser. Cesena pressed for a winner and despite some terrific near things that came and went, we all trotted out after a 1-1 draw! The sad footnote to last season was the clubs involvement in an accountancy scam with Chievo Verona, where an inflated transfer fee, subsequently rumbled created a cataclysmic sized debt, and AC Cesena joined so many others in going bust. Two leagues down, FC replacing AC, and the club are looking certain for promotion from a division that includes Forli and tidily Santarcangelo for derby matches. The once great regional derby Cesena v Bologna is a few seasons off yet, sadly!
You know the drill, twenty minutes on the train, next stop this time a relatively well known name, but not really for it’s football, Rimini. We’ve reached the Adriatic Sea! Rimini old town is different to the vast mile upon mile of hotel/beach combo that was once a staple of the British tourist, but not so much these days. The old town with it’s Roman gateway and wall still visible is a really nice relaxed place. The restaurants, bars and nightclub Rimini is further down the coast. Rimini Calcio, whose unusual red and white squares make them the Bristol Rovers of Italy! They have never been to Serie A, but they have enjoyed periods in the second tier. Latterly they were in the third division until the obligatory bankruptcy issues (4 in total now!) saw them have to start again most recently from the 5th tier. Promotion last term brought them to Serie D or what used to be known as Interregionale, a tough old bracket to get out of with just one promotion place per league and just one “potential” play off slot from the 9 Serie D leagues, a route successfully negotiated by good old Triestina last season, who are back in Serie C after a long period in the doldrums! Rimini followed Triestina back in C this term and avoided the logjam of local derbies in the fourth tier! Rimini’s stadium, the Romeo Neri (capacity 9.768) is a well kept place and while it has a brand new running track around it, the playing surface is also a very modern 3G pitch!
We have crossed Emilia Romagna from it’s most North West football outpost at Parma and made it to the sea at Rimini in an almost straight line like a red and blue sash on an old Bologna away kit, okay a bit more squiggly but you get the idea! From here you can either continue the beach resort route south through Riccione and Cattolica into Marche, or head up the equally beach laden coast further into the region once more, and that is our chosen direction. While Riccione and Cattolica have football teams, they plough quiet furrows in the 5th tier happily, as does the team from our next destination, Cesenatico. Twenty minutes? I can’t honestly recall, I think nearer 30!! Cesenatico is Cesena’s seaside chum, and easily reached in no time direct from Cesena by bus or car. Cesenatico is a very classy seaside town with a fabulous river running up through it’s centre too. Here away from the hotel’s you’ll find a magnificent array of restaurants, with fresh fish high on the menu, and with the small fishing boats docked in the river right next to the restaurants you would be disappointed if it wasn’t fresh! Marco Pantani, the famous cyclist was from Cesena, and his museum of trophies, kits and bicycles is right at the Cesenatico railway station, well worth a peek if you are a cycling fan! En route to finding the Stadio Communale I came across the Cesena team bus parked outside the town’s most exclusive hotel! This was the afternoon before the Brescia game and whether it was merely to rest, or eat properly, I never did see any sign of any of the squad! Cesenatico calcio have pinned their future on being a youth developing team, piggy backing the Cesena academy perhaps. They once made it to the fourth tier, but such lofty advancement seems unlikely ever again, however with a 9,500 capacity stadium the potential is there!
The last stop a little further up the line from Cesenatico (or direct from Bologna) is one of the pearls of the region, the stunning town of Ravenna, which has UNESCO Heritage status. It is a very busy tourist hub, and if you have never been I’d implore everyone to sample the delights of Ravenna at some point in life. It’s football team had a big match with Delta Rovigo, a Veneto side from not so far away at the top of their Serie D division the day I was in town. It was a glorious Sunday and a big crowd had turned out for the game. The stadium, the Bruno Benelli is way too big for this level (capacity 12,020) and hints that Ravenna have once been at a higher level. Serie B is about as good as it ever got, but that is two leagues above where they were last season. Given the importance of winning this encounter the level of play struggled to get beyond scrappy, but Delta rarely threatened and the only goal coming after half an hour or so settle Ravenna, who ran out winners. The following week, a draw was enough to win the league and they could start to make plans for Serie C this season.I was well impressed not just with Ravenna the city, but also the team and its great fans, I will be keeping an eye on their results this season, and they are like Imolese in with a chance of B come the end of season play-offs! The groundsman must have nightmares at Ravenna this term as having watched two games online in monsoon conditions, the pitch is in a real Baseball Ground of old state!
One Emilia Romagna club in Serie A I haven’t mentioned is S.P.A.L from Ferrara, which is north of Bologna and on a different rail line between Bologna and Padova, hence not in my “catchment” area for this article, but a wonderful city and club. I went to see them play Crotone at the end of September 2017 and you’ll find a separate article “incoming” all about the city and S.PA.L!
The only “southern” Emilia club of any note missed off my roster is the wee town of Santarcangelo, who are in Serie D now having been punching above their weight in the third tier, but they are such a wee dot on the map (between Cesena and Rimini), and such wee club (ground capacity 3,000!) C life was about as good as it will get for them!
So there you have it Emilia-Romagna’s north and south teams all brought to life and a morsel of colour, I hope. If the big match atmosphere isn’t always your craving, and if you want to combine culture, cuisine and calcio with a morsel of sun, then this is a wonderful region of Italy to give that theory a whirl, the options are plentiful!!