When is a home game no longer a home game? When the ‘home’ team are obliged to abandon their stadium and host the fixture on an unfamiliar site? Perhaps when their supporters are easily outnumbered by those of the opposition? What if both of those things were true and the new venue was more than 500 miles away – as the crow flies – from their home town, on a completely different land mass?
That was the situation facing Cagliari as they hosted Internazionale on Saturday at the Stadio Nereo Rocco in Trieste. A team representing a city from the south coast of Sardinia, an island located to the west of the Italian mainland, had been transplanted to the north-east corner of the peninsula, about as far away as it is possible to be without leaving the country altogether. To get there by car from Cagliari, supporters would have to take a 1,400 mile round-trip, including a near five-hour ferry journey each way.
Those same fans would have had just five days to make their travel arrangements. News that the fixture had been moved from their existing home the Stadio Sant’Elia arrived only last Monday. Incredibly, this was not the consequence of unavoidable external factors but of a decision made by the club’s own president. Frustrated with the slow pace of rennovations being conducted by local authorities (the stadium is communally owned), Cellino had requested permission for the move directly from the league.
Grounds for moving the fixture did indeed exist, the Sant’Elia’s capacity having been reduced by the ongoing work to below the 20,000 minimum required by league rules. That had been the case for some time, however, and the authorities had thus far been content to give dispensation to a club that wasn’t selling out its home fixtures in any case. It was Cellino who could no longer abide the solution. His actions were interpreted as a backlash against the city council, sparked not only by problems with the existing stadium but the continued failure to break ground on a new one.
Minor upgrades, after all, will no longer suffice for the Sant’Elia, a stadium which was never intended to be used for so long in its present state. Cellino and the local authorities had worked together to find a pragmatic solution back in 2002, throwing up temporary bleachers on top of the stadium’s running track after the league had deemed its crumbling Curve to be unfit for use. “That scaffolding was meant to last a year,” reflected Cellino recently. Instead it has survived for a decade.
In the interim Cellino has strived to secure a new home for his team, to the extent that Cagliari had at one point looked set to lead the wave of next generation stadiums so long anticipated on the peninsula. As early as 2008 artist’s impressions of the new Karalis Arena were being circulated, depicting a new 25,000-seater venue whose simple and economical design would supposedly allow for building work to be completed within a year of authorisation being granted.
Four years later, though, there has been almost no progress. Cellino’s initial plan to site the stadium near to Cagliari-Elmas airport was met with safety concerns from the local aviation authorities. Eventually the courts became involved, siding against the club. Instead of giving up on the idea and exploring other options, Cellino simply dug his heels in, leading to a stalemate in which progress became next to impossible.
Only recently has Cellino given the impression of seriously investigating alternatives. Cagliari’s mayor, Massimo Zedda, has made it clear that he will not simply grant the club the land on which the Sant’Elia sits, stating it to be worth at least €50m. He has suggested an alternative site in via San Paolo, but Cellino now seems rather more taken with a possible venue in neighbouring Quartu. The latter can offer a more sizeable plot on which to build, but perhaps most significantly would mean working with a different local authority.
Cellino has publicly insisted in recent weeks that he does not blame Cagliari’s council for the present situation, noting that Zedda was only voted in less than a year ago. “Attacking him would mean attacking myself,” said the owner, reminding us of his own local credentials as a man born and raised in Cagliari. “We have the same objective, he of maintaining the image of the city, I that of Cagliari Calcio … The city of Cagliari and Cagliari Calcio existed before us and they will continue to do so afterwards.”
Yet as Cellino added in the same statement, actions speak louder than words. It was evident from Zedda’s reaction of the switch to Trieste that this was not a shared decision. “It is unacceptable that Cagliari Calcio’s decision to go and play their last home games in Trieste should in any way be placed on the shoulders of the council,” he said.
“I want to remind people that if the Rossoblù have been able to play in front of its own fans these last few months it is to the credit of the council, which has worked in every way possible to guarantee that matches could take place in the city ever since the Sant’Elia was declared unsatisfactory by the assessment commission. We have done the same for the upcoming matches, in fact we have worked even harder: regardless of what anyone says to the contrary.”
Relations between the two have soured to such an extent that Zedda has threatened to seize the club’s TV rights income, claiming that the council is owed €2.5m for maintenance work undertaken at the Sant’Elia. Cellino, meanwhile, has successfully requested that their next home fixture, against Catania, will also be played in Trieste. Increasingly it seems likely that this will remain the set-up for the remainder of the season.
The real losers, of course, will be the supporters, a portion of whom are now considering a class-action lawsuit against the club, on the basis that the late announcement of a venue change left them out of pocket. Only a small percentage of those with tickets for the original fixture ever made it to Trieste, and those that did found themselves shouldering additional travel costs.
Their inconvenience seems to have become the giant elephant in Cellino’s room, the owner focusing in his public pronouncements only on the state of the Sant’Elia or the generous welcome afforded by the Trieste authorities. He has noted how the club previously made a temporary move to Tempio during stadium restructuring work back in 2004, but the comparison is facile. The latter town, unlike Trieste, is still on the island of Sardinia.
It is also true that Cellino is hurting his own team, depriving them of homefield advantage. More than one journalist wondered aloud on Sunday whether certain refereeing decisions would gone against the team had they been playing before a partisan crowd in their own city. Ferdinando Secchi, the politician and season-ticket holder of 40 years who was first to publicly air the idea of a fan lawsuit against the club, went even further.
“Beyond penalising the Rossoblù, Cellino risks falsifying the entire league,” said Secchi. “Juventus are set to play their potentially decisive penultimate game of the season away at a ground where there will be very few Cagliari fans present.”
With all the recent bickering that has gone on between Milan and Juventus over refereeing decisions, it is certainly easy to see how this could become one more argument that Serie A could do without. Cellino may be unconcerned by the prospect of alienating his own team’s supporters, but if he is not careful he could soon be provoking the wrath of plenty more besides.