It was the least satisfying 3-0 win of Zdenek Zeman’s career. “These sorts of things only happen in Italy,” protested the Roma manager upon returning to the Italian capital following his team’s appointment in Cagliari this weekend. “The most difficult thing is trying to explain what happened to our foreign players.”
Even the Italian ones might have found the events of the past few days too bizarre to comprehend. On Friday it was confirmed by the league that their match against Cagliari would have to be played behind closed doors, the Sardinian club’s new Is Arenas home having not yet been signed off as safe to host supporters by the local authorities. And yet a day later, Cagliari’s owner, Massimo Cellino, told those fans to come on down anyway.
“Given the ongoing bureaucratic difficulties and institutional disinterest which are making it impossible to see a future for the club, Cagliari Calcio is inviting all ticket and season ticket holders to go to the stadium for the Cagliari-Roma match in a civil and orderly way,” read a statement posted on the club’s website, and signed off with the owner’s name. “Cagliari Calcio and its engineers hold the structure to be safe and useable.”
It was an invitation which caught the both the league and the local authorities off guard. Fearing significant public disorder, the latter ruled that the match simply could not go ahead. Initially it was announced that it would be postponed to a later date, but within less than 24 hours the league had confirmed that the match would be awarded as a 3-0 victory for the visitors.
This was a decision which had been openly sought by Roma, with the club’s general manager Franco Baldini arguing that any other outcome would undermine the integrity of the lawmakers. The league’s sporting judge, Doctor Gianpaolo Tosel, agreed—Serie A’s statement described Cellino’s actions as a “clear violation of article 12 … which obliges clubs to rigorously observe any measures taken by the public authorities in the interests of public security.”
Cellino, unsurprisingly, had a different take. Cagliari’s owner is presently in Miami, where he resides for a large part of the year, but that did not stop him from posting a series of further statements on the club’s website, both defending his actions and then tearing into his critics.
The first, signed off ‘Il Presidente’, pointed to a specific letter – reference number 555/00353/2012/ONM – addressed by the National Observatory for Sporting Events to the local authorities and dated 20th September. According to the statement, this note had “expressly mentioned allowing access to ticketed fans under specific conditions, all of which were respected and in operation Stadio Is Arenas.”
Furthermore, Cellino contended that his actions were designed not to increase public disorder but to diminish it. Stating that he had heard “through the internet” that groups of Ultras were planning to show up on Sunday for an organised protest, he claimed that his statement encouraging only genuine ticket-holding fans could have helped dissipate a nasty atmosphere.
If that sounds like an attempt to make two wrongs equal a right, then we should not be entirely surprised. This, after all, is an owner who once ordered his team’s fans to wear purple—supposedly an unlucky colour—to a game in order to cancel out the bad fortune created by having to play their opening fixture on the 17th of September. So convinced is Cellino of the number 17’s negative connotations that he refuses to let any member of his squad wear it.
Fierce ripostes were aimed at both Baldini and the league’s president Maurizio Beretta, who had described the events as an “ugly page” in the history of Italian football. The former was likened to a vulture for seeking to take advantage of another’s misfortune. The latter was accused of speaking out of turn before Dr Tosel’s judgement had been reached.
We have come to expect such forthright opinions from Cellino. An owner who has changed managers 34 times since first taking over the club in 1991, he rarely backs down once his mind is set. Two years ago, he froze the goalkeeper Federico Marchetti (then Italy’s No2) out of his team for a full season because the player had the audacity to admit in an interview that he had previously considered a move away.
The shame of the present situation is that in a broader sense Cellino has been trying to do something positive: constructing a new home to establish a viable future for the club. Where other Italian teams have become trapped in a form of stasis—waiting for government to pass the now infamous stadium law—he has at least attempted to take action.
The law in question, which includes provisions to make planning permission more straightforward and to allow teams building new venues to also construct accompanying stores and hotels in order to recoup their outlay, is awaiting approval from the Italian senate. Yet it’s been making its way through parliament for so long now that many have lost faith that it will ever be passed. “Born with the best intentions, it has done nothing but worsen the situation,” notes La Repubblica’s Fabrizio Bocca.
Cellino, frustrated at his inability to reach an agreement with the local authorities on much needed upgrade work to his team’s existing home at Stadio Sant’Elia, had reached out to neighbouring communities, finally settling earlier this year on the site of the new Is Arenas in Quartu. Having found a model for a stadium that could be built economically and swiftly, he invested his own money in the construction of the new venue rather than seeking public financing as others have tried to do.
Yet for all the positive action he has taken it is hard to swallow Cellino’s representation of himself as a man of the people, trying to help the loyal fans get to a game, when just last season he chose to move home games to Trieste, more than 500 miles away, rather than sticking it out at the Sant’Elia for just a few more weeks. Cynics have noted the high ticket prices he was able to charge Juventus fans to see their team seal the Scudetto in that city.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of the arguments regarding the Is Arenas’ readiness to host fans, the fact is that last weekend Cellino acted unilaterally and in direct disobedience of decisions handed down by local authorities seeking to ensure public safety. Both he and his club may yet face further sanctions from the league.
“I think Cellino is angry and that a lot of other people are even more angry with Cellino,” said Zeman on Tuesday when asked for his thoughts. “We ought to listen to them more.”
The Roma manager was in no mood to celebrate this most nominal of victories—having noted previously that football’s purpose is to entertain its fans. It is they who once again emerge as the biggest losers, though it can only be hoped that Cellino, too, will eventually have regrets about handing three points to an opponent who were without Daniele De Rossi, Francesco Totti and Daniel Pablo Osvaldo, and who hadn’t won away to Cagliari since 1995.