/ 13 October 2007

Church hopes to save soul of Italian football

Yes, said Claudio Amicucci, some of the other fans were having some difficulty coming to grips with the idea. ”It’s such a big and original project.”

Amicucci had turned up early to watch his team, AC Ancona, play their first game since learning that they were in effect being taken over by the Roman Catholic Church. Representatives of the CSI, the sporting arm of the Italian bishops’ conference, joined the board this week after pledging â,¬1,6-million a year in new sponsorship. They want new standards of ethics and fairness.

”But since there are no ethics, and there is no fairness, in Italian football some of the lads don’t really understand,” said Amicucci. He was entirely serious. As well he might be. Serie C1, the Italian third division in which Ancona play, is not exactly renowned for its Christian values.

”Ninety percent of the clubs are in the red. And, in several cases, the chairmen have either gone to jail — or are about to,” chuckled Renzo Magnani as we sped towards Ancona’s ground in an ample limousine hired by the CSI.

Typically, clubs are bought up by seemingly prosperous businessmen and, with luck, cash is forthcoming. The side climbs the league table until police arrive to take away the boss, usually following the discovery that he was taking out rather more than he was putting in.

Twice in the past 15 years Ancona’s biancorossi, so called after their red-and-white strip, have battled their way to Serie A. Twice, they have lost a chairman to a prison cell. Twice, they have fallen back into sporting purgatory.


The Catholic Church has a long association with football — in Italy churches often have an adjoining youth-cum-social club, with facilities that invariably include a football pitch. But the CSI’s project at Ancona is much more ambitious than promoting kickabouts after Mass. It is aiming for the moral rearmament of Italian professional football. ”A decision had to be taken to go in and change things from inside,” said Magnani, who was given the job of finding a suitable club.

He counted off Ancona’s plus points. They might be suffering in C1 now, but just three years ago the biancorossi were playing Juventus, Milan and Roma. The club had a 28 000-seat ground and a clean balance sheet, having been rescued last time round by a much-respected local entrepreneur. Ancona is in the middle of Italy, so no one could accuse the church of favouring north or south. ”And then, of course … it is only 10 miles from [the shrine of] Loreto,” he added.

The initiative has come at a bleak time for Italy’s best-loved sport. A scandal over match-fixing last year saw Juventus relegated to a lower division and other Seria A sides penalised. This year, a police officer died in clashes with fans outside a stadium in Sicily.

Romano Prodi’s centre-left government has since forced clubs to comply with legislation on ground safety and crowd control that had gone ignored due to cost. Like many other clubs, Ancona still have not implemented the law in full, so their elegant Conero stadium can only accommodate one-third of its capacity.

February’s killing proved to many fans what they already knew but often refused to acknowledge — that hooliganismo had taken possession of the Italian game. Surveys indicate up to a million fans who followed the 2006-07 season are not engaging with the current one. ”If someone doesn’t take up this challenge in Italy, football will soon be playing to empty grounds,” said Massimo Achini, a CSI director on the Ancona board.

This is not the only footballing initiative by the church since Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, a football fan, became the Vatican Secretary of State, in effect its prime minister. This year saw the inauguration of the Clericus cup between Vatican-related sides. And Bertone has talked of one day fielding a national team to represent the Holy See.

But the CSI’s involvement with Ancona is here and now. On Wednesday, at his general audience, the pope blessed the biancorossi after the captain presented him with the team’s strip.

Future plans

Achini is clear about what happens next. There is to be a complete reorganisation of the youth teams, to build for the future and do away with exploitation. No more trading or tying of young players. And families are being lured back, with CSI subsidising the price of tickets for couples with children.

Ancona’s new masters also aim to make better use of the stadium so that it becomes more commercially viable, with talks with Disney on providing entertainment facilities for children.

Squad members, meanwhile, are to be turned into models of virtuous behaviour, and will have to set aside a certain number of hours each month for good works. ”There are lots of clubs in which the players sponsor projects,” said Achini. ”But what really happens is that the manager picks them up a half an hour before and says we’re going to this or that hospital. The players have no real idea what they’re doing.”

Achini envisaged players spending about 10 hours a month with ”the elderly, disabled people and lads in the parishes”. He added: ”Our aim is not to save football, but to give a valid witness. We hope that witness gets picked up by other clubs and used as a sort of template. What is needed is to bring the true values of sport back into the professional game. Like it or not, football has a vast impact on the young.”

Back at the ground, Claudio Amicucci thought it was a ”terrific plan for returning the club to its rightful position”. Glancing at CSI executives standing by the touchline, he said: ”For them to fulfil their aims, they have to give the side visibility. And to do that they have to put it back at the highest level in the game. But then they get what they want, and we get what we want.”

As for the players, they seem to be taking the changes philosophically. ”Better to do a few hours of social work than miss a game,” said Simone Rizzato, Ancona’s star midfielder.

Any resistance is likely to come from a hardcore group of fans known as the Vecchia Guardia (Old Guard). Ancona is markedly left-wing and the terrace is not the preserve of the far right, as in most other Italian grounds, but of the far left. Ancona’s ”ultras” have not yet made any official comment on the initiative and refused to be interviewed. But it is easy to imagine the stick they fear for supporting a team that belongs, in spirit, if not in law, to the church. Last Sunday the Vecchia Guardia turned up ostentatiously dressed in red.

Ancona, who have gone to the top of their division this season, were playing struggling Martina. But the CSI’s executives were terrified that the team might have to go to see the pope in Rome having just been knocked off the number-one spot.

To make things even more tense, storms were forecast. ”We can count on special connections in that department,” said Renzo Magnani, pointing to heaven. ”I’m joking, of course,” he added hastily. Black clouds appeared. They circled Ancona for most of the game, yet shied away from the Conero stadium. By the final whistle the sun had come out. And Ancona had won 2-1. — Guardian Unlimited Â