The Waning Power of Pisa

Paul Grech Sunday, September 6, 2009 , ,
For a city that has been made famous by its gravity defying leaning tower, there's a bit of irony in Pisa AC's penchant for tragic and spectacular crashes. Even so, it will be a long time before anyone does so in more spectacular fashion then they did last season which, to further boost the ironical undercurrent, also happened to be the year when the club was celebrating its centenary.

Having kicked off in the hope of winning a place in the play-offs, Pisa opened up with two defeats and their season never really took off. There were a couple of famous victories - those against Parma and local rivals Livorno stand out - but they weren't enough to push the clubs in the top six. Nor was it good enough to save manager Giampiero Ventura's job as the frustration about the failure to press-on saw him being sacked.

In his place came Bruno Giordano. Bad move. Pisa had been floating in around in the middle of the table before his arrival but much of that had been down to Ventura's tactical nous and his ability to motivate players. Without him, they went into free-fall and two days from the end of the season they slipped to fourth which would have meant a play-out game to retain their place in the league. But that wasn't the end of the story as a 1-0 home defeat on the final day of the season against Brescia - when Pisa were a man up - coupled with results elsewhere saw them slip even further. On the 94th minute of the final day of the season they were in a direct relegation spot, the first time that they'd been in that position all year.

Then came even worse news. A few days after this bitter defeat, president Luca Pomponi announced that he wasn't willing to remain in charge and put the club up for sale. With a guarantee of €2.75 million needed for any club to start the season, and with Pomponi having only some €1.1 available it was time to panic. Players started being sold off and season tickets were put up on sale (with the promise of a refund should the club go down) in order to make up for the deficit.

It wasn't to be. In early June, the Covisoc barred Pisa from taking part in the Lega Pro Prima Divisione (the equivalent of League One: the Italian lower leagues went through a Football League style re-branding last year) not only because of the absence of the necessary guarantees but also because of a loss of some €5 million and debts that totalled in excess of €12 million. A few days later, the club was wound down.

Thus history had repeated itself. Once again, matters had spiralled out of control after relegation to the third tier of Italian football, just as had happened fifteen years earlier. Back then, AC Pisa was hastily re-formed with the famous club having to play village teams in the local regional league. Within two years, the re-named Pisa Calcio 1995 won promotion to the C2 (fourth league) but a return to the Serie B would have to wait a further thirteen years. Only for everything to crumble once again in the space of two seasons.

It wasn't always this way. Throughout the eighties, Pisa were famous for being a yo-yo club: between 1982 and 1991 they won four promotions from the Serie B, which is another way of saying that they were relegated just as many times from the Serie A.

At the heart of everything at the time was their iconic president Romeo Anconetani. A boisterous and loud man, he built a reputation of being a 'mangia allenatori' (someone who eats up managers) for the ease with which he got rid of his managers. Yet he was also an excellent motivator and an even better talent spotter. He was the one who brought Carlos Dunga and Jose Antonio Chamot to Italy; down to him the discovery of players like Roberto Muzzi and Michele Padovano. It was the ability to dig up such good, if not exceptional players, that enabled Pisa to battle their way back after every drop.

Two seasons ago, upon their return to the Serie B, it looked as if the good times were about to return. With the experienced Ventura back in charge and an adventourous 3-4-3 formation in which the unknown Argentine striker Javier Ignacio Castillo was the revelation, Pisa made their way to the top of the league only to falter towards the end of the season where a play-off defeat to Lecce put paid to their hopes of a return to the top-flight.

Ultimately, it could be argued that this success came too soon. It raised expectations to a level where the club couldn't support them but, in a bid to keep up, over extended themselves.

So what's next for Pisa? The beauty of Italian football in such cases is that all sporting facilities are owned by the local government meaning that the city's football club will always have somewhere to play in. Already, a new club has been formed and will take part in the Serie D which, roughly, is the equivalent of English non-league. The aim will be that of finding a new owner to put up the necessary guarantees to push for professional football. In the hope that, once again, something positive emerges from the ashes of this latest fall.

This article appeared on the AFC Wimbledon official match programme for the home game against Oxford on the 29th of August 2009. It is also featured on the blog on Italian football Il Re Calcio as well as the football site 200%.

The Real Road Hogs

Paul Grech Thursday, September 3, 2009 , ,
How do you get to know a country? There are various ways to do this ranging from the practical - a guided tour - to the expensive – getting a taxi to show you around - via the adventurous – hitchhiking to your destination.

Yet nothing allows you to really engage all your senses as much as doing so on a bicycle. Not only can you see the sights but you can also hear and smell what’s around you. Cycling gives you a real taste and feel of the place you are visiting.

Not to mention all the healthy exercise that helps fight away the excesses normally associated with a holiday. Of course, cycling isn’t for everyone yet it is becoming extremely popular with visitors to the Southern parts of Europe for all the above reasons as well as the plus points of being relatively inexpensive as well as ecologically sound.

Holidays and travelling, however, weren’t on the cards when over a hundred cyclists made their way to Malta last March. Instead their destination was the Tour ta’ Malta, the cycling competition that has been held on a fairly regular basis for the past fifteen years.

As with most sporting events held in Malta, the Tour comes about through efforts of a dedicated group of volunteers. None more so than John Zammit, the president of the Malta Cycling Association, a man whose passion for cycling and determination to see his sport progress cannot but impress you.

Our first meeting takes place just as this year’s Tour has come to an end. When will you start working on the next edition, I enquire. “Now!” he exclaims excitedly.

There is, of course, a very good reason for his enthusiasm. This year’s Tour was particularly successful as far as foreign athletes are concerned. “We had a very good turnout,” he admits somewhat modestly. “Both in terms of number of cyclists as well as in their quality. And to think that it could have been better: a number of Sicilian cyclists who were planning on coming to Malta by catamaran were left stranded because of bad weather. It is definitely something that we’ll learn from.”

It is a claim that reinforces his assertion that work on the next Tour has to start almost immediately. “We got such a good response and were met with such enthusiasm by the foreign athletes that it cannot be any other way. We think that we’ve already got a very good Tour yet we want to keep on growing.”

“For one thing, we’d like to hold one of the races in Gozo as we believe that it would be a great attraction. Logistically, it isn’t that easy as you have to ferry across over a hundred cyclists and much depends on the weather. But we’ve got plenty of ideas” he promises.

Some of these come from Zammit’s regular trips abroad. “Whenever possible we go to world cycling championships and it is always extremely interesting to see how they organise their races. You get ideas and notice small things which we then try to copy always in order to keep on improving.”

Such trips also provide an important measure of the overall quality of the Tour. “When we sit down and start mapping out the route, we look for a good mix of speed and difficulty. Naturally, we need a time-trial where the main objective is to offer a fast flat route but you also need to choose locations where there are climbs in order to offer a challenge.”

“Overall, I thin that we’ve got it just about right. Obviously you get the odd individual that complains but I think that’s more down to their lack of preparation rather than anything on our part.” Zammit is anything if not forthright.

Nor is he one for false modesty. “Indeed, I think that the San Martin leg of the race is good enough to host a major championship. The only drawback is that it is slightly short because otherwise it could easily be good enough for a world class competition. The quality of the road is good, it offers just the right challenge and the views that you can take in are breath-taking.”

It is something that the foreign cyclists appreciate even if, ultimately, they’re here to take part in a Tour. “You have to keep in mind that not everyone comes here looking to win. For some it is simply to enjoy the experience of taking part in a Tour so you try to make it as enjoyable as possible for them. That includes choosing the right route.”

Of those who do come here to win, the most notable was undoubtedly a young seventeen year-old by the name of Nicole Cooke who won the Tour back in. Six years later, that same athlete was sprinting on the roads of Beijing as she won an Olympic gold medal for Great Britain.

“Having Cooke here was fantastic,” Zammit says, his eyes lighting up at the memory. “In fact, she told us that the Tour ta’ Malta was very important for her because it gave her confidence in her ability. In fact, you can say that winning in Malta proved to be the launch pad for her career.”

The Tour is just as important for Maltese cycling. “It offers our athletes the opportunity to compete with others and push themselves further,’ he explains. Which is why it was hard to take for local cyclists when the Tour was cancelled twice over the past three years.

“The first time it was due to lack of sponsors whilst the second time round it was down to the uncertainty surrounding when the election was going to be held. As a general rule, we do find people willing to help us even though it is becoming increasingly more difficult. Some companies leave it till the final minute to back down from san agreement so you have far too little time to find a replacement.”

Hopefully, these problems won’t crop up as often in the future. “We’re happy in that local councils are taking more of an interest in the Tour and are very willing to help out in any way possible.” They might not be in the situation of the Tour de France where small villages pay out huge amounts of money to be included in the route of the Tour but it is a welcome sign of progress.

Which is just what the Tour wants to achieve.

This article appeared on Runaway Travel magazine.
Copyright 2010 Paul Grech: Writer