Cesena 1 Juve Stabia 0 (22nd March 2014)
Way back in 1990 BSB (“British Satellite Broadcasting” back then, and a rival to Sky) opted to offer Italian football to subscribers of its fledgling sports channel. In an era when Lee Chapman and Alan Smith were considered star players in the English top division, Italian football, with much higher crowds, genuine superstars, and shiny new world cup stadiums, was a glamorous prospect.
BSB’s coverage wasn’t just limited to the top sides either, and I liked the highlights show as much as the live games. Of course not all the clubs were pulling in 40,000+ a week. I quite liked following the fortunes of the smaller clubs. One of those that season, in a doomed fight against relegation, was Cesena. I didn’t pull for them in any way. In fact as relegation rivals of my adopted side that season, the even more doomed Pisa, I didn’t even really want them to do well.
What I did like about them though was their stadium. Years before anyone had even started to think about disappointingly dull modern designs, theirs looked a modern rebuild with a fair degree of character. As a fresh-faced youth who’d not left the UK since a family holiday when I was seven, it’s fair to say the thought of ever watching a game there one day never crossed my mind. A long weekend in Bologna this month though, just 45 minutes away by train, presented the opportunity.
I actually had two feasible options for the Saturday game, as Modena, even closer to Bologna, were also at home. Cesena has the better stadium though, and get better crowds, even if Modena does look a nicer town, so Cesena won the toss. First impressions of Cesena, if arriving by train, aren’t the greatest. A sprawl of graffitied walls, light industrial units and garage workshops line the tracks, giving the impression of dreary provinciality. Walking to the centre of the town, past cars in various states of distress, did however hint that those garage workshop owners could probably retire at 40.
It’s actually a nice little town, with a main “square” curving round the walls of a medieval fortress right in the centre. OK, I wouldn’t recommend losing a day off visiting Florence or Venice to go there, but if you are going to a game in the town, and want to see some of those narrow ochre painted streets of shuttered apartments, but without the gawping crowds, and perhaps seeing a bit of authentic Italian life, it’s worth arriving a couple of hours early.
Cesena’s Dino Manuzzi Stadium is only a 15 minute walk from the centre, and having arrived earlier than planned due to walking out of a streetside cafe due to the waiter being more concerned with chatting to friends than taking an order, I was pleased to find the area opposite the ground having several cafes. I picked one, and had a beer and a couple of paninis while watching the first half of Arsenal getting steamrollered at Chelsea, as the fans started to trickle into the stadium only 100m away.
Collecting the largest match programme I’d ever seen, of a size where you feel it should be measured in hands rather than inches or centimetres (and was free) I made my way round to the far size of the ground, where’d I bought my seat. I’d actually purchased it earlier. With internet sales laughably vague in Italy, I’d taken solace in the fact that neither game I’d see this weekend would sell out, and the language barrier would be the only problem. Luckily the ticket seller, in a typically continental bunker-like ticket booth, the likes of which always make me think of German machine-gun posts on the Normandy beaches, spoke English. Handy, as the colour-coordinated map of the different ground sections didn’t work so well when printed in black and white.
While being no Pompidou Centre, the Dino Manuzzi is a place designed to put its form on full show, with no hint of cladding or facade to hide the staircases and seating tiers. I can’t see it catching on in England, where queuing for a half-time coffee would be an ordeal with a wintry gale whipping across the tea bar, but on a day of near t-shirt weather (for me at least, the locals mainly wore coats) it was nice enough, and made the venue bright.
I think what’d been appealing about the place all those years ago was that it was a double-decker venue on three sides – something rare in smaller grounds. It was also full covered, something of a rarity in Italy. The roof of thick red girders and translucent panels has a definite hint of mini-San Siro about it, and I’d suspect the ground was rebuilt at around the same time. The top tier is bigger than the lower, an undoubtedly offers the better view. That’s not helped by the experiment several grounds have had with plexiglass panelling rather than fences, which actually manages to be more visually irritating to look through than all but the worst fence. That the front few rows of the upper tier, with such a barrier to look through, remained unsold was quite telling.
The other side, the main stand, is actually a much smaller and older structure. Just twelve rows deep with boxes at the back, the orange-painted supports for the concrete roof add a needed splash of colour. Red girders apart, the colour elsewhere is provided by bench seating at both ends, blue at the home end and green at the other.
Local colour (even if black & white in reality) is provided by the ultras in the home end upper tier. With crowds averaging around 10,000, “tifosi” displays are seldom going to be breathtaking, but at Cesena they certainly do their best. Upheld cards in black and white stripes, and the unfurling of a banner of the club badge (more black and white stripes, with a black and white seahorse) was an admirable display, even if the sparsely populated bottom tier was fighting a losing battle.
Also fighting a losing battle were today’s visitors, Juve Stabia. Ten points adrift of 2nd bottom Reggina, let alone safety, it’s hardly surprising few made the 350 mile trip north from the other side of Naples. By my count, 45 made the trip.
Cesena, in contrast, are going for promotion back to Serie A, but their form has faltered of late, and they went into the game clinging on in 8th place, the last of the six play-off places. It didn’t take long to see why. For all their attacking intent, and there was plenty, they struggled to break down a determined and growingly confident Juve Stabia side. With plenty of pace up front, the men in yellow and blue stripes increasingly began to ask more and more questions of their own, even if the accuracy of their shooting led you to believe the high nets behind the away end goal they were attacking were there to defend the fans from wayward shots rather than to prevent objects being thrown onto the pitch.
There was no such net at the home end, but while there was no deluge of missiles towards the Juve Stabia keeper, one or two of the pieces of card held up in the pre-match tifosi display did find themselves turned into paper aeroplanes, gliding down to the pitch. The pitch itself, unless my eyes deceived me, was artificial, yet seemed to have a variety of slightly thinning patches, like a cheap old hallway carpet.
I have said before that it is interesting, even if just for a novelty perspective, to see technically comfortable players struggling with their game. One exception was the Cesena midfielder Emmanual Cascione, on loan from Parma. He had the aura of a man for whom life is effortless, like a popular-with-everybody foreign exchange student, playing the ball around with calm authority. True, after a bit you noticed that he was just as capable of playing bad passes with equal effortless grace too, but he was destined to hit the winning goal.
Ten minutes into the 2nd half, Cesena broke behind Juve Stabia’s right back, and the efforts to bring him down worked, but just half a yard too late. The ref pointed to the spot, and Cascione tucked it away in the bottom corner as if the thought of possibly missing had never entered his mind.
Cesena really ought to have made the game safe, but never quite turned their half chances into clear ones. This prompted Juve Stabia to push up, and but for a bit of composure would surely have equalised. Twice, excellent turns in the box were followed by rasping shots that ought to have brought goals, but instead flew inches the wrong side of the post. Had they equalised, Cesena couldn’t really have complained. For a team with as much chance of surviving as a man in a war film due to marry his highschool sweetheart in two weeks time, they certainly showed a lot of spirit, and looked a lot better than their 15 point from 29 games would suggest.
With six minutes left Juve Stabia pretty much knew the game was up. A rather innocuous trip in the centre circle resulted in a 2nd booking and a red card for a player who’d only come on as a 2nd half sub, and the remainder was about Cesena seeing out time, as the home fans, whether stood in the upper tier or on the benches below, sang victory songs. For Cesena the win pushed them back to fourth. For Juve Stabia, it pushed them ever nearer the third tier that the long-suffering 45 travelling fans must have expecting, even during today’s better moments.