Crotone's magical rise should see them take Serie A by storm
The hospital is so close to the stadium in Crotone that patients can watch games from their rooms -- the joke goes that fans should just pretend they are sick if there are no tickets left on sale.
It feels right somehow, because the city is ill and football is its only cure. Located in Calabria, on the sole of the Italian boot, Crotone is the poorest town even by southern Italy standards. It has been mismanaged for decades, and the unemployment rate is the highest in the country, incredibly estimated at 31 percent in 2015. Young people have no future, heading north as soon as they can. They can't even go by train because the station has been closed, while the main highway is so bad that it is called "the road of death." The situation is desperate, but for the local team which is about to be promoted to Serie A for the first time in their history.
The Crotone sensation is of huge proportions. They narrowly avoided the relegation playoffs by a single point last season, and remaining in Serie B was their only target this year as well. Nobody could have imagined they would be topping the table in their wildest dreams, but the modest outfit find themselves in first place with 19 wins, 52 goals scored and 66 points from 32 games -- 14 points ahead of third-placed Novara.
With just 10 fixtures remaining, promotion seems virtually certain, but people are afraid to start celebrating too soon. "We don't want to bring bad luck. Celebrations will be opened only when the promotion is mathematically assured," Gazzetta del Sud journalist Claudia Berlingeri told ESPN FC, and that makes sense at Crotone. After all, they are nicknamed Pitagorici -- a tribute to the great Greek philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras, who lived in the city and chose to open his famous school there.
The club's stadium is named after Ezio Scida, probably the club's biggest football star, who died in a car crash at the age on 30, on his way to an away game in 1946. The town's most famous son is Rino Gaetano, one of the most appreciated Italian singers and songwriters, was also killed in a car accident at the age of 30, in 1981. Crotone adopted his greatest hit Ma Il Cielo E' Sempre Piu' Blu ("But the Sky Is Always Bluer") as their anthem and it is performed at the stadium ahead of every game, while the chorus was especially impressive last October when Gaetano's 75th anniversary was celebrated.
Spare a thought for Antonio Galardo, though. The local born idol spent almost his entire career at the club, reaching 400 games. When he made his debut in 1995, Pitagoric were amateurs in the fifth division. Last August, Galardo retired at the age of 39 and was immediately promoted to youth coach -- though little did he know that he was about to miss out on the most incredible season in the club's history.
It is remarkable to think that Galardo only had one owner and one sporting director at Crotone throughout his lengthy career. Stability is rare in Italian football, but Raffaele Vrenna has been the president ever since he refounded the bankrupt club in 1991 in the eighth division. He took them to Serie B in just nine years, and it is impossible to overestimate the role of sporting director Beppe Ursino, appointed in 1995. He has worked wonders on a shoestring budget for more than two decades now, and his best move might have been appointing the 40-year-old Ivan Juric as coach last summer.
The former Croatian midfielder played for Crotone for five years at the beginning of the century, most of them under Gian Piero Gasperini. When Gasperini moved to Genoa in 2006, he took Juric with him, and the pair developed a very fruitful partnership. Upon Juric's retirement in 2010, he became Gasperini's assistant -- first during a very brief spell at Inter and then at Palermo. "I owe him almost everything," the Croat said recently.
That is indeed the case. Juric employs the same unusual 3-4-3 formation as Gasperini, who is back at Genoa once again. Crotone put more emphasis on attack, though, even against stronger opposition. They like to press high up the pitch, and are unpredictable when getting the ball, with danger coming from almost every player on the pitch.
"Ivan is a true leader. He was good as a player, but is even better as a coach," Vrenna says.
Juric demands that all the players work hard defensively, and none is better at the job than the Croatian striker Ante Budimir. Signed on loan from second division St Pauli in Germany, where he failed to find the net even once, he wasn't expected to be one of the brightest stars in Serie B, but he most certainly is. Compared to Juventus striker Mario Mandzukic, Budimir is very strong physically and good in the air, but is also quite sound technically and runs himself into the ground without the ball.
The fact that Budimir excelled on loan with 13 goals is nothing new to Crotone, who are used to making good short-term deals under Ursino. Roma's Alessandro Florenzi, Fiorentina's Federico Bernardeschi and Lazio's Danilo Cataldi all enjoyed positive spells for Pitagorici in recent years. This time, though, the fans are excited that many of the stars belong to the club, like the outstanding defender Gianmarco Ferrari, the tricky Romanian midfielder Adrian Stoian and the industrious left-sided dynamo Bruno Martella. That means that the club have solid foundations ahead of what would be an historic promotion.
Crotone's success is unexpected in the extreme, and Juric did his best to lower expectations after the bright start. "We can't compete with the likes of Cagliari, Cesena, Bari and Pescara," he said in October, but it turned out that they can outplay and outlast the richer clubs. Now the coach has changed his attitude completely, and he sounds confident. "It is a unique opportunity that won't happen again," he claimed in early February ahead of the big game at Bari. Crotone won 3-2 in a superb thriller, and never looked back. A 4-2 triumph over Pescara on Sunday meant that they already broke their previous Serie B points record, achieved by Gasperini a decade ago.
So can they survive in the top flight? Fans are more optimistic after the exciting first visit to the San Siro in December, when Crotone took on AC Milan in the Coppa Italia. Seven thousand supporters took the long trip north, and it was worth it, as Budimir scored an equaliser to force extra time, before the Rossoneri eventually won 3-1. The game proved that Pitagorici are capable of playing against the very best, and have hopes of being more successful than Carpi and Frosinone, who were sensationally promoted last term.
As far as Crotone are concerned, they believe that their story is more important. "Carpi and Frosinone come from rich regions. We are the poorest, and it means the world to us," local supporter Riccardo Cantafora told ESPN FC.
The fact that life is so difficult in Crotone is sad as the area was prosperous in the distant past; even the stadium itself is built on the remains of an ancient Greek town and it could have become a flourishing paradise for tourists, but it has not. Maybe football will change that, now that Crotone will get their share of attention.
"We have a heritage of thousands of years, and now we bring football in," Videocrotone.tv journalist Giovanni Monte says. And thus, the Crotone hospital could become one of the best seats in the house in 2016-17.
Michael Yokhin is an experienced European football writer who contributes to ESPN, Blizzard, Champions and FourFourTwo. Follow him on Twitter: @Yokhin