Historic SPAL's sensational promotion to Serie A
This article first appeared on ESPN FC on March 22, 2017 and has been updated.
In May 1968, on the last day of the season, eccentric Juventus midfielder Gianfranco Zigoni scored the fateful goal that made sure Societa Polisportiva Ars et Labor (SPAL) were relegated from Serie A -- and yet to return since.
Almost half a century later his son, Gianmarco Zigoni, is one of the key players for SPAL who are on their way back to the top flight. How about that for coming full circle?
The club were promoted to Serie A on Saturday despite suffering a 2-1 defeat away to relegation-threatened Ternana as Fabio Ceravolo's injury-time winner for Benevento against third-placed Frosinone sealed promotion for SPAL. It is an incredible achievement for a team that was supposed to fight for survival after getting promoted to the second division for the first time in 23 years.
"Nobody expected this, not even the most optimistic of fans," Il Resto del Carlino journalist Mauro Malaguti told ESPN FC.
The rise is especially remarkable when you take into account SPAL nearly went bankrupt in 2013. It would have been a major tragedy had they gone out of business, because the club from the northern town of Ferrara is one of the oldest in Italy, established by priests at a monastery back in 1907. They were a well-respected Serie A club in the 50s and 60s, proud to be the first team of the young midfielder Fabio Capello, while two other important future coaches -- Edy Reja and Luigi Delneri -- also started their playing careers at SPAL.
However, only one man, wily president Paolo Mazza, was responsible for the continuing success. In his later years, and especially after his death in 1981, the club went from crisis to crisis, and disastrous management forced it to be refounded numerous times to wipe out debts. The most recent case in 2013 was extremely serious, and SPAL had to merge with neighbouring fourth division Giacomense in order to stay alive. In retrospect, though, that proved to be blessing in disguise.
Walter Mattioli, who headed the tiny Giacomense for 25 years, suddenly became the president of SPAL. For a lifelong fan of the club from Ferrara, who incidentally was Delneri's classmate in school, it was a dream come true. He named former Giacomense player Davide Vagnati as the sporting director, and that proved to be an inspired choice. The duo work in perfect harmony with the new owners, the Colombarini family who provided significant investments, and together they made sure that mistakes of their predecessors are not repeated.
"We swore to ourselves there will be no more financial problems, no more scandals, no more misery. Never again," Mattioli said.
From one of the worst managed clubs in Italy, SPAL turned into one of the best and the results were outstanding too, especially after the coach Leonardo Semplici joined in December 2014.
Semplici, a fervent Fiorentina fan who is proud to have had a spell at the Viola academy where he nurtured the talents of Federico Bernardeschi and Federico Chiesa, was successful at small clubs before and used to coach Vagnati at Pisa. He arrived when SPAL were struggling in the third division, finished the 2014-15 season strongly, and then proceeded to win the promotion to Serie B in his first full term in charge in emphatic fashion.
Semplici means "simple" in Italian, but his tactics are clever and effective. The coach, who loves proactive football and likens his approach to that of Monaco's Leonardo Jardim, uses an attack-minded 3-5-2 formation and unites the dressing room. There are no big egos and everyone speaks the same language -- quite literally: SPAL are the only team in Serie B without foreigners.
"It is not really a policy. They tried to sign foreign players in the summer, but now that they don't have any, that definitely is a source of local pride," Malaguti explains.
Many fulfil their potential in such surroundings. Goalkeeper Alex Meret, 19, excellent all season, was surprisingly called up by Italy coach Giampiero Ventura last week, becoming the first SPAL player to represent the national team since the early 1950s. Centre-back Kevin Bonifazi, 19, on loan from Torino, is considered a top prospect, not unlike his partner Francesco Vicari. The most popular star is right-winger Manuel Lazzari, who went all the way up with the team after joining Giacomense in 2012.
Now Lazzari's rise will end up in Serie A, and he is ably helped by players who know all about the top flight. Experienced striker Mirco Antenucci is having a superb campaign after leaving Leeds in the summer, and SPAL made a brilliant move to sign the 35-year-old veteran Sergio Floccari in January. He has been in outstanding form since, scoring seven goals in 10 games, including an absolute screamer at Carpi.
Expectations were modest at the start of the season, especially after SPAL won just one of their first six fixtures, but rose with every passing week since October, and their long-suffering fans are ecstatic. It is almost impossible to buy tickets to the small Stadio Paolo Mazza, which holds just 8,500. Two major stands are supposed to be reconstructed and that will be crucial so they will be able to host Serie A games at home.
Promotion also seems to be the only way to keep the brilliant Semplici, because he is closely followed by numerous top division clubs. He was linked to Napoli as a possible replacement for Maurizio Sarri, and could yet return to Fiorentina.
"It is normal our coach attracts interest because we are doing so well. There is a good chance he will continue with us in Serie A, but it will be more complicated if we stay in Serie B," the owner Simone Colombarini said. Vagnati's work hasn't gone unnoticed too, but he has chosen to stay loyal to his beloved project so far.
The supporters hope the holy trinity of Mattioli, Vagnati and Semplici remain intact for years to come and shares their passion.
"In Ferrara, we don't just go to the stadium. We say that we go to SPAL. The team is everything," Malaguti says.
Michael Yokhin is ESPN FC's European football writer. Follow him on Twitter: @Yokhin