Juventus' little brother Sassuolo have won hearts and minds in Italy
May 21, 2016 is a night everyone connected with Sassuolo will never forget: the night of the Coppa Italia final at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome. Sassuolo were not playing but they were involved. They had a stake in the result. If Milan lost and Juventus retained the trophy, Sassuolo would qualify for Europe for the first time in their history.
Francesco Magnanelli, the captain, watched the game with fans in the town square. Paolo Cannavaro, Fabio's younger brother, tuned in all the way from Dubai where he was on holiday with teammate Federico Peluso. Other members of the squad, including the team's star Domenico Berardi, found themselves in Spain on Marcello Gazzola's stag-do, while Francesco Acerbi, Cannavaro's centre-back partner, was in a bar in Dresano playing cards with friends.
Although miles apart, the team came together on Whatsapp, united, for one night only, in their support of Juventus. Sassuolo's owner, Giorgio Squinzi, was more conflicted. A Milanista through and through, Squinzi diplomatically revealed he would be rooting for Massimiliano Allegri, the Juventus coach, whose first success as a manager was breaking new ground with Sassuolo and getting them promoted from the third to the second division.
Allegri didn't let Squinzi down. Juventus prevailed in extra-time and Alvaro Morata's winner was celebrated as if Berardi had scored and won the cup for Sassuolo. It stamped their passports for Europe. Comfortable wins against Luzern and Red Star Belgrade in the Europa League qualifiers booked Sassuolo a place in the group stages where they will play Athletic Bilbao, Genk and Rapid Wien.
"We would have liked to face Manchester United," Sassuolo's general manager Giovanni Carnevali told Sky Italia. They still could later in the tournament but just to get this far is an astonishing achievement. The Red Star game in particular served to put things into stark relief: Sassuolo were in the amateur leagues when their opponents were crowned champions of Europe in 1991. A decade ago this summer, they were celebrating their promotion from the fourth tier.
On Saturday, they will play at the Juventus Stadium, a ground that could almost house the entire population [40,884] of Sassuolo. It's a top of the table clash as both are on maximum points (or in Sassuolo's case were until the league overturned their win against Pescara on the basis that new signing and second half substitute Antonio Ragusa was ineligible to play.) Pending the outcome of their appeal, that incident weakens the argument that they are the best run club in Italy after Juventus, but doesn't necessarily make it any less persuasive.
Sassuolo could be considered Juventus' little brother. The pair, alongside Udinese, are the only clubs to own their own stadium in Serie A. One acts almost as a finishing school for the other, although Sassuolo would reject the notion that they are Juventus' feeder club. An option to sign Simone Zaza was called in a year ago and Berardi could have followed this summer. However, he chose to stay. Coach Eusebio Di Francesco also shunned interest from Milan.
The reasons behind their decisions were different. Berardi didn't feel ready to leave after an underwhelming season in black and green and believes another year starting week-in-week-out for Sassuolo is what's best for his development. Di Francesco tellingly said he wouldn't go and work where there is "confusion." Their choice reflects very well on Sassuolo and speaks volumes about the reputation they have established for stability, identity and ambition.
Indeed, Sassuolo are not exactly the minnows they would have you believe. Squinzi is head of Italy's equivalent of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) and he has risen to that powerful position because of the success of Mapei, his builders' merchants firm, long associated with cycling, which commanded revenues of €2.6 billion last year. Judging by the wealth of the companies behind them, it makes Sassuolo the fifth best backed club in Serie A. Their shirt deal with Mapei is the most lucrative in the league and, at €22 milllion, it's bigger than Juventus' and Milan's. That gains greater significance when you consider that Roma, Lazio, Genoa and Sampdoria still don't have one.
Sassuolo are not throwing around the same kind of money that Parma (a team to which they are often compared) did in the '90s, however. Sassuolo's net spend over the last three years is €2.7m. Their turnover is €60m, compared with €224m at Milan, and the €27m they pay in wages puts them 12th in Serie A. Until Di Francesco's recent contract extension, he was taking home €900,000 a year, considerably less than the €4m Roberto Mancini was making at Inter.
Sassuolo are going against the grain. In a league where foreign players are almost as big a majority as they are in England, Sassuolo count only four in their ranks. Forty of their 49 goals last season were scored by Italians.
They are a club that believes and invests in homegrown talent like no other club in Italy's top flight, as demonstrated by the signings of promising players like Stefano Sensi, Luca Mazzitelli and Ragusa from Serie B. This approach has won hearts and minds. Sassuolo aren't so much a hipster club as a romantic one and the backstories of their protagonists only consolidate this image.
Di Francesco waited tables at the family restaurant before becoming a footballer. After his playing days were over, he could be found raking the beaches near Pescara on the Adriatic coast. He's now one of the most promising managers in the game.
Magnanelli has been with the club in all four divisions and now finds himself playing in Europe. Berardi was discovered playing five-a-side on a visit to see his brother, a student at Modena University. Acerbi has twice come back from testicular cancer. There is a spirit in this team that goes a long way to explaining why Claudio Ranieri name-checked Sassuolo when he was asked who he believes is the Italian Leicester.
Squinzi, incidentally, hasn't shied away from talking about winning the Scudetto. "It was a joke," Di Francesco insists. However, the aim ever since Di Francesco has been at the club has been to improve each season by 10 points. The question is: can Sassuolo really do better than last year? "If everyone took me seriously [when I said we could win the league]," Squinzi told Di Francesco last year. "Maybe I should take myself seriously too."
One person who will be taking them very seriously is Allegri. A shock defeat to Sassuolo two-and-a-half years ago got him the sack at Milan, while another defeat at the end of October last year had people believing Juventus' dominance was finally coming to an end. Juventus are now stronger than ever but, relatively speaking, so are Sassuolo. Saturday's game should be a classic.
James covers the Italian Serie A and European football for ESPN FC Follow him on Twitter @JamesHorncastle.