Sassuolo prepare to grace Serie A
From humble beginnings and modest surroundings, a small town club from Italy's industrial heartland is set to find its place on the Serie A map next season as Sassuolo embark on their maiden campaign in Italy's top flight.
With a population of just over 40,000, football is not the primary pursuit in the Emilia-Romagna town famed for its ceramics, but that is all about to change in 2013-14, even if relatively few of the locals will actually partake in their biggest-ever season.
That is because Sassuolo are homeless, or rather they have not staged a game at the town's municipal Stadio Enzo Ricci ever since gaining promotion to the second tier of Italian football in 2008. A ground share at local rivals Modena, whose own comparatively glorious past meant they tended to accept the rent payments, yet shun their lesser-known neighbours, lasted up until Sassuolo's promotion. Next season, they will stage their home games in Reggio Emilia having outgrown, or perhaps outstayed, their welcome with big brother.
Yet while the media spoke of a 'miracle' and a 'fairytale' after Simone Missiroli slammed in the winner against Livorno on May 18 to seal the Neroverdi's promotion, those closer to the club attest to a much more meticulous ascent.
Seven years it has taken them to climb from the fourth tier to the top, five of those spent in Serie B. In 2007, a certain Massimiliano Allegri arrived and led the club into the second flight for the first time. They came close to another promotion twice, going down in the play-offs to Torino and Sampdoria respectively in 2010 and 2012, before Eusebio Di Francesco was appointed and his side set a record-breaking pace which even put the exploits of Juventus during their only season in Serie B in the shade.
Paradoxically, they took that hitherto elusive step to stardom in a year when their ambitions appeared to be dwindling. After significant investments in previous seasons, backed by Giorgio Squinzi, head of the Mapei chemical products group, a massive cut in the wage bill last summer led to the club abandoning the kind of spending which had taken them to within touching distance of promotion, but unable to clamber over the play-off hurdle.
It was therefore another irony of sorts that, in a year of thrift and restructuring, their record signing Missiroli, a €2.5 million buy from Reggina, ultimately sealed their promotion.
He was a figurehead in a project based on young prospects who had belonged to the club but been loaned out, such as Leonardo Pavoletti, or talented youngsters from Serie A clubs hungry for match practice, like Isaac Boakye and Yussif Chibsah. That provided a winning blend which set out its stall from day one.
With 48 points garnered from their first 20 games - one more than Juve at the same stage in 2006 - Di Francesco's side had already established an 18-point cushion over fourth place come Christmas. They took their foot off the pedal a little prematurely, but managed to slam it down again in time to defeat Livorno on the final day of the season and thus seal their place in the big time, on Squinzi's 70th birthday.
Squinzi is not going to loosen the purse strings in anticipation of a maiden Serie A voyage, however. The self-proclaimed Milan fan is not lacking in ambition, but if his most glorious year in football taught him anything, then it is that not all depends on money. "We're going to continue with our policy aimed at youth without doing anything crazy," he said.
That may come across as being quite naive, and Sassuolo could therefore be on a hiding to nothing with the examples of Novara and Pescara, who survived just one season, fresh in the minds, but a club whose convoluted history saw them reincarnated frequently since their inception in 1920 now appears to be finding their true niche.
Simone Zaza, Jasmin Kurtic, Francesco Acerbi and Jonathan Rossini are the new names, none of whom is older than 25, while all four have already gained just enough Serie A experience to mean they know the ropes, but are hungry for more. Upon their shoulders rests the burden of keeping the club's ambitions afloat.
"For now, our aim is to stay up without struggling, but for the future, we won't be setting any limits," said Squinzi. "In just a few years, we could be harbouring even greater ambitions."
Reaching for a tube of his company's strongest adhesives could help cement Sassuolo's place among Italy's top 20 clubs, but it may take something even stronger for the Neroverdi to keep their tile firmly affixed to the Serie A wall.