Montella trumpeting Elephants' success
For most of their intermittent Serie A history, Catania have been known throughout Italy for a catchphrase related to a surprising 1961 win over Inter in their decrepit - then, and now - Stadio Cibali, and not much else. Clamoroso al Cibali ("Shock at the Cibali") became something Italians pretending to be witty would use in everyday life.
Say your girlfriend showed up in time for a date for once: you'd do a double-take and say "Clamoroso al Cibali, sei in orario". Now, most of the people who grew up in the Clamoroso al Cibali-era, your writer sadly included, are too old to remember what a date is, and that gives you an idea of how irrelevant Catania have been on the national stage, with the exception of that remark a legendary radio commentator made into his microphone that afternoon in 1961.
Add the 2007 tragedy that saw police officer Raciti killed during clashes after the Catania-Palermo derby and there's a valid reason for believing nothing worthwhile from a football standpoint ever comes from that place. It is the wrong assumption.
Few places can beat Catania for sheer beauty and scenery, for a start. Mount Etna, one of the world's biggest active volcanoes, towers over the place from a short distance. It's one of the few places in the world where you can ski down a slope while facing a deep-blue sea, and the town itself has a baroque beauty about it, with an important fixture - the so-called u' Liotru, a fountain whose main part is an elephant carved out of basalt.
An elephant is also part of the football club's badge, and such is the strength of the local legend surrounding elephants (dating back thousands of years) that Catania's American football team, part of Italy's elite IFL league, are called Elephants. Even so, elevating the soccer side to a preeminent Serie A status has always seemed a mammoth task.
Catania, like many other sides in Italy and other countries, are the kind of club that may spend years in the top flight before going down and losing their way - or their status, as they did in 1993 when they were basically wiped out by the Italian FA for financial reasons and had to restart from the lower amateur leagues.
That they are now in seventh place, and in a position that may result in qualification for the Europa League, is a testament to their ability to find talent where talent is hard to spot, and utilising it in a way that is beneficial both to the players and the club.
Current general manager Pietro Lo Monaco may have been at odds with owner - and local entrepreneur - Nino Pulvirenti for a long time now, but he's generally seen as the heart and soul of the transfer policy that has brought several young players, most of them Argentinian, to Catania. Little thought to building a side promoting local talent here: Catania have embraced the modern system of using foreign players with Italian ancestry or European passports to its fullest, showcasing them, then selling them for a profit.
In recent years, Peruvian winger Juan Manuel Vargas was sold to Fiorentina for an €11 million profit on his €1 million purchase price, while Jorge Martinez was brought in for little more than €3 million then sold to Juventus for €14 million in what now looks as one of the biggest mistakes a top side has made in recent times here. Martinez, whose form has been slowed by repeated injuries, has now fallen out of favour with five combined Juve and Cesena (where he's on loan) coaches, not to mention both sets of fans. And this was a player who, cutting in from the wing, almost single-handedly beat Inter two years ago just days before the Nerazzurri hurdled Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on their way to lifting the 2010 Champions League trophy.
Maxi Lopez, who was sold to Milan two months ago, is the latest Catania recruit from Argentina to move to a more glamorous side, and current members of the squad are already whetting the appetite of sides around Italy and Europe.
None of the players is especially young - the greenest, Alejandro Gomez and Mario Paglialunga, are 23 - but Catania's strength lies in getting them as soon as they are ready then sending them away while they're still in their prime; it makes for the perfect combination of sporting and financial result.
A sad thought for all who'd prefer to see a small side keep their best players and establish the foundation of a long, successful stay in the Serie A, but Catania know the business and are thriving in it. In fact, they have established a pattern for others to follow, with the additional gem of a new training centre, which cost €40 million, where the club expect to lure the best local talent to complement the foreign imports.
While this all may seem to be of the hit-and-miss variety - mis-spend your money one summer and you're going straight to the Serie B with dire consequences - Catania have managed to keep their heads afloat long enough to create a base. Vincenzo Montella (37), this year's manager, seems to have taken this fluid combination of youth and experience - Nicola Legrottaglie (35), Sergio Almiron (31) and Adrian Ricchiuti (33) form the backbone of the side - and lifted them to their highest position in years. Unbeaten since a February 18 defeat at Juventus, Catania - who sport one of the most peculiar colour combinations in top-flight football with their light-blue and bright red striped shirts - dramatically improved their position by beating both Fiorentina and Lazio 1-0 at home and fighting back from a two-goal deficit in Napoli on Sunday.
The sight of substitute Davide Lanzafame equalising five minutes from time then running half the length of the pitch to hug Montella was particularly telling. Lanzafame, a Juventus product but now a Palermo property, who has failed to impress in his many loan spells around the Serie A, had not been Montella's first choice this season and had in fact been used sparingly, to his disappointment, but such is the spirit Montella has instilled in his players that Lanzafame thought nothing of showing his loyalty to him after scoring.
Montella's name, typically and frustratingly for someone employed by Catania, has already come up in rumours concerning Inter's next coach, although the wild state of the Italian media means almost everyone with a functioning brain and coaching qualifications (an oxymoron, perhaps?) will be mentioned at least once in that respect. Montella, ironically, replaced Claudio Ranieri at Roma last season, but the fact the Giallorossi let him go did not weigh negatively in Catania's decision to hire him.
In fact, listen to what Lo Monaco recently told Corriere dello Sport: "We identified important qualities in him. He's just at the beginning of a journey which may take him to top clubs. It's part of his DNA." Montella, who lists Sven-Goran Eriksson's coolness, Vujadin Boskov's wit, Fabio Capello's team management and Luciano Spalletti's passion for the game as the skills that inspired him, has looked flexible enough to modify his side according to the flow of the game and the quality of the opponent this season, but has generally used a 4-3-3 or a 3-5-2.
One of the reasons Maxi Lopez was sold lies in the way Catania were taught to play during training camp and the pre-season. Constant movement is required up front and the Argentinian, who is mobile enough but more of a target man, did not fit the bill completely.
Gonzalo Bergessio, signed last summer after a convincing loan spell last season, is the nominal centre-forward, with Gomez and Pablo Barrientos cutting in from wide positions where full-backs Giovanni Marchese and Marco Motta may pop up.
Montella's best decision this year may have been to position Francesco Lodi, the 28-year-old midfielder, in the centre of the pitch. Last year, after he joined on loan during the winter transfer market, Lodi had been deployed by Diego Simeone as an inside left in a 4-1-4-1, but Montella overcame concerns about Lodi's defensive abilities and gave him the freedom of midfield, where he's usually flanked by Almiron (on the left) and Mariano Izco, who can both cover for him when not in possession.
Lodi's sweet left foot has helped Catania on many occasions, on free-kicks and penalties, and Montella's ability to utilise his strengths instead of concentrating on his weaknesses has been another positive for him this season.
Catania, who were once followed by more than 40,000 supporters for a relegation play-off in Rome, do not play in the most stylish of places; in fact, the Cibali (now named after iconic, folkish long-time chairman Angelo Massimino) looks like it did in the 1970s, a hundred light years away from places like the Juventus Stadium, but this at least provides a different background to visiting players and fans, the latter usually penned in a less than attractive section of the ground.
Old-style badge, old-style colours, a modern, almost futuristic, attitude towards buying and selling players, and perhaps Europe beckoning then - although one suspects Catania, should they qualify for the Europa League, would celebrate shortly then immediately follow the despicable Italian way of considering that tournament a nuisance rather than an opportunity.
Any way you look at it, a side that took baby steps under Montella at the beginning of the season has now turned them into elephant steps, which can hardly seem inappropriate, considering local history.