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Cats need not beware

This thing about cats doesn't sound right. I look at the menu posted on the side of the fast-food trailer parked near Vicenza's Stadio Menti and I see no feline references.

Hamburgers, sandwiches, frittelle (fried sweets dipped in sugar). But no barbecued tails or steamed kittens tonight. So, what about...? 'You're not going to believe it, are you?'

Giovanna, a friendly 36-yr old local bank manager who's agreed to show me around this nice city of 110,000 graced by several buildings and villas designed by 16th century architect Andrea Palladio, answers with a smile. 'We do not eat cats. It's just a myth'.

I had approached Vicenza and its beautiful Menti, named after a former player who died in the 1949 Superga air crash that wiped out the Torino side that had been dominating Italian football, with the firm resolve to steer clear of any form of prejudice, and there was a huge one in particular I wanted to avoid.

Ever since I was a kid, I'd heard what at the time sounded like a silly rhyme, the kind you tell your sons and remains etched in their hearts forever. 'Venessiani gran siori, padovani gran dottori, vicentini magnagati, veronesi tuti mati'.

In a sort of dialect from this region, Veneto, in the North-eastern part of Italy right at the foot of the Dolomites, it means that people from Venice are high-class, those from Padua great doctors, those from Vicenza eat cats and those from Verona are out of their minds.

It is a rhyme that's been recited in Veneto for decades, and it basically had the purpose of letting everyone else in the region that while Padua might have had a great university, Venice a huge wealth because of centuries of trade and Verona, well, something that made its citizens act strange, people in Vicenza had so little going their way that cats were the only treats they could afford. So cat-eaters, 'magna-gati' in local dialect, has been attached to them like a stigma.

I wanted to avoid any reference to this silly stuff, but how could I keep quiet when the first person I saw once I made my way past the outside gates was a middle-aged woman wearing the famous red-and-white striped shirt with the caricature of a... cat drawn in the back?

Turns out Gatton Gattoni, whose likeness appeared on the woman's jersey, is the name of the Vicenza mascot, a self-mocking choice that clearly dissipated any fears that I had about the rigidity of my prejudices.

There was a time, a few years back, when the magnagati thing would have been overshadowed by more meaningful and serious considerations. Now playing in the Serie B and trying to stay above the relegation zone, Vicenza spent a total of 29 seasons in the Serie A since being founded in 1902, enjoying 20 consecutive campaigns in the top flight from 1955-56 to 1974-75.

The legacy of that period has not been forgotten, and it doesn't hurt that the Stadio Menti retains many of the features that made it easy to recognize to anyone watching the Sunday night reports on TV during the Sixties and Seventies: gone are the balconies that seemed to protrude above the baselines in each end, and beneath whom people could stand literally yards from the action, but the rest is remarkably similar, considering that capacity was reduced from 30,000 to 28,000 in 1985 then to 20,000 a few years ago, which makes the sight of fans almost piled on top of each other a thing of the past.

But the British-styled Menti, which was built in 1937 and originally had an athletics track ringing the pitch, still has classic floodlight pylons at each corner and the roof-supporting columns in the main stand still stand in the way of TV cameras just as in those glory years when Vicenza were among the top sides in the country.

No campaign was better than the unforgettable 1977-78. Lanerossi Vicenza - Lanerossi stood for the name of the local wool mill which for all purposes had started to supply the team in 1953, at a time when shirt sponsorship was not allowed - had been promoted from the Serie B the previous year, under the management of coach Giovanbattista 'GB' Fabbri and with Giuseppe 'Giussy' Farina as chairman.

Top scorer during the promotion campaign had been a 20-yr old loanee from Juventus, Paolo Rossi. He'd previously joined Serie A Como on loan in October 1975, but had played only six times as he was still recovering from three cartilage operations. Juve wanted to test his fitness and sent him to Vicenza, where he started as fifth in the pecking order of strikers. For good reason: he'd been a right winger until then.

During training camp, though, veteran forward Vitali left, and right before an Italian Cup match Fabbri told Rossi he'd start as a lone striker. Rossi, as everyone knows, never looked back: he was the Serie B top scorer in 1976-77 with 21 goals in 36 matches, then had 24 in 30 matches the following year, when Vicenza, or Real Vicenza as they were nicknamed - an obvious reference to Real Madrid - for their brilliant style of play, took Serie A by storm, ending the season in second place and as the league's top scoring team with 50 goals.

Rossi was not the only talented player in the side: hard running, 'Fu Manchu' moustachioed diminutive midfielder Roberto Filippi, defenders Massimo Carrera and Valeriano Prestanti, midfield schemer Renato Faloppa and others whose name will ring a familiar bell to Vicenza fans, like Franco Cerilli, Ernesto Galli, Luciano Marangon, contributed to make that Lanerossi one of the most exciting teams in post-war Italian football.

That squiggle on the back is the cat motif that set Roberto off.
That squiggle on the back is the cat motif that set Roberto off.

The bubble soon burst, though, in controversial circumstances. Farina retained the rights on Rossi by boldly offering 2,6 billion liras, a princely sum at the time, in a sealed bid which exceeded Juventus'. Vicenza started the 1978-79 season with high expectations they were never likely to meet, but were still close to a UEFA Cup place with seven matches to go.

Then, as Rossi himself told the local newspaper, Il Giornale di Vicenza, a few months ago, 'we started getting bad referees and we went down. Farina had challenged the powers-that-be, had challenged Juventus... Let me say nothing more about this, please', a claim that is corroborated by Carrera's words 'there's so much stuff that still doesn't add up, one day I'm going to tell the whole story'.

Dark suspicions aside, Vicenza nosedived to Serie C1 after the 1980-81 season and only returned to the Serie A five years later, only to see their promotion cancelled by the Italian Federation as a result of a gambling scandal.

In the meantime, a youngster from a nearby village, Caldogno, had made his debut at 16, in 1982-83, then gone on to sign for Fiorentina for 2,7 billion liras: Roberto Baggio.

After another spell in Serie C1 which saw them barely avoid falling further down - only a play-off win against Prato saved them from the C2 - Vicenza started their climb back and at the end of the 1994-95 campaign current Palermo coach Francesco Guidolin had them promoted to the Serie A, which was followed in 1996-97 by the club's first ever trophy, the Italian Cup, which Vicenza won by beating Napoli 3-0 in the return leg.

Ten months later, Chelsea were the visitors at the Menti for a Cup Winners' Cup semi-final first leg, which the home team won 1-0, before the Vialli-led Londoners went through by winning the return leg 3-1.

Vicenza last graced the Serie A during the 2000-01 season, before slipping back to the B. This year, a group of local businessmen bought back the club from the English-based consortium Enic, which owns Tottenham Hotspur, and their sights are set on a return to Serie A without breaking the bank.

The side has spent most of the season in mid-table, but a string of disappointing results saw coach Maurizio Viscidi, another local guy, sacked and replaced by Gianfranco Bellotto on Easter weekend.

After three consecutive draws, Bellotto himself was sacked: apparently, chairman Sergio Cassingena had questioned his tactics from day one and had been upset by his substitutions against Perugia after Vicenza had gone up 2-0 before being caught by the visitors.

This gorgeous vista of the Stadio Menti was taken by your scribe.
This gorgeous vista of the Stadio Menti was taken by your scribe.
In a development which is not unusual in Italian football, Viscidi was now deemed to be good enough for the team - not to mention already on the payroll - and the home match against Salernitana last Saturday was his second in charge.

In front of a crowd of little more than 7,000, who'd taken advantage of reduced ticket prices, Vicenza played brilliantly, winning 4-1 with an exciting display of attacking football; with top scorer Stefan Schwoch still recovering from a facial injury it was his striking partner Massimo Margiotta, a Venezuelan-born Italian who's an international for the South American country, that picked up the slack: Margiotta scored Vicenza's second with a brilliant shot on the turn and made it 4-0 by slotting the ball past former Chelsea goalkeeper Marco Ambrosio in a one-on-one situation early in the second half.

Vicenza's real test in the remaining six matches - among them the home clash with arch-rivals Verona - will be to be more consistent away from the Menti, where they have scored four goals four times and five goals once, but the win over Salernitana was a good start in their quest to keep their Serie B status.

So you can understand why there was an air of optimism among fans streaming out of the Menti Saturday night: the biancorossi had scored four, the sky was clear, spring finally appeared to be upon us.

And there was not a cat in sight, either.


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