The livewire of Livorno
Something weird happened in Livorno the other day: owner Aldo Spinelli praised his team. Wait, he also praised his coach, Daniele Arrigoni. What next, Inter winning the Scudetto? Oh, sorry, I'll take that back.
Forget it, though.
Livorno are fourth in the Serie A. Even considering the effect the summer scandal has had on the league table, with Juventus down in the Serie B, Milan and Fiorentina - who would certainly be there although in Milan's case you just wonder - weighted down in the A by point-penalties, it is still an achievement for the Tuscan side.
And not a new one: last season, Livorno rose up to fifth before Spinelli, with no specific target to aim to with his scattergun mouth, opted for his own foot and forced Roberto Donadoni to resign.
His replacement, Carlo Mazzone, at the time Italy's oldest active coach and a veteran motivator famous for his sideline antics, raspy voice and Roman accent, failed to sustain the pace and Livorno's form nosedived with seven defeats on the trot. They ended the season in ninth place, which became sixth once Fiorentina, Lazio and Juve waved to them on their way back down.
As Livorno president and owner for the last seven and a half years, the 66-yr old Spinelli has overseen a remarkable rise in the fortunes of his club.
Back in 1999, the Amaranto (burgundy) were an irrelevant Serie C1 (the third division) side with no brighter future, in the mind of the average Italian football fan, than, say, Venezia or Salernitana or Monza.
They lost a playoff final against Como in 2001, won the C1 the next year and it took them just another couple of years to gain promotion to the Serie A, their Armando Picchi Stadium, one of the oldest - surely oldest looking, to the point of creakiness in some places - a throbbing cauldron of passion which, as the cliche goes, has always been typical of a city that thrives on controversy and heats up pretty quickly on the matters it care about.
There is a great tradition in basketball, where for a long time the two local sides, Pallacanestro and Libertas, contested the most acrimonious derbies in Italy, each of them in turn presenting then a tough hurdle for visiting sides, with some fans leaning down from the railings and, unlike a shady characters from CSI, all too willing to provide visitors with a sample of their DNA through their saliva.
That those two entities merged to form a new one, which has failed to rouse the emotions and has been struggling from day one, was perhaps a harbinger of things to come in football, and Spinelli would surely recognize the feeling.
In business, where after starting out as a van driver as an orphaned teenager, he has built a very successful company which manages transportation, docking and storage facilities, and in sports, he has always shown an uncanny ability to keep the wind in his sails in the face of a storm.
It was under him that Genoa, his hometown club whom he owned from 1985 to 1997, reached the heights of a Uefa Cup semi-final against Ajax in 1992 after beating Liverpool home and away in the previous round.
When he's passionate about something, Spinelli does not speak; he erupts, although his voice never really reaches the pitch of thunder. He does not rant; he spews out a volcanic flow that, as volcanic flows do, does not distinguish between friend or foe, and torches them both.
And just like a volcano, you are sometimes more worried about Spinelli when he's dormant than when he's active, because in that case you at least know what's coming.
Consider this: after the late season collapse that uprooted Livorno from the Champions League race, Europe still came in the shape of the UEFA Cup, once Fiorentina and Lazio were dragged from the scene kicking, screaming and threatening lawsuits.
Then, in typical fashion of someone who knows football and has seen a lot - he fits both descriptions, which is very dangerous for an owner - he once criticized Arrigoni's choice for the starting lineup against Fiorentina as soon as the teamsheets reached what passes for the directors' box, but spun around and praised him as the Amaranto beat their fellow Tuscans 1-0.
It has been like that on and off. Wearing his 'lucky' bright yellow raincoat, which must be doing something good as Livorno last conceded a goal at home in April, Spinelli has often looked as if he was going to steer the poor Arrigoni - remember, he'd signed for Torino in the summer of 2005 only to see the club go under for financial irregularities - down the same path as Donadoni, only to see the light and let the steam go off slowly.
Then, last Monday, another of those remarks that can have the three sports dailies feast on for a whole week. In another example of his ability to mix the sublime with the controversial, Spinelli praised Arrigoni as 'yet another good choice Livorno made, he's very good at managing our huge squad', only one day after leaving the stadium before the end of the 3-0 win over Parma without even stopping to congratulate his team (he apparently needed to beat the traffic to meet someone at the Genoa airport).
In the same breath, after showing his contempt for the UEFA Cup, he criticized those who shared his feeling towards attending unappealing matches and remarked how the place had apparently grown complacent about its football team.
In addition to the 5,461 season ticket holders, only 1,804 had actualy bothered to buy a ticket, only a slightly better number than the 1,648 who had done the same for the visit of Udinese two weeks earlier, providing the most common backdrop of the current era's Serie A matches, sections over sections of empty terraces, in the 20,000-capacity Picchi.
But there is a reason for that, and a quick scour through a local newspaper website's public forum area reveals the contrasting attitudes of those who contribute; not a few are happy at the results on the pitch but question why Spinelli has never contributed to the long-term future of the club by upgrading the club offices or stadium, and they know it would take one bad season, one summer of bad judgment in the transfer market and it could all go downhill, then Spinelli's commitment would be tested, as it already was last year when he announced he was willing to sell up and leave football altogether.
While noting the complacency that seems to have taken root, some have even remarked how the atmosphere at the Picchi can be intimidating even for home supporters who dislike the extreme political leanings (to the left) of the hardcore fans and, as one put it, 'are not going to pay a lot of money to sit in a crappy stadium and listen to slogans'.
In addition, unemployment in Livorno, a shipyard town, has traditionaly been higher than elsewhere in the region and the overall climate is hardly conducive to mass spending for football.
This, Spinelli knows when he says 'the place is going through bad times and it is of course more important to put food on the table than go and watch football', but he still believes the town should be more proud and that too many fans prefer to sit in front of the TV instead of coming out to the ball game - an awkward theory from someone who has always hurried to secure the next TV contract for his club.
Who, admittedly, are in a more than decent shape, as Spinelli and general manager Nelso Ricci have again shown their skill in the transfer market.
Their close relationship with Juventus - I won't add any comment, for once - meant they took Adrian Mutu from Chelsea two years ago as a - er - favour to the Turin club who had already reached their limit of five non-EU players in the squad, and it is by building this kind of co-operation that Livorno have been able to get their picks from an admittedly not highly talented bunch each year: this time, it was Sammy Kuffour on loan from Roma, while Rahman Rezaei, Antonio Filippini and Emanuele Manitta were signed for free and the only outlay was 1.3 million euros for Dario Knezevic and '50%' of Giovanni Pasquale, with 800,000 euros brought in by the sale of Nikola Lazetic and Armando Perna.
The side, again led by iconic centre-forward Cristiano Lucarelli, play a decent brand of football, with a dynamic and busy midfield as the anchor of Arrigoni's 3-5-2, and could well make a run a a Champions League place deep into the season, as the squad is also 22-strong so injuries should not be a factor.
One of the favourite rumours floating around, though, is that goalkeeper Marco Amelia, Italy's third choice at the World Cup and the unlikely scorer of Livorno's equaliser at Partizan Belgrade last month, may join Milan who have now lost Dida for three months.
Spinelli values Amelia at no less than 10 million euros, and how he deals with the 24-year old shot-stopper's situation may also reveal his real plans for Livorno.
The UEFA Cup may look like a burden to Livorno ('it's like a tax, you just spend and do not earn a thing' were Spinelli's words), but bring in money on the sale of a couple of players, grab a Champions League place with its huge financial rewards and perhaps the club could live with the complacency of some of the fans for another while.