“It’s so sad to see the stadium like this” said the fan next to me during FC Lucca’s league match against Lammari in March this year. Not that there’s much wrong with the Stadio Porta Elisa; it’s a 12,000 capacity arena that is fairly well maintained and has a stylish 1930s art deco main stand that can’t be knocked down due to heritage laws. But this fan has visions of days when the terraces behind each goal were packed full of colourful and passionate ultras. Now there is just bare concrete with a net hanging down to stop objects being thrown on to the pitch. Today that net serves no purpose other than to give the ball-boy less ground to cover when a shot flies over the cross bar. Even as an outsider who had never been to a game at Lucca, I looked at the empty terraces and had visions of days, that in relative terms, you would call call the glory years.
Today FC Lucca have the glory of finishing top of the 6th tier of Italian football, known as the Eccellenza, of which there are 28 regional divisions, theirs being Tuscany. They have maintained professional status but got demoted from League 1 in 2011 after going bust for the second time in just three years. This is when the club were re-founded by a small group of local entrepreneurs and a former player, Bruno Russo, who decided that football in the city should not die. A.S Lucchese were originally founded in 1905 and first entered the professional game in 1920.
They are nicknamed the Rossonero after their red and black striped team colours which were given to them by AC Milan. Fans of a mature age will remember the best days of the club’s history as being between the years 1936 and 1952 when they would regularly compete with the big names of Italian football in Serie A. There is no official data of the club’s highest ever attendance, but it is believed to be after this period when 23,000 turned up to watch them play AC Milan.
A younger generation of fans, with no memory of Lucchese in the top division will look back to the 1990s as an exciting time to support the club. They spent eight successive years in Serie B before being relegated to league 1 in 1999. This era holds a feeling of nostalgia and great memories; life in Serie B seems like paradise compared to where they are now.
Their traditional local rivals are Pisa and is a contention that goes beyond football – people in Lucca feel their city has more beauty and charm and look down on Pisa as a city whose main appeal emanates out of someone’s inability to build a tower straight. AC Pisa spent seasons of the 1980s and 1990s in Serie A but also suffered a fall from grace and currently play in League 1. In 1994 they went bust and ended up in the Eccellenza Tuscany after re-founding as Pisa Calcio.
Now Lucca have followed suit to their rivals and whether they can get back to league status will remain to be seen. They have come back from the brink before. The first administration in 2008, when the club were in League 1, resulted in them being expelled from professional football. After a takeover by local property developers, whose main aim was to build a new stadium, the club were allowed to re-start from the fifth tier of Italian football under the name Sporting Lucchese. In 2009 they bought back the rights to their name, won two league titles in a row and made a return to League 1. But the joy, and the name, was short lived. Financial problems and several wrong doings from the board made the club insolvent and they were once more demoted from professional football.
In the 2012-13 season, FC Lucca will aim to get promotion back to League 2, but some fans I spoke to feel that might be a year too early, due to lack of finance. In the match that I attended against Lammari the crowd were just over 1000 strong. For a game in the Eccellenza Tuscany that’s well above average, as teams in this league are from small towns and normally have just one man and his dog in the crowd. Speaking of which, behind me in the Lucca’s main stand was a French Bulldog who was casually watching the game.
I suppose that’s one good thing about being out of the professional leagues in that you’re not obligated to standard laws and up-tight attitudes. For example, the fans do not need to register to the authorities’ days in advance for the permission to bring banners to the game, which you have to do in the first four divisions in Italian football. So overall the manner is fairly relaxed and welcoming. In the first half we were positioned on a terrace opposite the main stand. It suddenly started to pelt down with rain and so the tannoy announcer invited everyone to come over to the main stand which was covered.
Much like the city itself, FC Lucca does have an old fashioned charm which makes going to a game there an enjoyable experience. Before kick-off a brass band performed in tribute to the team’s recent promotion, and a 1970s three wheel bubble car parked up on the centre circle to display flags with the Rossonero colours.
I had been invited to the club by their supporters group Lucca United, to take part in a Q&A debate on football losing its soul, after the group’s founder Stefano Galligani had read my title on this subject. They certainly feel that Italian football is losing its soul and that no-one cares about the small teams anymore. Formed in November 2011, Lucca United’s aim is to set up a national supporters’ union in Italy and they have already got alliances with fan groups of clubs including Verona, Torino, Salerno, Mantova, Modena, Arezzo, Gallipoli, Vicenza, Rimini and Trapani. Greater fan influence within the running of the club is their aim and they take inspiration from AFC Wimbledon and FCUM who they see as models to emulate.
Stefano told me: “The formation of Lucca United is a clear sign that the fans are not giving up and we are standing proudly alongside the team during these bad times. We want to be represented within the club in the future and the current board of directors are more than happy if we do so, which is quite an exception in Italian football these days”.
Despite that optimism, Stefano also acknowledges that they have a tough struggle to encourage back the lost faces who were once regulars in the stands. “It’s harder now because people don’t want to see the club play against small teams in low down divisions. At the moment only the hardcore are left. It doesn’t help when so many young fans are banned by the police, many of them for trivial matters. This is now all too common in Italian football”.
It would be great to see the Stadio Porta Elisa rocking again like it once did, and this could made possible by bigger influences within Italian football. AC Milan gave Lucchese their team colours but they could still give so much more. I find it sad that the big teams now travel to pre-season tours around the globe whilst ignoring the struggling teams in their own back yards. Just one friendly game between Milan’s Rossoneri and Lucca’s Rossonero would see a sell out crowd which is so badly needed. For now, the future of FC Lucca is uncertain, but one thing is for sure, this former top league club will not die easily.
Matthew Bazell is the author of Theatre of Silence: The Lost Soul of Football, where he examines the way in which football, both on and off the field has lost its soul to greed, but argues that, ultimately it’s the supporters who have the power to reclaim the game.