Dear Old Spal

Written by  Gaetano Tumiati
I live in Milan, it's thirty years since I last went to a football match, yet I support a team whose players I have never seen face to face. Here's why.
Since that far off day when, having left Ferrara, I moved to Milan, hundreds of people have asked me whether I support AC Milan or Internazionale. And, every time, my reply would leave the questioner speechless. Neither Milan nor Inter. I'm a Spal supporter!

If the other person was a football fan, after a moment of bewilderment, he would realize that I was alluding to Ferrara's home team. But if he was not a fan, the sense of bewilderment was much more marked. Spal? What did that mysterious monosyllable mean? Was it a diminutive?, an acronym? And I would promptly leap into the breach and explain that, yes, it was indeed an acronym: Società Polisportiva Ars et Labor, the Ferrara football team founded in 1907, in the days of knickerbockers and handlebar moustaches.

Mine is a genuine passion; it began when I was still attending the primary school in piazza Ariostea, in the late Twenties, when Spal still played on a pitch on the old army parade-ground surrounded by a grey wooden fence. I had never set foot inside that fence, but I knew perfectly well that there, once a fortnight, the players of Spal would take the field led by their legendary captain, Abdon Sgarbi. I never saw that famous centre half, but his position, and above all that unusual name, Abdon, made me imagine him as tall and imposing as a monument, something like the Colossus of Rhodes.
When, aged eleven, I was finally able to watch my first official match, the stadium was already girded by a fine new cement wall and boasted a new stand. I got into the best seats in the new stand because I was with a friend of my own age, Riccardo Roncaglia, the future sporting journalist. Riccardo's father gave us the two free season tickets. For me, that game was a kind of initiation.

Spal beat Serenissima - that was what Venice's home team was called in those days - by a resounding five goals to one (or maybe it was even more than that, I can't remember). Was that triumphal victory the spark that lit my unfading passion? The fact remains that, there on the stand with Riccardo Roncaglia, I saw every game in that championship, yelling "Come ON, Spal!" with such enthusiasm that I was left hoarse, and sometimes even voiceless, for a couple of days after.

Of that team, I remember the centre forward, Romani, an athlete with short dark hair and a Byzantine look; the left winger, Barbieri; and the goalkeeper Caselli. But most of all I remember the sports correspondent of the Corriere Padano, Antonio Boari, a man of whom I was in awe, as if he were the Lord's Anointed. We would read his articles every Monday with avid eagerness; we even learned some of his pieces off by heart, as if they were great poetry.

The next year, unfortunately, I was sent to a boarding school in Florence. From this school I could follow Spal's matches only in the pages of the sporting press. But this was enough to keep the flame burning. I was not to see the Spal ground again until I returned to Ferrara for grammar school and university. But there were no more stand tickets, this time. My friend Riccardo's father had died and my weekly allowance did not run to stand tickets.
But I could afford the terracings, where, standing shoulder to shoulder with the other fans, with no roof to protect us from the sun or the rain, we savoured an atmosphere that was far more exciting than that of the stands. For years I went regularly to the match in the company of two dear classmates, fans like me: Luciano Fregnani, and Massimo Sirotti. Memorable and dramatic years, during which Spal oscillated continuously between the Second and Third divisions.

Of the many games I saw, one has remained in my memory with all the incisiveness of a scene from Shakespeare: Spal versus Lucchese, towards the end of the Second Division championship. Lucchese was among the teams at the top of the table; a victory for them meant promotion; a defeat meant another season in the Second Division. Spal was hovering around the bottom of the table: for them, a victory meant salvation, a defeat spelled relegation.

Lucchese was a very strong team; apart from anything else, their goalkeeper was Olivieri, a future member of Italy's 1938 World Cup squad; Spal was counting mostly on guts, character and tenacity. And these were the characteristics that allowed Spal to dominate from the opening minutes.

But, about mid way though the second half, when Spal, one goal up, was well on the way to victory, Fate took a hand in the form of a storm. First came powerful gusts of wind, followed by rolling thunder and blue lightning; and then down it came in bucketloads. After about ten minutes, the storm moved off. The last few drops of rain were still falling, when out of the tunnel came the Spal goalie, Cazzanelli.
Rather unusually for a goalkeeper, he was wielding a large broom, with which, quite alone, he began desperately sweeping away the water that had transformed the midfield area into a swamp. The first timid sunlight emerged from behind the clouds, it was a scene that the few surviving spectators of that day can certainly still remember.

The game was abandoned. The replay was held in Ferrara a short while after and Spal went down badly: three nil. When I returned to Ferrara after the war, I took my first steps in journalism as a sub editor with the Corriere del Po, where one of my tasks was to cover Spal's home games. What fun I had on Sunday evenings, when I sat down to write those pieces!

The raids upfield launched by Pandolfini and De Lazzari, two wing halves that advanced in tandem, passing the ball to each other and foiling all attempts at intervention; the cannonball shot of the inside forward Rancilio, who had goalkeepers in a state of nerves as he took his run up for free kicks; and the dazzling dribbling of Pippo Belardini, a student of my age who had been in my class at primary school.

That job with the Corriere del Po didn't last long; two years later I moved definitively to Milan and, since then, I could no longer cover Spal's matches. So I, who had seen so many Second and Third Division matches, could not take part in the club's long golden age (1951-68) in the First Division. In all those splendid years, I must have seen only two or three matches at San Siro, against Milan and Inter. Of that Spal team, I remember, above all, the exceptional intelligence of the Spal wing half, Fabio Capello - the future trainer of AC Milan and Real Madrid - and the perfect geometries of Albertino Bigon.
My absence from the stadium led to an increase in my interest in my home team. Year after year, I followed the discoveries of the wizard Mazza, who possessed an extraordinary "nose" for new talents, many of whom were destined to move on to the great teams: Nesti, Bugatti and Cipollini to Inter; Zaglio to Roma; Malatrasi to Fiorentina; Capello to Juventus; and Bigon to Foggia.

With Paolo Mazza's retirement and death, the club slid downwards into the Fourth Division. But, although my interest had waned, it lingered on stubbornly. I recall my
enthusiasm, a few years ago, for a win over Solbiatese that sent us back up into the Third Division.

I have to admit that it has been several years since I last saw the Spal team in the flesh, or even in photographs. Today, for example, I know of names such as Cancellato or Pierobon, but I haven't a clue as to what they look like or how they play; yet, every Sunday, I switch on the TV and anxiously await the Spal result. And every Monday I buy the sporting press, just to read the piece on the Spal game.

«What on earth do you see in eleven young men in shorts running about after a football?», my wife must have asked me a hundred times. Why indeed? A yearning for my youth? An attachment to my home town? A love of the geometries traced by a white ball on a green field? Childishness? Sometimes my family make me feel quite guilty.

But then I think of when I used to work for Mondadori and the many enthusiastic discussions on football I used to have with that great poet Vittorio Sereni; or of the last, long telephone conversation, all about football and Spal, that I had with the writer, Lanfranco Caretti. And then I feel better. Come on, Spal!