Carpi

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Sassuolo? Ma per favore. It was a brusque response, but one the question probably merited. In many ways, the story of Serie A newcomers Carpi FC 1909 is comparable to that of US Sassuolo. Both clubs hail from small towns in Emilia Romagna. Both have humble footballing traditions and modest followings. Much of their history has been spent in the lower divisions. Their respective paths to Serie A have been plotted recently and rapidly, both winning a string of promotions in the last decade. Both have found that with success comes sacrifice, the duo having been forced to abandon their tiny 4,000-seater homes to comply with Serie A’s regulations.

Sassuolo made their Serie A debut two years ago away to Torino. Since then, theNeroverdi have consolidated, negotiating two successful seasons. Carpi will make their first outing in Italy’s top tier on 23 August at Sampdoria. The Carpi president, Claudio Caliumi, has said that he sees “similarities” between the clubs and admitted that Sassuolo can be viewed as a “model” for Carpi. But do theIrriducibili of Carpi’s Curva Nord see Sassuolo as an example of hope for their Serie A campaign? “Sassuolo?” they reply, “…please.”

Flanked by the 52 arches of the Portico Lungo, the Piazza dei Martiri is Carpi’s central showpiece. It is the third largest square in Italy, yet with a population of around 70,000, the town that envelops this stately piazza is small and unassuming. Resting just 20km north of Modena, Carpi’s array of towers, turrets, palaces and renaissance art make it the perfect day-trip for culture-hungry tourists. Traditionally there has been no prominent sporting culture. But this all changed when Carpi FC took Italian football by storm, embarking on a meteoric rise from Serie D to Serie A in the space of six years.

Founded in 1909, Carpi have an undistinguished history. If you delve deep enough, records show they competed in Italy’s former top flight for three years between 1919 and 1922. Since then, there has been little to shout about in this province of Modena. That’s not to say Carpi haven’t threatened to establish themselves.

In the late 1970s, the Biancorossi (red and whites) celebrated promotion to Serie C and with it the birth of their first ultras group, Panthers. However, this foray did not last long. In 1980 their relegation back to Serie D was compounded by the contrasting fortunes of bitter rivals Modena, who won promotion from the same division.

For Carpi and their nascent ultras, this signalled the beginning of some trying years. Serie D had just been renamed Il Campionato Interregionale, a title instantly recognisable to those who have used Italy’s railroads. Documenting his experiences on the peninsula’s trains in his book Italian Ways, the author Tim Parks describes the Interregionale service as “the train of the living dead”. It seems football’s equivalent wasn’t much better. One Carpigiano was particularly disparaging, calling the division “unattractive and squalid”.

As a consequence, some Carpi fans looked elsewhere. Bologna and Reggiana provided logical choices. Both were from Emilia Romagna and both regularly locked horns with Modena. But during this adversity, groups of stalwarts emerged.

The Irriducibili were formed in 1983 and were followed by Mucchio Selvaggio(Wild Bunch). Members of the Irriducibili recall the sparse attendances and the struggle to maintain unity at the Stadio Cabassi. “It wasn’t easy during the dark years,” they say. “However, thanks to those who continued to gather both inside and outside the stadium, we managed to keep the movement alive.”

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Retrieved from the Irriducibili’s official Facebook page.

The Irriducibili remain flag-bearers, alongside Guidati dal Lambrusco, whose name is inspired by the locally produced wine. Formed in 1989, Guidati’s arrival coincided with a turn in fortunes for Carpi as two consecutive promotions propelled them into Serie C1. These were exciting times for the minnows. With professional football came certain novelties. Every week, Carpi were featured on Rai TV’s iconic football show, Domenica Sportiva, while fans had the pleasure of placing their beloved city on their Schedina (betting slip).

The highlights of the 1990s included a historic 1-0 victory over Emilian giants Bologna in 1993-94 and a run to the Serie C1 play-off final in 1997. Over 4,000Carpigiani watched their team narrowly miss out on a historic promotion to Serie B after they lost 3-2 to Monza. In hindsight it was the precursor for future conquests but first there was humiliation. In the words of the Irriducibili, “A succession of mistakes culminated in bankruptcy in 2000.” Carpi were forced to start again in the amateur Eccellenza division.

Two years later, coach Raffaello Papone engineered the Biancorossi’s return to Serie D. Having made over 200 appearances for the club, Papone shared the supporters’ passion and commanded respect. Enthusiasm began to creep back. According to the Irriducibili, the crucial turning point came in 2005. “The revival began with the arrival of Claudio Caliumi as president and the consequent merger between Carpi and Dorando Pietri [another team from the town]. This was the catalyst for our promotions from Serie D to Serie A.”

Like Papone, Caliumi was also a former player who had gone on to become a successful local entrepreneur, creating a womenswear brand. He remains owner today, alongside fellow entrepreneurs Stefano Bonacini and Roberto Marani. Under their stewardship, Carpi have reshuffled Calcio’s pack, producing a remarkable four of a kind. These four promotions between 2009 and 2015 have proved both inspiring and timely for the people of Carpi, who endured the hardships of a 5.8 magnitude earthquake that struck in 2012, as well as the travails of the textile industry, upon which the town is heavily reliant.

Yet Carpi’s rise to Serie A has captured the imagination and garnered widespread support, something which has often been lacking. Before their home game against Bari in April 2015, the Curva Nord choreographed a spectacle. Supporters held aloft red and white placards adorned with the letter “A”. Amid the flash and smoke of flares and firecrackers, they unfurled a banner that read: “Conquisti amol…” “Conquer it [Serie A]”. The game finished 0-0, mathematically ensuring Carpi’s promotion to Serie A and the sell-out crowd streamed on to the pitch to celebrate with their heroes.

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For the Irriducibili, the spectacle before the game was as great a signifier of the club’s progress as the promotion itself. “There was incredible enthusiasm and emotion when we reached Serie A, however, our biggest satisfaction was seeing our Curva grow.”

Having gleefully left Modena behind in Serie B, the Carpigiani will renew acquaintances with an old foe in Serie A. “The fixture we are most looking forward to? Empoli” say the Irriducibili. “We have old grudges that date back to the 1990s and these were revisited during our first year in Serie B.”

But Serie A brings with it a more pressing issue. During the game against Bari, the ultras also unveiled a banner reading “Grazie Societa. Un Ultimo Miracolo. Giochiamo la a Qua” (“Thank you owners. One last miracle, let’s play Serie A here”). The decision to move from the Stadio Cabassi to their enemy’s Stadio Alberto Braglia has split opinion.

The group Guidati dal Lambrusco have already announced they will not be buying season tickets for Modena, deciding only to travel to away games. “This place will never be our home,” they say. The Irriducibili seem unperturbed. “Where we play next year or the years after doesn’t interest us. We follow Carpi wherever and the actions of other groups don’t bother us in the slightest.”

The group’s differences are also mirrored in politics. From 2003, the Guidati dal Lambrusco began to participate in the “Mondiali Antirazzisti”, a multi-cultural festival that brings together hundreds of supporters, football clubs and nationalities in a fight against discrimination.

The Irriducibili choose not to participate in any such events and have expressed contrasting views: “We think politics should remain outside the stadium but, given that this isn’t the case in almost every Curva in Italy, we are also politically inclined. The majority of our group are right-wing but there are also differing ideologies within the group that upset the balance of the Curva.”

Carpi will need all the support they can find to keep their fairytale alive. For what might be considered a miracle by some is regarded a nightmare for others. In a leaked telephone call published by Italian newspaper La Repubblica, Lazio president Claudio Lotito bemoaned the promotion of small clubs such as Carpi and fellow Serie A debutants Frosinone. He claimed that hardly anyone knew who they were and that TV revenue could be jeopardised “if teams come up [to Serie A] who are not worth a cent”.

The Lazio president’s comments were met with a sardonic riposte on the Carpi official website. “Perhaps it’s true, as we read in the media, that some people don’t even know Carpi exists,” the statement read, “but like it or not, we do!” Lotito’s business-centric outlook is symptomatic of the modern game and theIrriducibili do not think he is the only one with such supercilious views. “Lotito said what all the other presidents in Serie A were thinking but didn’t want to say.”

Yet what others say and do is of little import to Carpi and their supporters. This brings us back to the ultras’ curt response when asked to compare their club to Sassuolo. Carpi’s formula for success has been unique. At their nadir, they instilled faith in the old guard, using former players to start the rebuilding process.

Mistakes have been heeded and president Caliumi has kept the club in the green. The club reportedly recorded a turnover of €3.15m in their most recent accounts, while the squad that won the Serie B title was compiled for an overall cost of €1.82m. In comparison to Sassuolo – who are backed by the resources of manufacturing magnate Giorgio Squinzi – Carpi have been parsimonious.

They have carved their own identity and will bring their own brand to Serie A. These are pioneering times, yet it has taken years of patience and endeavour to reach this point. On an August afternoon in Genoa, the stage will be set for Carpi to write the next chapter in their history. At their backs, they will hear the vocals of their most staunch supporters.

“Our objective for this season is to continue to grow and encourage as many people as possible to love our colours,” the Irriducibili conclude. “But whatever happens, we will consider this season a success.”

Grazie to the Irriducibili Ultras Carpi 1983

This article originally appeared on The Gentleman Ultra and The Guardian Sports Network