Sassuolo

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Unlike many of the teams documented in this series, US Sassuolo Calcio are something of an unknown quantity. The town of Sassuolo lies southwest of its more distinguished, super-car manufacturing neighbour, Modena. It is not a destination that sits high on the priority list of the average tourist. That is unless you happen to belong to the coterie of calcio aficionados. Then you may feel a trip to this remote industrial town is worth its weight in gold, or more pertinently, ceramics. For while Sassuolo is renowned for being at the nexus of Italy’s tile industry, the town has been slapped firmly on the footballing map thanks to the seemingly inexorable rise of US Sassuolo Calcio.

Sassuolo have one of the lowest followings in Serie A. Speaking to Silvia and Giulio, two season ticket holders who have followed Sassuolo home and away for the last two years, they were quick to acknowledge the club’s modest history: “Sassuolo don’t have a prestigious footballing tradition. It was only after Giorgio Squinzi bought the club and Sassuolo began to climb up the leagues that the people became passionate.”

Their story is similar to that of Chievo’s, a footballing parvenu whose extraordinary rise to prominence has left supporters incredulous. The Sassolesi are minnows in the landscape of Italy’s ultras. They don’t have strength in numbers. Nor are they renowned for their braggart choreographies or tumultuous atmospheres. But whether it is home or away, in Modena or Reggio Calabria, a small contingent is always present to support the Neroverdi (Green and Blacks).

Their paucity in numbers is unsurprising. Sassuolo is the smallest town to boast a team in Serie A, with a population of around 41,000. The club have spent much of their history toiling in the doldrums of the amateur leagues, a slab of brick plastered firmly at the base of the calcio pyramid. The more established teams in the region (Bologna, Modena and Reggiana) have traditionally attracted the support of the town’s football fans.

However, with the club enjoying a period of footballing transcendence, their organised support has – to a much smaller extent – enjoyed its own renaissance. The story of the club’s ultras can be told through the looking glass of the club’s rise. Unbeknown to many, during Sassuolo’s fledgling years, an English club called Lancaster Rovers FC left an indelible mark on their identity. During their tour of Italy in 1921, Lancaster were unable to fulfill a fixture commitment and, as a means of apology, donated their black and green kit to the Italians. The strip was adopted and the colours promptly embraced, earning Sassuolo their nickname: I Neroverdi.

After years of anonymity, in 1974 Sassuolo’s fortunes began to turn after they merged with the cities other football club, Giofil San Giorgio. Ten years later the Neroverdi earned a much awaited promotion to Serie C2. It was the first time the town had a team competing in a professional league. This success on the field inspired movement off it. The ‘Ultras Saxolum 1988’ established themselves as a clique of fanatics whose Campanilismo (local pride and identity) was their raison d’etre.

Their name reveals all. The town’s title, Sassuolo, is thought to have derived from the word ‘Saxolum’, the etymology of which stems from the Latin words ‘Saxum’ (large stone) and ‘Solum’ (soil or location). It is thought that Sassuolo was once a military fortification housing a legion during Roman epoch and thus the denomination celebrates the town’s ancient origins. It is worth speculating whether this association with ancient Rome may also be in keeping with their supporter’s alleged sympathy with far-right politics. Symbols from the Roman Empire are often embraced by neo-fascist factions within AS Roma’s ‘UltraS’ and the correlate between right-wing political ideology and ancient Rome has been discussed earlier in this series.

For the majority of the late 1980s and 1990s, the Neroverdi oscillated between Serie C2 and Serie D. Despite a period of relative stagnation on the field, their Ultra movement continued to evolve. New groups appeared, most notably Gioventù and Alkatraz. In 2002, Giorgio Squinzi – owner of the multinational MAPEI company – sponsored the club and a year later he acquired ownership. This proved to be the harbinger of a new era and Sassuolo’s subsequent success has beggared belief.

However, while Squinzi set about developing a concrete club structure which was the precursor for Sassuolo’s climb up the professional ladder, support for the team became desultory. In 2003, the emergence of ‘Head Out’ helped reinvigorate the atmosphere at the Stadio Enzo Ricci. The stadiums tiny capacity meant there were no curve and thus the Ultras positioned themselves in the tribuna (the side stand). Despite rarely filling 4,000 seats, their home became something of a fortress and during their promotions to Serie C1 in 2006 and Serie B in 2008, the Neroverdi lost just three home games in each season.

Success didn’t come without its problems, both for the club and their supporters. They were forced to relocate to Modena’s Stadio Alberto Braglia due to the size of the Ricci. The Ricci was used for training while the supporters faced the prospect of a 12 mile trip to watch home games. Having struggled to fill a venue of 4,000, the Sassolesi barely filled a corner of Modena’s 20,000-seat arena. Every home game was a reminder of Sassuolo’s size but also one that emphasised just how far the club had come.

Under the tenure of coach Eusebio di Francesco, the Emilians scaled the mountain top in 2013, winning the Serie B title. 15,157 watched the Neroverdi secure their historic promotion to Serie A with a 1-0 over Livorno, Simone Missiroli’s last gasp strike sparking scenes of jubilation as the Sassolesi flooded the pitch to celebrate with their heroes.

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That said, their new venture in Serie A did not alleviate their stadium woes. Sassuolo’s home changed once again, this time to the Stadio Citta del Tricolore, the home of Lega Pro side Reggiana. In December, 2013, Squinzi bought the stadium and renamed it after his company – Stadium Mapei. It was a deal that angered the Ultras of Sassuolo’s Curva Nord.

“How many times have we reaffirmed our sense of belonging and love for our city, and how important it is not to constantly feel like guests; but unfortunately economic interests have prevailed over the passion and attachment to our colours… One more time, we do not belong in this stadium.”

Later that month, for the first 15 minutes of Sassuolo’s game against Chievo, 500 Reggiana supporters sat with the Sassolesi in the Curva Nord expressing their indignation. “Per Squinzi: Un Affare Perfetto, Per Sassuolo: Nessun Rispetto” ‘For Squinzi: a perfect deal, for Sassuolo: no respect’ one banner proclaimed, while another read: ‘Never at home’. The supporters chagrin remains however the team’s performances on the pitch have provided a welcome distraction.

Sassuolo are now thriving in Serie A. Unsurprisingly the club’s achievements have seen the Ultras ranks swell. A group named Clan Curva Nord, formerly Saxolum, proclaim to be Sassuolo’s only ‘real’ ultras. They are joined by two supporter groups known as Sasol and Gli Antenati. They ensure the Mapei Stadium is not without atmosphere and spectacle, indulging in the customary flag waving and relentless chanting.

That said the movement remains small and their following away from home modest, especially given that the Clan Curva Nord refuse to accept the controversial Tessera del Tifoso (supports ID card), thus making them unable to attend away games. According to Silvia and Giulio, around 100 supporters usually follow the team on the road.

But with success comes envy. Sassuolo’s following is often taunted regarding their allegiance to other clubs, especially before the Neroverdi reached Serie A. These disparaging attitudes are exemplified in the following statement made by a Parma supporter.

“They are Juventus fans who used to support Modena during the two years the latter competed in Serie A. They returned to Juve and now they support Sassuolo. That is apart from when they play against Juve and then they revert back to being Juventini.”

Ultras or not, Sassuolo’s supporters can remind the naysayers that, at this point in time, they sit highest placed of all the clubs in Emilia Romagna. In a city where the fires traditionally burn in kilns, Sassuolo have ignited a footballing passion. The Neroverdi are re-shuffling Italian football’s hierarchy but as Silvia affirmed, the supporters will never forget the clubs humble beginnings.

“Being a supporter or player of Sassuolo is different to that of other clubs in Italy. Sassuolo is pride, simply, Sassuolo is our colours. The result is not important, we want players who fight for our shirt and who give their hearts. Here, in contrast to the rest of Italy, we enjoy a friendly and personal relationship with our players.”

With thanks to season ticket holders, Silvia Mezzadri and Giulio Mucci, for their knowledge and expertise. In the two years they have been following Sassuolo home and away they have missed just one match! Grazie e in bocca al lupo per il campionato.

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