It was April 12, 2003 and Serie B was on the home stretch. Catania were 16th, in the thick of a relegation battle, and were hosting a Siena side just two points off the top. The match finished 1-1, which did neither team any favours, but there was a problem. Siena had fielded an ineligible player in defender Luigi Martinelli, who was still serving a ban. What should’ve been a simple overturning of the result morphed into mayhem.
Like now, Serie B was made up of 20 teams, with three up and four down at the end of the season. Catania finished the regular 2002-03 campaign in 17th place, which should have seen them suffer relegation to Serie C1, along with Salernitana, Cosenza and Genoa. Taking their spots from C1, it seemed, were Albinoleffe, Avellino, Pescara and Treviso.
Martinelli had missed Siena’s game against Napoli before the trip to Catania, as per the terms of his suspension. However, the Sicilians argued that was rendered void by his appearance in a youth-team fixture the same day. Catania’s appeal to Lega Serie B was initially rejected and the 1-1 scoreline stood, until they consulted the Federal Court of Appeal (CAF), which assigned the Sicilians a 2-0 victory.
Had the new result stood, it would’ve pulled Catania clear of relegation trouble, owing to their superior head-to-head with Napoli, who in turn were facing the prospect of a relegation playout against Venezia. Unsurprisingly, their rivals down the bottom were not prepared to take the CAF’s ruling lying down and a total of eight sides – including Napoli and Venezia – went to the National Federal Court to have Catania’s 2-0 win annulled.
The octet was successful and Catania’s 1-1 draw was reinstated, but the saga didn’t stop there. The Rossazzurri took their legal challenge to the Italian Olympic Committee (CONI) and the administrative court (TAR) of Sicily, the latter of which ordered the FIGC to change the Serie B table in the club’s favour. So 11 days later, on June 16, the government intervened through its Council of State, which delegitimised the TAR’s verdict.
The situation was fast becoming political, as the Council for Administrative Justice in Palermo then dismissed the FIGC’s counter-appeal to relegate Catania. For the first two weeks of July, the club was back in Serie B and on course to be registered for the 2003-04 championship, even if it meant the league being enlarged to 21 teams or 24, in the event Genoa, Cosenza and Salernitana were also spared the drop to Serie C1.
Venezia reopened the can of worms when they appealed to the FIGC’s Court of Appeal, claiming Catania had wrongly fielded an ineligible player of their own during a 2-0 defeat on May 17. The Sicilians’ victory instantly became a loss by the same margin, providing the cue for yet more legal wrangling between clubs, courts and authorities. There appeared to be no end in sight and the start of the 2003-04 campaign was pushed back.
However, in mid-August a resolution was finally found, as Serie B was extended to 24 teams. To keep everyone happy, Catania, Napoli and Venezia all stayed up, as did Genoa and Salernitana. Albinoleffe, Avellino, Pescara and Treviso all won promotion, but Cosenza’s bankruptcy left the division one team short. That void was filled by Fiorentina, who had just moved up to Serie C1 from C2, but were allowed to skip the third tier entirely on ‘sporting merit’.
The Viola’s ‘promotion’ was predictably panned, not least by bitter local rivals Pisa. Serie C1’s beaten playoff finalists in 2002-03 protested the decision, but to no avail. Also in C2 at the time were Pro Vercelli, who were more deserving of a place in Serie B than Fiorentina on sporting achievements. The Leoni won seven Scudetti between 1908 and 1922, yet were overlooked for the Tuscans, who can boast just the two.
Serie B downsized to 22 clubs the following season, which ended with Fiorentina making a swift return to the top flight. Catania went on to join the Viola two years later, but they have staggered from setback to setback since their relegation in 2014. This week, another tribunal filed a bankruptcy motion against Catania.
The absolute chaos that erupted that summer forced the FIGC to introduce new laws limiting all sporting legal action to one single TAR – that of Lazio and the Capital Rome – thereby avoiding any future repeats of jurisdiction insanity and courts in different regions over-ruling each other ad infinitum.
If the 2019-20 Serie A season ends early due to the coronavirus pandemic, we can be very thankful that Catania laid the groundwork to avoid a similar summer of confusion. At the same time, it shows us a glimpse of what could await us, namely the expansion of Serie A and B to keep everyone quiet.