Whilst the rest of the world trawled the internet waiting for the announcement of Paul Pogba’s supposed world record transfer to Manchester United and the café’s and bars around Italy were engulfed in talk about Gonzalo Higuain, another story was being played out. In Luzern, Switzerland, Sassuolo were taking part in their first European outing, and whilst this may not be front page news, it is certainly a story worth telling. This is the other side of modern football, where hard work, good planning and a model set up on good business can allow fans to dream.
Domenico Berardi stepped up to the penalty spot and blasted the ball down the center. The net's crackle could be heard around the Swissporarena as the crowd fell silent. The few Sassuolo fans who travelled were jubilant and their star winger wheeled away telling the Swiss ground to ‘sush’ as he put his finger over his mouth. The equaliser was a relief, not only as it felt like justice after Marco Schneuwly’s cruelly deflected shot had given the hosts the lead but also as it was the away goal. The Neroverdi returned to Italy jubilant but not before Andrea Consigli had saved a penalty to secure the point.
Whilst this Europa League fixture went under the radar for many, it was the biggest game in the club’s history. Years of hard work and toil in Italy’s lower leagues would have made a game like this unthinkable only a decade ago. Now the club from Emilia Romagna are mixing in with the best in Europe and it is a result of a model put in place by Giorgi Squinzi back in 2002 when the owner of the multinational MAPEI company purchased the club.
Since then the rise has been almost mesmeric as the financial stability allowed the club to restructure and look forward. First after maximising all the potential they could in the old Stadio Enzo Ricci (where he originally convinced the fans to come back through the ‘Head Out’ campaign) he invested in a policy of youth products and coaches who understood his vision. This helped negate the obvious obstacles in their rise to the top. Firstly, their size (they have a population of only 41,000) and the fact that in this region fans are more attracted to Modena, Bologna and Reggiana.
In 2013 the model Sassuolo had adopted went one stage further. Now, looking at the example of Juventus but realistically following the vision of many Bundesliga clubs, they purchased their own stadium. The Stadio Citta Tricolore was renamed the MAPEI Stadium and the club, unlike so many teams in Italy, had a home they could call their own. They rented the ground to Reggiana and to Zebre (a local rugby team) to help fund their progression. In 2013-14 they were eventually crowned champions of Serie B and this promotion in itself was a phenomenal achievement.
Despite the ground not being in their home town of Sassuolo the crowds are slowly growing, and whilst it may not be a cauldron of die-hard Ultras the ‘interested observers’ still spend money. As in Germany, fans could customise their match-day experience (from the Curva to executive boxes) allowing money to be pumped back into the club, where it was spent wisely.
Some of the names that have passed through the doors to don the Neroverdi shirt in recent years are staggering. The aforementioned Domenico Berardi and Andrea Consigli still play alongside Francesco Acerbi and Paolo Cannavaro. Simone Zaza, Reto Zeigler, Sime Vrsalijko, Alfred Duncan, Leonardo Pavoletti, Luca Antei, Nicola Sansone... the list is endless, and this is only in very recent memory.
Modern football often gets carried away with brands, huge transfer fees and the lure of the ever-rich super club, and to an extent that is understandable. There is little point fighting it as they are all here to stay and football cannot live in the past. Sassuolo, however, should not be ignored, they are also forward-thinking and not looking to the past, they are breaking down barriers and making over-achievement seem like the norm. They are proving you don’t have to be rich to be successful in football and that penalty saves in Luzern in Switzerland on a Thursday night can feel as good as any goal scored in the Camp Nou.