WORDS: DOMINIC BLISS
It has been a turbulent year for Bari supporters, who this season saw their club lurch to the brink of ruin, without an owner. Yet the biancorossi faithful have rallied in adversity and their passion has carried the team on a wave of euphoria, creating an unlikely feel-good story at the Stadio San Nicola…
Midway through the first half of their recent home game against Cittadella, Bari supporters in the boisterous Curva Nord unfurled a banner to rousing applause from the rest of the cavernous Stadio San Nicola.
‘LA BARI É DEI TIFOSI, NO AGLI SPECULATORI!!’ it read – or, loosely translated into English: ‘Bari belongs to the supporters, not to the speculators.’
The message was clear – the club needed new owners and new investment, but not at the cost of its heart and soul – the passionate local fans who have turned out in huge numbers to back their team since the departure of the previous owners, the Matarrese family, in February. By that point, the mere name of this power-hungry Barese dynasty was anathema to the biancorossi faithful, who have seen their club struggle to nail down a permanent place in Serie A over the last 15 years of the family’s corrosive reign.
Below that banner was another, which remained in place throughout the game, draped over the barrier at the front of the colourful curva’s packed upper tier.
‘BARI MERITA RISPETTO,’ this one exclaimed, and, while many might allow themselves a wry grin at the idea of paying respect to a club that began the season with a four-point deduction and was so heavily involved in the recent calcio scommesse match-fixing scandals, it is difficult to deny that this Bari side and their supporters deserve some measure of admiration for what they have achieved in the past two months. After the pain and humiliation of relegations and scandal, Bari are desperate to move on.
Going into the game, the Pugliese side had won eight of their previous nine fixtures and set a Serie B attendance record for the only defeat in that run when 32,528 people came through the turnstiles, only to see their side fall 1-0 to overachievers Latina in April.
They broke that record again for the Cittadella game, as support grew for the team on the eve of the third auction to find a new buyer for the club. All week, the city and social media websites had been plastered with one message: #COMPRATE LA BARI! The previous evening, one of the city’s favourite sons, Antonio Cassano – ‘Fantantonio’ – had whipped off his Parma shirt after securing Europa League football for his current club to reveal the viral message of support for his hometown on his vest.
The following day, several bidders would hustle and bustle for ownership of bankrupt Bari, but on this humid spring evening, only three things mattered: the team, the supporters…and the result.
It was fitting that the attendance record should be broken for the visit of Cittadella, of all teams. Back in 2002, the small club from the Veneto – whose mere presence in Serie B is an achievement in itself -were the opposition at the San Nicola for Bari’s lowest-ever turnout. Just 51 (fifty-one!) people took their places in the 58,000-capacity stadium that miserable day, as the fans stayed away in protest at the miserable governance of the Matarrese dynasty. Now, 12 years later and less than three months after the departure of the family who had run the club for 37 years, the same opponents were greeted by the roar of 35,581 people.
The ‘one’ on the end of that impressive figure was the sole representative of the away support. Incredibly, Giuseppe Ferronato made the 800km journey south alone, and he cut an incredibly isolated figure in the segregated away section of the stadium on the bend between the Tribuna Est and the slightly less-animated Curva Sud. He was even outnumbered by his own flags, of which there were two, but throughout the game, he stood firm, refusing to be intimidated by the at-times overwhelming atmosphere generated by the home supporters up the other end.
‘The crowd at the San Nicola gave me goose bumps,’ he later admitted to local press reporters. ‘I have toured Italy – I was at San Siro for the match against Inter, but what I saw in Bari has no comparison.’
Bari merita rispetto, you might say if you were feeling sentimental, and that evening in the San Nicola it was difficult not to get a little carried away.
As the players emerged from the staircases underneath the dugouts, the tifosi joined together to sing the club’s anthem, ‘Bari Grande Amore’ – a sloshy, overly romantic number, as they all are…yet somehow this rendition was extraordinarily stirring. For the grand finale, they boomed out ‘Bari in nostro cuore, non ti lasceremo da sola, mai’ (‘Bari in our hearts, we will never leave you alone’), and the noise reached that level where it takes you by surprise, producing an involuntary lump-in-the-throat, tingles-down-the-spine sensation. With their red-and-white scarves held rigidly above their heads and their emotions worn openly across their faces, there was more than a hint of the Kop during ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ about the occasion.
The mood in the stadium was in keeping with the romanticism of the city, where each and every once-bare wall in Bari Vecchia, the old town, was covered in graffiti, almost exclusively declarations of love. ‘Ti amo’ is everywhere in Bari, but inside the Stadio San Nicola the recipients of the passionate outpourings are not teenage girls and boys, but whichever eleven men happen to be wearing the biancorossi shirts.
‘Bari nel nostro cuore’.
They support their local team here. On the way from the airport to the hotel, our taxi driver – another Giuseppe – proudly displayed an AS Bari pin badge on his dashboard and it only took one question about football before he was recommending that we make our way to the stadium on Monday night. I told him that my fiancée and I were already planning to buy our tickets the very next morning and he proceeded to tell us how much the whole city was looking forward to this fixture. Then, as he handed over our luggage from the boot of his cab outside the Palace Hotel in the centre of town, Giuseppe produced the pin badge he had taken from his dashboard and handed it to me.
‘For you,’ he said with a smile – our first exchange in English.
The next day, I arranged to meet Ugo Cellamare of Bari fansite orgogliobarese.it, who also happened to be a keen follower of the Football League and, in particular, Brentford (although he cited Craven Cottage as his favourite place to watch football). English and German football appealed to him more than the Italian game, which he insisted, ‘We have ruined.’
However, Ugo was still at his most animated when discussing his beloved Bari and as we sat down in Martinucci, a popular gelateria in Bari Vecchia, he opened up about his club’s plight.
‘The last 13 years have been terrible,’ he said, ‘because the former owners – who owned the club since 1977 – didn’t want to invest anymore after the disaster of Punta Perotti [an abandoned building project in which the family lost a lot of money].
‘I think that, after the bankruptcy, Bari and its supporters have been reborn, as if they are regaining their club. The players are also showing their worth, because they feel involved in the situation. They have understood that the situation is dramatic and so they are doing their best to contribute to the rebirth of Bari.
‘They have a strong desire to make the fans happy and, when nobody showed up to the second auction, they made videos in which they invited investors to buy Bari and started an online phenomenon in support of the club.’
As we finished our drinks and prepared to leave, Ugo – who we had known for a little over an hour – offered us a lift to the game, glancing at Kelly, my five-foot fiancée, and suggesting that the shuttle buses laid on for supporters might not be safe. Southern hospitality, Pugliese style.
When he arrived at the hotel to pick us up on Monday evening, Ugo was in matchday mode, wearing a red Bari zip-up hoodie, dark shades and displaying his biancorossi scarf carefully in the front window of his black Fiesta.
En route, we talked football and the differences between Italian and English culture, but when we reached the point where a small side road branches off the motorway towards the stadium, Ugo trailed off suddenly as he saw the challenge facing him. It seemed like half of Bari was descending on the San Nicola that night!
As supporters had begun to realise how busy it was, dozens of cars had simply been left on the hard shoulder for hundreds of yards on either side of the small road – no more than a dirt track – that leads you to one of the biggest football grounds in Italy. We stared wide-eyed as drivers simply nosedived into small spaces on the side of the motorway, jumped out of the car and made their way to the game. Benvenuti a Bari!
With all the prime spots on the hard shoulder already taken up an hour-and-a-half before kick-off, Ugo decided to accept the offer of a man with no official credentials, wearing a navy Bari bench coat, who beckoned him through a rusty gate and into a hastily arranged makeshift car park in a field.
Now, this was not like the bald, flattened fairground fields that you see being used as temporary parking areas on matchdays in Britain; it was full of toughened, calf-high long grass, more akin to bamboo, which definitely did the underside of Ugo’s Fiesta no favours as he crunched and scraped his way into a position by the exit. What’s more, there was not a single car parked in the field as we made our way onto the pathway to the Stadio San Nicola.
‘It’s ok,’ Ugo smiled unconvincingly, checking the side of his car for scratches as I looked into the distance at the bizarre sight of this huge lump of concrete and steel thrusting out into the sky among acres of abandoned fields. It has become a clichéd analogy by now, but it really did look as though a spaceship had landed in the middle of nowhere.
Up close, however, it was an impressive stadium and I was taken aback by how vast it looks from the inside. Okay, the place has not been looked after and I doubt if it has seen a coat of paint or a cleaner’s cloth since the start of the season – most fans used the free club newspaper – Il nuovo Galletto (‘The New Cockerel’, after the club’s official nickname) – as a buffer between themselves and the grubby plastic seats. The roof had perished completely in places, but the San Nicola was one of the marquee new stadia for Italia ’90 and it shows. This place still has the scope and the solid structural presence to wow first-time visitors and there were already a good many people there when we arrived well over an hour before the game.
I’ve never seen more than a few scattered enthusiasts inside English grounds so early, but then again, there really is nothing else to do but head to your seat in the desolate wasteland that surrounds Bari’s out-of-town home. This task becomes even more crucial when you consider that the seat number on your ticket means nothing – once your ID has been checked against the name on your ticket (a procedure that is only sporadically carried out) and you are through the turnstile, pretty much any available spot is there for the taking. No more seats in the area you were eyeing? Sit in the stairwell! In fact, for every second empty seat inside the stadium for the Cittadella game, there was probably a fan sat on a concrete step somewhere instead.
We took our seats next to Ugo’s father, who has been watching Bari since the late fifties, and their friend Alessandro. There were many more families sat together around us in the upper tier of the Tribuna Est, but my attention was consistently drawn to the Curva Nord, where fans set off mini bombs, lit flares and continued to chant and sing throughout the game. Then, as one bomb blast went off in the curva, Kelly and I turned to each other with mischievous grins on our faces, only for Ugo to wag his forefinger severely with a shake of his head.
‘They are stupid,’ he said. ‘The club is fined every time they do that.
‘They should punish the person who brings the bomb, not the rest of us,’ he continued. ‘But in Italy, everyone is punished except the ones who should be.’
Despite Ugo’s wise words, he was clearly proud of the passion of the Ultras who, for much of the ensuing 90 minutes, were more entertaining than the sub-standard fodder on the pitch. Bari laboured to a 1-0 win, courtesy of a beautifully struck late free kick from No.10 Lugo Martinez, but the three points were the only thing that mattered at this stage in the season. With just two games remaining, Bari found themselves in sixth place, with a very good chance of reaching the promotion play-offs.
As I watched 35,000 people salute their team during an impromptu post-match lap of honour, I couldn’t help feeling that this club – who have spent more than 30 years of their existence in the top flight – belonged in Serie A. Even Giuseppe, the lone Cittadella tifoso, agreed.
‘A display and a crowd from Serie A,’ he enthused, ‘the team deserves to be promoted – not just for its play, but especially for its fans.’
But when we departed the stadium amid a wave of optimism, Ugo’s young friend Alessandro sought me out and pointed to the vacant field next door to the narrow lane leading back to the motorway.
‘They built a station and railway there when the stadium was constructed,’ he explained, ‘but it has never functioned. Hopefully, the new owners will make it operate.’
Just at that moment the shuttle bus forced its way through the crowds on the road, packed to bursting point with euphoric fans in red and white, who banged their hands against the steamed-up windows and chanted their way back to Bari city centre.
Ugo looked over at Kelly and said, ‘You see why I offered you a lift now?’ and we returned to the desolate field where his car was safely waiting.
The following day, the club went up for auction for the third time this season and, after some furious bidding, was bought by a group of investors headed up by former Serie A referee Gianluca Paparesta for a not insignificant €4.8 million.
At his introductory press conference, the new man at the helm of Bari explained that his project will involve Italians and foreign investors and, although he did not reveal the identity of the money men backing him, there are plenty of rumours to be found online for those who are interested in such matters.
For now, it is too early to say whether the future is bright for the biancorossi, but Ugo and many of the supporters who use the forum on his website have expressed initial optimism. After years of stagnation under the Matarrese family and months in administration, you can hardly blame them.
‘I think that, at the moment we have to let him work,’ Ugo told me. ‘On our website there is a feeling of optimism. People trust Paparesta and believe that, finally, we can rely on a serious project.
‘He will have to work hard, though, because Bari is like a sick person who needs to get well.’
On Sunday afternoon, 10-man Bari slumped to a 2-0 defeat in Spezia, placing their hopes of play-off qualification in doubt. It’s tight at the top of the Serie B table, however, and a win in their final game of the season, against struggling Novara at the Stadio San Nicola, could well push them into the top-eight spot they crave. Another league record attendance is expected.