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In Livorno, Italy’s Most Famous Left-Wing Football Club Is Fighting to Survive

A historic symbol of Italian communism, Livorno’s football club went bust this summer after more than a century of professional competition. But fans and former players are fighting to keep the team alive — and take control of it for themselves.

Livorno football fans at Armando Picchi stadium in 2007.

This hasn’t been Livorno’s best summer. In between sips of ponce (coffee plus more than a dash of rum), or perhaps an elaborate cacciucco (fish soup), the locals’ main topic of conversation has been whether the city would be left without a team this year — that is, without soccer. If this thought spread around the port and the Eni petrochemical refinery, it will also have occurred to livornesi between bites of 5 e 5 — a sandwich so-called because it used to be ordered as “five lire of bread and five of chickpea cake.”

Realizing that one of the city’s flagship dishes still has a name referring to the cost of living isn’t the only way to get a sense of this city on the Tyrrhenian Sea. Livorno sits in a region, Tuscany, that has never been won by center-right parties: until 2014, all the city’s mayors were (ex-)Communists, and even the ones since then have been figures of the center-left. This year, Mayor Luca Salvetti participated in events honoring the centenary of the Italian Communist Party (PCI), which was founded in Livorno in 1921. From its origins at the congress held at the city’s Teatro San Marco, attended by Antonio Gramsci, Amadeo Bordiga, Palmiro Togliatti, and others, the PCI became the biggest party to raise the hammer-and-sickle banner in Western Europe — ultimately reaching a peak of 34 percent support and 12 million votes.

But this summer, beyond worrying about their household budgets, livornesi’s main concern was Livorno — the football club.

Relegated

This May, Livorno’s second relegation (in football terms, a transfer to a less-competitive division) in two years sounded bad. But things could — and would — get even worse. In September 2019, Livorno had been playing in Serie B, Italy’s second tier. But since then, the club has been in freefall, dropping into Serie C and then D — a league that doesn’t even count as professional soccer. The club in fact spent both seasons at the bottom of the table, with almost no hope of a reprieve. At the beginning of July 2021, the club, which was founded in 1915, headed into liquidation. Livorno was unable to pay its Serie D registration fee or settle its debts to players, club employees, or the local council — making it impossible to go on using the city’s Armando Picchi municipal stadium.

In August, the Lega Nazionale Dilettanti — the Serie D organizer — denied admission to the Tuscan team, which, having already suffered its sporting death, now effectively disappeared as a club. The fans and the city itself set themselves the goal of refounding the club and, after various rumors about possible interested parties, some light began to emerge at the end of the tunnel.

A committee of “grandees” and Salvetti picked businessman Paolo Toccafondi’s offer as the best for Livorno’s future. With this new investment, the club has been reborn under the name Unione Sportiva Livorno. It has been confirmed that it will play the 2021–22 season in Eccellenza Toscana, the fifth regional tier of Italian soccer.

Gone, for the time being at least, is the possibility of Livorno becoming a club owned by its supporters. But Livorno Popolare — a fans’ collective, highly critical of former president Aldo Spinelli’s management of the club — has been trying to make this a reality. “[Spinelli’s] spell in charge destroyed everything good that was created in the 2000s, which even saw us participate in the UEFA [Union of European Football Associations] Cup [at the time, Europe’s second-biggest club competition]. It was a soccer team managed like a broken toy, with holes in the accounts, wasteful spending, and an incapacity to involve the fans in the decision-making processes,” Livorno Popolare told me.

The initiative to create a fan-owned club began in February, and, after gathering three thousand supporters, in May, it sent the now-defunct Associazione Sportiva Livorno Calcio a proposal to buy the club for €1 million — an offer that was rejected. But Livorno Popolare points to a different vision of Livorno’s future: “Our goal is to create a new model of participation in soccer, alternative to the one where the owners are lords and masters — that is, a model with the supporters directly involved in running the club.”

In its bid to seek fans’ participation efforts, it quoted a line from Luther Blissett’s novel Q: “Help me to put together the ship that will defy the storm.” But the present situation is rather different, the group says: “The immediate future will again be a single man investing and deciding — a model of football we’ve all seen before, and that we don’t share in. We’ll look for other spaces in which we can experiment with participatory management. We hope that the new company will be able to bring Livorno back into professional football as soon as possible.”

A Point of Reference

Livorno’s collapse can be seen as one of many ills — and here, we’re not talking about the effects of the pandemic. The story started sixty miles away in Florence, at the historic Fiorentina. A club boasting two league titles, six Italian cups, one Winners’ Cup, and three European finals, Fiorentina experienced its darkest summer in 2002, just two years after it played in the Champions League. After trading Gabriel Batistuta, Rui Costa, Francesco Toldo, Domenico Morfeo, and Federico Chiesa, the club was relegated to Serie B. With €50 million in debt, it was declared bankrupt, could not even participate in the second tier of Italian soccer, and formally disappeared. The club resurfaced as Florentia Viola and then reacquired Fiorentina’s rights and past records.

Between the time of the Florence squad’s demise and 2018, some 150 Italian clubs — some of them illustrious— lost their financial footing. Such was the case of Società Sportiva Calcio Napoli, indebted to the tune of €80 million and temporarily refounded as Napoli Soccer when film producer Aurelio De Laurentiis took the helm in 2004. Bari, Cesena, Foggia, Modena, Padova, Palermo, Parma, Perugia, Reggiana, Salernitana, Siena, Torino, Venezia, and Vicenza are some of the other clubs that once enjoyed glory days but then collapsed.

These are the moments in soccer — amid a mix of shock, uncertainty, and organizational toil ahead — when loyalty is put to the test. The forward Igor Protti is a local hero, one of the goal-makers who spearheaded the humble, “provincial” teams that populated the last golden age of Italian soccer in the 1990s. Alongside Dario Hübner, Protti is the only player in history to have been top scorer in Serie A, B, and C. Protti, a native of coastal tourist center Rimini, spent most of his career in Messina, Bari, and Livorno — a life spent sending balls into the net by the sea.

In Livorno, Igor Protti isn’t just the player who’s scored the most goals ever for the local club, he’s also a living legend. At age thirty-two, he turned down offers from top teams and went down to Serie C to play out his final years in Livorno’s dark red uniform. This was followed by six seasons in which he scored many goals and, with his teammates, led the city back to Serie A. As captain, he formed a legendary strike partnership with Cristiano Lucarelli and left in 2005 with the team on the verge of its only season of European competition. The club, in turn, retired his number 10 shirt, but he reversed the decision, arguing that youngsters who came through the ranks were entitled to wear it. In the club’s worst times, the Curva Nord chanted, “We want eleven Igor Prottis.”

And Protti is part of the new Livorno. He is the club’s new manager — a position from which he will try to execute his vision, guide the new players, and infect them with his own love for the shirt and the city. It’s his second stint in charge:

I would never have thought that I would return as a manager to Livorno in Eccelenza. I’m very attached to all the teams where I have played because, for me, wearing a jersey is very important. You represent that city, that fan base, that history. I don’t care what tier I’m in — for me, being at Livorno in Eccelenza is like being in Serie A. That’s why I’ve made myself available, to try to take the club higher and, above all, to bring back enthusiasm to a city that’s lost it lately.

The sporting objective is clear. “It has to be to finish in first place and move up to Serie D. On the non-sporting side, to reinforce the sense of belonging. The players will have to understand what it means to play for Livorno and wear this shirt. I will be in touch with them and the coach every day to help achieve this. Maybe that may sound like a dated approach, but sometimes, to improve, you also have to look back. There has to be heart in sport,” Protti said.

Although “the world is changing,” Protti said, this club remains “a point of reference for the city.” And for Italian soccer, we might add. Livorno has been in Serie A twenty-nine times and ranks twenty-fifth overall in the league’s nine-decade history. That puts it above clubs like Empoli, Sassuolo, Venezia, and Salernitana, who are playing in the top flight this year. Livorno had a runner-up finish in 1943 — a desert of thirty years before finally returning to Serie B. A creditable sixth place in Serie A in 2005/6 — and a spell at the beginning of this century that took it from playing clubs like Arezzo or Triestina to beating Glasgow Rangers, Auxerre, and Partizan Belgrade in the UEFA Cup. A bench that has seen the likes of Tarcisio Burgnich, Osvaldo Jaconi, Carlo Mazzone, and Walter Mazzarri — and one of the most bitter rivalries in the country, with Pisa.

Both the port and the university still remember the street protests that broke out when the Pisa president, Romeo Anconetani, cooked up the idea that the two clubs should merge into a single one called Pisorno. As far as their Tuscan neighbors are concerned, Livorno fans are fonder of Empoli and — a little further afield — of Ternana, coached by Cristiano Lucarelli. At Livorno’s Armando Picchi stadium, it is not uncommon to see the symbols of AEK Athens or Olympique Marseille, an expression of the ties of affinity between these mostly anti-fascist fans.

The Most Important Place in the World

Dino Risi’s Il Sorpassoa magnetic portrait of Italy in the postwar boom years — portrays the struggle between those who think that things happen all by themselves, and those who really make them happen. The director couldn’t have known that these same years also saw the start of the history that Alberto Prunetti would recount half a century later in his Amianto — a novel telling the story of industrial labor, asbestos poisoning, and his father, Renato.

In Il Sorpasso, Vittorio Gassman and Jean-Louis Trintignant go up the coast of Maremma, passing very close to the ironworks of Follonica, the steel town of Piombino, and the mercury of Rosignano Solvay. Prunetti recalls how he started to become fond of soccer at a very young age, watching his father reading and listening to the regional results. “For us, they had more value than the European Cup,” he writes. Livorno was the place where Renato took his family on many Sundays, his only day off. Open and free, the ground was, in that moment, the most important place in the world.

“To the fans of Livorno and to those who follow it from outside the city and even from outside Italy, I say to continue to do it whatever the league, to continue to love it anyhow. Soccer must also be romantic,” Protti said.