Salernitana’s ghost game could be a farcical end to their Serie A journey | Nicky Bandini
There were at least 16 Salernitana fans at the Dacia Arena on Tuesday. It is no small commitment to make a 1,000-mile round trip to support a team that sits bottom of the standings on a weeknight in December. The group came knowing they would not have a team to support at all.
Salernitana had been barred from travelling after two players tested positive for Covid, together with a third member of staff. The decision was made by the local health authority in Salerno, not the Italian Football Federation, meaning that their fixture away to Udinese, in the north-east, was not officially cancelled.
And so, we had a repeat of the surreal theatre that surrounded unplayed games between Juventus and Napoli last October, as well as Lazio and Torino this March. The home team showed up, submitted a starting lineup and even posted it on social media. Then they waited around. Finally, 45 minutes after the game was scheduled to kick off, the referee Giacomo Campione blew his whistle three times to bring the charade to a close.
Everyone was doing what they should, following the rules as written, but these scenes provoked a wearying sense of deja vu. Both the Juventus-Napoli and Lazio-Torino games were eventually played at later dates, but only after lengthy appeals processes and arguments over why some teams had been forced to carry on with squads decimated by the virus while others got a reprieve.
The Lega Serie A justice department has so far declined to make a ruling on whether this game should be awarded as a walkover win for Udinese or rescheduled for a later date. There is little point in doing so until they know whether Salernitana will play any more matches at all.
The club has until 31 December to find a new owner or be thrown out of the league. Their promotion to the top flight last spring created a conflict of interest, as they are co-owned by Claudio Lotito, also the owner of Lazio.
This is a mess 10 years in the making. Lotito relaunched Salernitana together with another businessman, Marco Mezzaroma, after the club went bankrupt in 2011 and oversaw their rise from Serie D, with Lazio frequently sending them young players on loan to gain experience.
The Italian Football Federation’s rules at the time prohibited individuals from owning more than one club within the professional divisions – from Lega Pro upwards. But when Salernitana were promoted to that level in 2012, Lotito was granted an exemption. Potential clashes with Lazio in the Coppa Italia were clumsily avoided by drawing the teams on opposite sides of the bracket and trusting in the probability that they would not both make the final.
Even the federation’s own president, Gabriele Gravina, has acknowledged that “everyone knew what would happen” when Salernitana finally made it up to Serie A. There could be no more bending of rules to allow one man to own two teams in the same division. Lotito was permitted to surrender the club to a blind trust on the condition that they be sold by the end of December.
The question of how things were allowed to go this far remains a vexing one. Rules have since been amended to prevent a repeat. In Salernitana’s case, Gravina has been clear that there can be no further extensions. If no buyer is found, the team will be thrown out of Serie A.
He remained defiantly optimistic on Tuesday, saying: “I bet that a buyer will be found in the next 10 days,” and declaring it as unthinkable that nobody would be willing to invest in such a “healthy club”. Those fans who travelled to the Dacia Arena that same evening would love to believe him. They unfurled a banner outside with a plea to “Free Salernitana”.
The rest of the league can only watch and wait. There would be a knock-on impact for everyone if Salernitana are thrown out, with their results so far set to be scrubbed from the record, even if the impact on the standings would be modest. The club has struggled badly on its return to the top flight after 23 years away – collecting eight points from 19 games despite signing Franck Ribéry this September.
It is a situation everyone would prefer to avoid. There is anxiety enough over Salernitana’s Covid cases, and the potential implications of the Omicron variant. Up until this week, the hope in Italy had been that a high vaccination rate could keep the league running smoothly. La Repubblica reported in October that 98% of Serie A players had received two jabs – the biggest uptake across Europe’s top five leagues.
As of Tuesday, only 19 had tested positive all season. Half of teams were yet to experience a single case. But rising infection numbers across the country were sparking concern even before Salernitana were ordered to stay home. Earlier this month the government tightened restrictions for fans attending games, requiring them to meet the ‘Super Green Pass’ criteria of having received two jabs or recovered from Covid in the preceding six months.
Further government measures may be introduced before Christmas, although Serie A is on break now until 6 January. Attendances at Serie A games have been limited to 75% of stadium capacity since October, up from 50% at the start of the campaign. In practice, many clubs are not hitting their upper limits.
These worries did not overshadow Serie A’s final games of 2021 entirely. Internazionale signed off on a brilliant year by beating Torino 1-0 at San Siro. They had already tied up the title of ‘Winter Champion’ over the weekend and look ever more likely to retain the actual Scudetto in the spring.
Simone Inzaghi was justified in his observation that: “It suits everyone now to say that Inter are a dreadnought, but that was not what people were saying in the summer.” He has taken the team to new heights since succeeding Antonio Conte, even finding ways in recent ways to reintegrate and get the most from players who had fallen to the fringes: Alexis Sánchez and Arturo Vidal.
Milan rebounded from their weekend defeat to Napoli with an impressive 4-2 win over Empoli, Franck Kessié thriving as a makeshift no 10. Napoli, by contrast, undid all their good work by losing at home to a Spezia side that sat 17th in the table, easily the biggest shock of the round.
And then there were Roma, who delivered their best performance of José Mourinho’s tenure as they thumped Atalanta 4-1 at the weekend, but threw away a lead as they drew 1-1 on Wednesday with Sampdoria. “It was a horrible match,” said Mourinho. “If I was at home I would have changed the channel.”
At least it was a match. Those Salernitana fans who made the trip to Udine could only head home afterwards to anxious Christmases, not knowing if they would have excuses to return to a Serie A stadium in 2022.