Franck Ribéry wanted to go out. The lemon trees and views of the Amalfi Coast weren’t enough to keep him in Salernitana. He had imagined another end to his career than the indignity of relegation to Serie B. When the transfer window reopened, Ribéry let the club’s new sporting director, Walter Sabatini, know how he felt. “I can’t take it anymore here in Salerno,” he said. “People laugh when we lose. I don’t laugh when I lose.
Sabatini would have lit a cigarette if it weren’t for the respiratory problems that too much tobacco caused in his lungs. A frail, snow-capped figure released from intensive care four years ago, he could easily be a character in one of those Gabriel Garcia Marquez novels he adores so much. “Franck, retorted Sabatini, now that I’m here, where the fuck do you think you’re going? It was not eloquent but Ribéry decided to stay with Salernitana. “I have a goal,” he said. “I want to save the club. For me, it would be like a trophy.
Salernitana were bottom of the table at the winter break and promotion to the top flight for the first time in 22 years had so far been a joyless experience. It was easy to see why Ribéry was considering his options as he probably expected to be released along with the rest of the squad. The Italian Football Federation (FIGC) had promised to kick Salernitana out of the league unless a new owner was found before New Year’s Eve. The club had been held in trust since the summer and was up for sale to avoid the conflict of interest presented by the president of Lazio Claudio Lotito, also co-owner of Salernitana.
For months there were no takers and when Inter Milan went to the Arechi for the last game before Christmas, the ultras unfurled a banner in the “Siberian” part pleading with the president of the FIGC, Gabriele Gravina, to keep his promise and kick them out of Serie A in the middle of the match. season. “Non-league, fourth tier, pitches in the middle of nowhere. For us, Salernitana has no division. Anywhere was better than the indignity of being next to someone else.
In the end, Gravina didn’t have to act. “A little before midnight on the 31st, I had confirmation that I had taken over Salernitana,” recalls Danilo Iervolino. “I raised a toast to survival. It was not a gesture that I made automatically. I did it because from that day on I had to get to work to keep Salernitana in place. I really believed we could do it.
Iervolino made his fortune setting up online universities which he later sold to CVC, the private equity fund that tried unsuccessfully to acquire a stake in Serie A. But football crash courses were not on the list. program and so he turned to Sabatini, an aspiring literary teacher and arguably the most cultured sports director on the planet. “I’d rather stand up in a messy way than come down in an orderly way,” Iervolino told him. Sabatini’s only advice was simple. “He said if I bought the six players he recommended from him, we would stay up.” They all arrived, along with eight others on loan or for nothing. “My legendary asshole prevailed,” Sabatini said, meaning he felt he had been lucky to work with someone who had blind faith in him like Iervolino. “You can translate this however you want in print.”
If there is a reset button in football, Salernitana pressed it. The club first supported the coach Iervolino and Sabatini inherited. Stefano Colantuono had not worked in Serie A for nearly six years when he was called up to replace Fabrizio Castori after a 2-1 loss to Spezia in mid-October and, as he started to pick up some valuable points once the January transfer window closed, Sabatini knew that if Serie A was to become a Joy Division, he needed more Disorder. Enter Davide Nicola, an extraordinary escapologist, the Harry Houdini of calcio.
Five years ago, Nicola made a cycling pilgrimage from the heel of Italy to his hometown of Turin to thank the football gods for their part in helping him achieve the greatest escape of all. . Crotone had 14 points with nine games left and he kept them. Salernitana had 16 at the same stage this season, with Nicola promising to walk 280km to the Vatican to see Pope Francis in case they survived, presumably so he could be canonised. “I’ll buy him a pair of comfortable shoes,” Iervolino promised.
Nicola could already do with them now. Whatever happens over the next few weeks, one of the most memorable images of the season will be of Nicola abducting one of his trainers and throwing him around to get his players’ attention and keep them on their toes. against Fiorentina at the Arechi. The visitors had equalized and put Salernitana under the boat. “A stone was in my shoe,” smiles Nicola, playing on the old Italian idiom for when something annoys you. “Who’s throwing a shoe?” Igor of Fiorentina probably thought. The centre-back was the closest player to Nicola when he kicked him off and must have been stunned as he quickly made a rather inexplicable error which allowed the in-form Federico Bonazzoli to score the winner.
Tickers rained down from the stands as the Arechi transformed into Argentina’s stadium. Sure, the FIGC killjoys have fined Salernitana but the passion in this crumbling old edifice will not be contained. “I don’t think you get that feeling on any other pitch,” Bonazzoli said. “We owe everything to the fans because the support we get is incredible. Maybe we have to expand the technical area because Nicola is never there. He put an incredible mark on this team.
During its inauguration, Nicola quoted Salernitana’s motto: Macte animo, generose puer! Sic itur ad astra. It comes from book nine of Virgil’s epic poem The Aeneid, a prophecy transmitted from Apollo to Ascanius, son of Aeneas and grandson of Priam. “Take courage, noble child! So is the way to the stars. From the gutter, Salernitana rose to a touching distance from them. Four out of five wins took the club out of the relegation zone for the first time since the opening weekend of the season.
Having stunned Roma within 10 minutes at the Stadio Olimpico, they were unstoppable and it’s hard not to be moved by it all. Before playing against Udinese, the team trained in the square in front of the Astoria Hotel. Cones were placed on the slabs as Nicola’s staff put the team to the test in front of the premises. They came away with a 1-0 victory clinched in the 93rd minute by one of Sabatini’s signings, the ambiped Simone Verdi, a flop in Turin where he had worked with Nicola who helped them avoid relegation last season . On Monday, only an equalizer in Mario Pasalic’s stoppage time prevented Salernitana from beating Atalanta in Bergamo.
The run has struck terror into other teams whose top-flight status is in jeopardy. Salernitana was supposed to be down, the team everyone thought was destined for Serie B. Now they are flying while others are in free fall. Venezia did everything in their power to prevent their postponed game against Salernitana from being replayed on Thursday. The Lagooners had graced the original game, only showing up at the Arechi to have it canceled due to a COVID outbreak. But in the end the FIGC insisted he go on and Verdi secured another late winner. Venezia’s decision to sack coach Paolo Zanetti and promote Under-19 Andrea Soncin in his place did not stop a 10-game losing streak. Cagliari followed exactly the same course, firing Walter Mazzarri (but extending his contract until 2024 – work that one) and putting the untested Alessandro Agostini in his place for Sunday’s trip to… the Arechi.
Whoever wins the Scudetto this season will be in the running for the Coach of the Year award. But it would be hard to fault the League Managers’ Association for handing Nicola the Panchina d’Oro (Golden Bench) if he gets his way. “He is a phenomenon“, Sabatini said. “You have to talk about the great man he is as much as the great coach. He is an intelligent, cultured and caring man. A born leader. There is an osmosis between his staff and the players. He knows what he’s talking about and how to say it. Unfortunately, Italian football is bound by clichés that make him a specialist in maintaining teams miraculously. Don’t fall into this trap. He coaches Salernitana but he could coach Inter.
Sabatini will also get part of the credit if Salernitana doesn’t come straight down, as was the case in 1948 and 1999. While the team’s top scorer Bonazzoli was signed by his predecessor, the powers of persuasion he has shown to bring Ribery to stay, the decision to appoint Nicola and his knack for finding the next big thing played a huge role in Salernitana’s revival. Sabatini is renowned for discovering Javier Pastore, Marquinhos and Alisson, to name but a few. Only he knows how midfielder Ederson, a €6.5m pickup from Corinthians, plays for Salernitana. PSG would be interested and who can blame them. It was quite a turnaround. Four months after Ribéry wanted to leave, Salernitana went all-in and the bet seems to have almost paid off.
Last week, Arechi ultras unfurled another banner across Siberiano. The ambience couldn’t have been in starker contrast to the atmosphere there in December. A lyric by local songwriter Eduardo De Crescenzo appeared. “Perched questa storia vola. Più in alto. Più su perché è una storia impossible e perché la storia sei tu”.
Because it’s a story that flies. Higher and higher. Even higher, he flew because it’s an impossible story and because the story is you.
(Photo: Ivan Romano/Getty Images)