The Lower Leagues in Italy

Editor’s note: As we’ve spent all week looking at non-league football in England, I asked our columnist in Italy, Vanda, to explain the world below Serie A and B there.

Lega CalcioWhen it was suggested that I could write something about lower and non-league football in Italy, my initial reaction was Eek. Most Italian football fans are very ignorant about their own lower leagues, and football here is if anything even more top-heavy than in England.

Attachment to the ideal of the local team, irrespective of league placing, is a less deeply rooted tradition than in England, and below Serie A and B there is little popular or media attention to the game. The structure of lower league football in Italy is pretty complicated too, so perhaps it would help to take a look at the pyramid, such as it is.

In 1926, under pressure from the Fascist government, a new governing body – the Direttorio Superiore – was set up to devise a single national football league. This “girone unica” or single round was explicitly based on the English model of a national championship, in contrast to the previous set up where northern and southern leagues operated independently. In the first ten years of operation, the Direttorio experimented with a number of formats, including a single championship (without subdivision in Serie A and B), and a short-lived East vs West competition, before settling into the form which it broadly retains today. In 1946 the Direttorio was dissolved (as were many such Fascist-era institutions) and a new democratic, club-governed body was created along similar lines: the Lega Calcio, which runs the top Italian leagues to this day.

Serie A and B were thus created together as a pair of linked “prestige” divisions. Efforts to organise football further down the pyramid began in 1935 with the creation of Serie C, a third division which endured until 1978. Like its big brothers, the format of Serie C was constantly being tinkered with: it was run with several geographically based gironi, each containing up to 16 teams.

In the post-war years there were four such groups (North-West, North-East, Centre/Sardinia, South/Sicily) with the winner of each girone being promoted into Serie B. Successive formulas included a single national league and then a system of three gironi, with experimentation continuing right up until the end of Serie C in 1978, and its replacement with two distinct championships, C1 and C2.

Napoli, Italy (Piazza Dante)

Napoli, a long way from the days of Maradona

Today’s C1, organised by the Lega Professionisti Serie C, consists of 36 teams organised into two groups of 18 divided along geographical lines (named A and B). This is the level to which such mighty sides as Genoa and Napoli have been reduced in recent years, though when these two teams were both in C1 in 2005/6 they were obviously in different groups, being geographically so far apart.

Three promotion places are available to Serie B, for the two winners of their respective girone, and the winners of the second-place play off (2nd v 5th, 3rd v 4th and a final). What the Italians call a “play out” (a play-off to avoid relegation) also operates at the other end of the table, with 6 teams relegated.

C1 includes some well-known teams as well as those who have fallen on hard times – Perugia, Ancona, Venezia, Foggia (below) are just a few who spring to mind – and in both C1 and C2 are plenty of sides with large followings and very active ultras groups (Salernitana and Taranto spring to mind here).

Foggia-Fans in Legnano
Legnano - FOGGIA

C2, the fourth level in the pyramid and the last professional tier, is arranged into three gironi each of 18 teams (A, B & C). Six teams – the three winners and one play-off winner from each girone – are promoted to C1. Meanwhile no fewer than 9 teams – the bottom of each girone and two from each respective play out – are relegated to Serie D.

Here we are finally, amateur football. Serie D is the fifth level of the Italian pyramid, and the top division organised by the Lega Nazionale Dilettanti (National Amateurs’ League). Serie D is organised in 9 separate gironi, each of 18 sides, such that there are 162 teams taking part. As well as winning promotion, these 9 winners play off to win the Serie D title. Relegation from Serie D knocks you down to the sixth tier, called Eccellenza Regionale. There is a big step down here, since while in practical terms Serie D operates regionally it is still a national competition. Eccellenza though is a series of 19 independent regional leagues of different sizes, so by this level you are out of the national tiers.

Siracusa 4 – Angri 2, 17/09/2006, Curva Anna, Serie D

Siracusa 4 - Angri 2, 17/09/2006, Curva Anna

What does it actually entail, when we get down to it? I confess that to me, Serie D mostly means endless pages of tiny print, 81 brief match reports each week in the daily sports nationals, and a cut-out-and-send-in coupon in my preferred paper which regularly exhorts me to nominate my favourite players and coaches of Serie D for this year’s Best Amateur Player Awards.

In recent years, relatively big sides like Juve Stabia (from Castellamare di Stabia, and Napoli’s true derby rivals) have graced Serie D, mostly for brief periods as they returned to their regular place in C1 or C2 after forcible relegation and reconstitution. Cosenza, apparently, is the biggest team in the league right now, even attracting up to 5,000 spectators for really big games, with Barletti, Bitonto, Alessandria, Como and Brindisi following behind. Serie D has terrestrial TV coverage on La 7 (that’s the one channel which is neither the state broadcaster, RAI, or owned by Berlusconi’s Mediaset, and which consequently picks up some interesting left-overs here and there).

There are some old teams with long (if inglorious) histories knocking about in Serie D – team names often include the date of their foundation and these include 1899, 1908, 1911, 1913. They still get involved in proper scandals – a league director has just suspended himself for alleged involvement in Calciopoli, after intercepted phone calls show his contacts with our good friend Luciano Moggi. And there are some teams with big sponsorship (such as Cervia Vodafone, from Ravenna: I’m willing to bet that’s not their original name).

But overall we are really talking about the seriously small-time. There is really no comparison with the English fifth level – the Conference, a national professional competition – in terms of quality of play, size of crowds, anything really. On the other hand, from Serie A down to Serie D there are 294 teams playing in national competitions: in a country the size of Italy, that’s a whole lot of football going on.

Read more from Vanda on Italian life & football at Spangly Princess

Photo credits: museoazzurroamaranto; FedeSK8; remozolli;3×0=3.

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