Promoted to Serie A in 2017, SPAL Ferrara are a grand old name in the Italian game though with little silverware to show for it. With a highest league finish of fifth in 1960 and a single final appearance in the Italian Cup two years later, the club trails way behind nearby Bologna in terms of national profile.
Based at the fifth-oldest ground still operating in top-class Italian football, SPAL hark back to a long-lost era of communal stadiums in Italian town centres, hemmed in by residential buildings.
The Comunale was later renamed Stadio Paolo Mazza after the former coach and sporting director during the club’s golden era. In the wilderness for half a century, from 2016 SPAL achieved two promotions in as many seasons, necessitating the expansion of the Stadio Mazza from a 7,000 capacity to 13,000. A further 3,000 seats were confirmed in December 2017, SPAL hoping to hang on for another campaign in the top flight come 2018-19.
Formed in 1913, SPAL were the breakaway sporting branch of an association for young locals created by Salesian priest Pietro Acerbis, who had also introduced the white-and-blue colour scheme of his ecclesiastical Order.
The Società Polisportiva Ars et Labor played their first game in 1919, soon playing at the highest league level of Italian football – and at what was the piazza d’Armi, now the green space by Le Mura di Ferrara, close to the canal.
Despite a drop to the second tier, SPAL moved into the Stadio Comunale, built according to the classic model of the time, in 1928. It wasn’t until 1951 that it hosted Serie A football, shortly after Paolo Mazza had assumed the role of club president – one that he would keep until the late 1970s.
Coach of the Biancazzurri before the war – when the White and Blues briefly became the White and Blacks and operated as Associazione Calcio Ferrara until the end of Mussolini – Mazza soon became one of the canniest operators in the post-war Italian game.
His skill was to find young talent, such as goalscoring midfielder Egisto Pandolfini, nurture them, then sell them to the likes of Fiorentina for five times the price paid. In the case of Pandolfini, who played 21 times for Italy, he would return to Ferrara in SPAL’s golden age of the late 1950s and early 1960s. His replacement in 1948, Fulvio Nesta, also won Italian caps, but not before Internazionale paid SPAL 40 million lire for him.
Earning the nickname Mago di Campagna, Mazza, the Magician of the Countryside, not only steered SPAL to Serie A in 1951 but kept them there almost continually until 1968. An all-time best fifth place was achieved in 1959-60 with former Inter inside-forward Oscar Massei and later Inter star Armando Picchi. Mazza was a member of Italy’s coaching team at the 1962 World Cup.
Serie A standards, though, were at an all-time high. SPAL bounced back one season after relegation in 1964 but not after 1968. The last great Mazza find of the era, later Milan and England manager Fabio Capello, joined SPAL as a 16 year old in 1962 and left for Roma in 1967.
Plunging straight down to Serie C in only one season, Mazza’s SPAL needed four years to climb back to Serie B but the writing was on the wall. In 1977, Il Commandatore was relieved of his post.
When he died, on New Year’s Eve in 1981, SPAL were halfway through a campaign that culminated in relegation to Serie C1 – then 35 years of lower-division football. The stadium that witnessed these decades in the wilderness took Mazza’s name in 1982.
First dissolved in 2005 and renamed SPAL 1907, the club hit the financial skids again in 2012, became Real SPAL, then was merged with nearby Giacomense at the behest of incoming owners, the Colombarini family, big in laminates.
In December 2014, they brought in coach Leonardo ‘Mr Promotion’ Semplici. As a journeyman defender, Semplici was well versed in the backwaters of Italian football, with spells at Poggibonsi, Sangiovannese and Impruneta. As a coach, he worked Castel-di-Sangro type miracles at Figline. Here in Ferrara, he lifted the club from the lower reaches of the Lega Pro B Division to fourth place in May 2015, then won them the league a year later to reach Serie B.
SPAL had last played second-tier football in 1981-82, when Paolo Mazza was still alive. In 2016-17, Semplici’s SPAL picked up from a slow start to set Serie B alight by the spring. With former Leeds striker Mirco Antenucci and one-time Italy under-20 man Gianmarco Zigoni sharing scoring duties, SPAL won four on the bounce in April and stayed top of the league to the memorable finale at the Stadio Paolo Mazza.
With an 89th-minute strike from Zigoni, Bari were defeated 2-1 and SPAL were back in Serie A after a gap of 49 years.
As workmen laboured to get the Stadio Mazza ready for August 2017, SPAL marked their top-flight return with a 0-0 draw at Lazio. SPAL played a first home game at Bologna, a 3-2 win over Udinese crowned by a 94th-minute goal from Bologna loanee Luca Rizzo, before receiving special dispensation from the league authorities to stage Serie A games in Ferrara. From then on, the going got tough.
With old warhorse Antenucci scoring the vital goals, SPAL nicked a win over Genoa in October and a draw with Torino in December, but Semplici now has his work cut out to keep the Biancazzurri afloat in the spring of 2018.
A relic from the days when Mussolini was building communal stadiums all over Italy’s city centres, the Stadio Mazza became a modest 7,500-seater after the Curva Est was dismantled in 2005. With the club in financial disarray and close to disappearing altogether, the future for this city-centre landmark close to Ferrara station seemed very bleak indeed.
With accession to Serie B in 2016, and funding from the Colombarini family ownership, the ground was given a spruce-up and significant improvement, capacity increased to 8,500 for the 2016-17 campaign. What followed was entirely unexpected: promotion.
With SPAL already making strides towards Serie A by the spring of 2017, the club presented a plan for the Stadio Mazza to welcome the likes of Juventus, Milan and Inter the following autumn. With the authorities bending the rules on capacity for Serie A newbies or long-term returnees, SPAL proposed a 13,000-capacity ground with major modifications. Away fans, some 1,600 of them, would again be accommodated in the Curva Est, a temporary metal structure along via Montegrappa. The Gradinata Nord on via Cassoli was rebuilt to contain 3,800 seats and a large TV screen.
Home fans gather in the Curva Ovest on via Ortigara. Press and VIPs are housed in the main Tribuna Sud on corso Piave. Both these stands are roofed. Paolo Mazza is honoured with a plaque on the wall of the Tribuna Sud.
In December 2017, a loan of €1.8 million was announced for further stadium expansion, whether the club stays in Serie A come May 2018 or otherwise. Extensions will be carried out on each end of the ground to bring capacity to 16,000 seats.
The stadium is an easy walk from Ferrara station. Cross the road opposite, then veer right to the corner of corso Piave. Passing the Bar Piave, you reach the stadium on your left within five minutes.
Tickets are first sold to holders of a SPAL club card about two to three weeks before the match, then put on general sale online through VIVATicket ten days in advance.
VivaTicket also distributes through a number of Coop stores, tobacconists and bars in Ferrara and surroundings. Outlets include the Segnaldifumo di Vaccarella Laura (Mon-Wed, Fri-Sat 8.45am-1pm, 3.30pm-8pm, Thur 8.45am-1pm, closed Sun) in the row of shops at corso Martiri della Libertà 73 by the main square and the Tabaccheria Borghi (daily including Sun 7am-2pm, 3.30pm-7.30pm) at corso Giovecca 198A near the city centre.
If any tickets are remaining by match day, they are distributed through the Biglietteria Centrale on corso Piave, which opens for about two hours from mid-morning. ID must be provided.
Away fans can also buy admission for games at SPAL through VivaTicket, from around 12 days in advance. Sometimes only supporters local to the visiting club may purchase. Match-day sales policy also varies according to opposition.
For top opposition, advance admission is €35 in the home Curva Ovest and away Curva Est, €50-€75 along the sidelines in the Gradinata Laterale and Centrale. Prices rise by €5 on match days.
For less attractive visiting sides, prices for ‘Partite Basic’ reduce considerably, to €23 in the Curva Ovest, and €32-€50 on the sidelines, again with a €5 levy on match days.
Ladies, seniors over 65 and juniors under 16 are charged reduced admission of around €10 in all sectors.
The main SPAL Store is at via Voltapaletto 17 (Tue-Sat 9.30am-1pm, 3.30pm-7.30pm) near the cathedral. A match-day outlet also operates at corso Piave 28, behind the main Tribuna Sud.
Replica shirts come in three varieties, light blue and white stripes for the first kit, red with a two neat stripes of light blue and white for the away top, and black with light blue and white piping if a third choice is needed.
The stadium is surrounded by a handful of bars, with a row of cafés on viale Cavour also close, near the junction with corso Isonzo.
Home fans gather at the Bar Piave (corso Piave 77), halfway between the stadium and the station and usually open evenings only. Quality beers, quality burgers and occasional DJs are the order of the day.
Closer to the stadium, the Bar Fortezza on the sidestreet of the same name, at right-angles to corso Piave, has that match-day essential, a gazebo, but is otherwise a standard spot offering takeway paninis.
Along via Ortigara behind the home Curva Ovest, the Leonessa at No.24 is a standard pizzeria, the Alessio at No.18 a standard bar with seats outside and SPAL line-up photos in the window.
Best and certainly friendliest spot by the stadium is the wonderful Bar La Coccinella, where Ortigara meets via Arturo Cassoli. Decked out in blue and white, offset by the occasional namesake ladybird, it runs a decent kitchen with a daily menu but is otherwise ideal for affordable pre-match drinks.