Better Than Barcelona: The Remuntada of Pianura

On March 8, 2017, Barcelona sent the football world in awe as they overturned a four-goal deficit in the second leg of a Champions League Round of 16 match. Leo Messi’s troop’s incredible 6-1 win over Paris Saint Germain prompted statisticians to surf through football almanacs to find precedents of such an historical remuntada.

But not many dared to dive deep enough into the underworld of Italian amateur football to dig up evidence of an even more incredible feat that had taken place seven years earlier. On a rainy day in the summer of 2010, Napoli-based club Pianura beat Carpi 8-2 in the retour match of a fifth-division play-off Semi Final, whose first act had ended 5-0 in favor of the Emilian side.

This is a tale of soaking-wet artificial pitches and beautiful overhead kicks (again, years before Cristiano Ronaldo’s stroke of genius against Juventus). Some called it the miracle of Pianura, some whispered about alleged intimidation received by Carpi players, hinting at the multiple faces of the Italian calcio di provincia, where the laws of football are brutal, and tables can turn fast.

Very fast, indeed. Pianura disappeared from the football landscape shortly after their sensational performance, whereas the hammering set the ground for a fantastic climb on the Carpi side that would eventually take them up to Serie A only a few years later.

But this is just the end of the story that started on that June 20, 2010, a day rather known for the Azzurri’s struggle to snatch a meager 1-1 tie with New Zealand during their infamous World Cup campaign in South Africa. On that same day, thousands of kilometers away, Pianura and Carpi were preparing to square off in the penultimate act of a post-season showdown featuring runner-ups from the nine groups of that gargantuan sports engineering which is the Italian Serie D. (the fifth level of the local football pyramid)

It was a last-man-standing mini-tournament to determine a ranking for possible repechages to the higher-level Legapro in case any of the legitimate participants went bankrupt – an all but uncommon scenario in the lower tiers of calcio. Carpi were ahead on their way to the Final, having won the first act of the confrontation by a pretty reassuring margin of five goals.

Therefore, the match to the played at the Simpatia Stadium in the working-class Neapolitan neighborhood of Pianura looked like a pure formality for the white-and-red Emilian side, and a chance for the scorned Neapolitans to say goodbye to their small-numbered supporters – whom, by the way, prophetically showed they believed in miracles by displaying a “Yes We Can” banner on the stands. (Let’s not forget those were Barack Obama’s days)

The artificial turf pitch of the Simpatia Stadium – a small, narrow, borderline version of a football ground – was struggling to cope with a violent acquazzone hitting Napoli, but the show had to go on. And it went on, with a possessed Pianura side scoring two goals in the first seven minutes already, the second thanks to a beautiful overhead by their number 10 Tommaso Manzo, probably the most talented player among the blue ranks.

But even in the face of such a relentless start, all that Carpi needed to put a damper on Pianura’s hopes was one single goal, and when home goalkeeper Pasquale Despucches failed to catch a seemingly-innocuous free kick, the job looked as good as done for the future Serie A club. The expulsion of one of Carpi’s midfielders and Pianura’s third goal during the first half stoppage time seemed to cause only little concerns to the visitors, as the Neapolitans would still need to score four times in the remaining 45 minutes to grab an inconceivable qualification.

Then Manzo decided to somehow book his place in the minor history of calcio, and hit twice more in five minutes, moving the score to 5-1 with 40 minutes to go. Uh-oh. The miracle was now possible. Carpi’s player’s legs were shaking. Under a pouring rain, Pianura found the sixth goal in the middle of the second half: The clip below shows players and management from the home side bringing hands to their heads in rapture, like they couldn’t even believe themselves what was happening. One more to go.

Still, the ways of football are strange and inscrutable, and in the 85th minute, the imponderable factor that risked making Pianura’s exploit collapse took the form of rain, which had turned the pitch into a treacherous quagmire. With the blue side fully in control, Pianura’s number four attempted a risky back pass to his goalkeeper. Despucches went for a long-range clearance, but the ball got stuck in a massive puddle, and became easy prey for Carpi’s Carlo Bigoni to push it in the untended goal.

The visitors let themselves go to wild celebrations, just like they had won a Scudetto, together with those 20 brave supporters who had found more worthwhile to travel to Napoli for an apparently-insignificant game, than watch Italy play at the World Cup (…not that the Azzurri were faring much better than Carpi, if truth be told). Five minutes left, and Pianura now needed two goals, despite having tallied six already. We all like to dream but, hey, this is a little bit too much, right?

Nestling in the outskirts of Napoli, the Simpatia Stadium is not exactly the Camp Nou. The violent rainstorm that hit the city on that infamous June 20th, 2010, didn’t make it any better…

Wrong. In a day in which everything seemed possible for the home side, Pianura scored for the 7-2 with just two minutes to go. “We have been cursed!”, President Antonio Cafasso remarked in Neapolitan slang as he saw time running out, and his side just one inch away from a miracle.

The referee called for a three-minute extra time, and in what was likely the last action of the game, Tommaso Manzo converted a desperate cross into Pianura’s decisive 8th goal, his 4th personal one. He did so with another overhead kick, of course: It could not have been any different in a football match which made for a perfect Twilight Zone episode. Manzo’s double overhead in a single match must be some sort of record itself.

When the final whistle was blown, it’s easy to imagine – and we won’t spend time detailing – what went on in terms of celebrations, desperation, and especially post-match press remarks.

Carpi’s coach Giancarlo D’Astoli was concise: “I am not saying a f***ing word today.” Years later, he would justify his team’s approach to the game by pointing out that they already felt sure of a repechage, regardless of the play-offs outcome. The Emilians complained about the hostile atmosphere they found in Pianura, and mentioned alleged pressures and intimidation.

The bizarre outcome of the two-leg battle also inevitably prompted match-fixing speculations. Those present at the Simpatia Stadium, however, highlighted how a crazed Pianura side spent literally the whole 90 minutes attacking, and that possible “suspicious” mistakes were rather made on the part of their own goalkeeper, whose blunders risked ruining President Cafasso’s squad’s exploit.

In view of a probably never-ending debate, the only sure thing is the aftermath of this incredible piece of Italian football history, which took an opposite turn from what seen on the pitch. Pianura lost the play-off Final 0-1 to Matera. After failing to find a playing ground that could meet the higher requirements of Legapro, President Cafasso did not apply for a repechage, and eventually disbanded the team. Today, a legacy club bearing the same name fumbles in some minor Regional division.

Carpi, on the other hand, did apply for a wild card, and ended up filling one of the many vacant spots in Legapro. That was the beginning of a relentless progression for the Biancorossi, which culminated with their promotion to Serie A in 2015. Carpi had a one-year-only stint in the top level of calcio, but has been stationing among the top-ranking teams in the second division since then.

Sometimes, the road to heaven is paved with brusque setbacks. Just like on that rainy afternoon on a Lilliputian football pitch in the Neapolitan suburbia, when, just before falling into oblivion, unknown Pianura taught Italian football fans what a remuntada is – much before Barcelona would show it to the whole world.

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