Meet Spezia, The Serie A Debutant Who Already Won The Italian Title

The participant roster for the Serie A 2020-21 is now complete as Spezia joined Benevento and Crotone, grabbing the last promotion spot at the end of a tense double-leg playoff Final against Frosinone.

Spezia lost 0-1 on Thursday night at their Alberto Picco Stadium despite the roaring support from their fans – who couldn’t access the ground due to the COVID-19 restrictions but gathered just outside of it. However, Spezia had won the first leg in Frosinone with the same score and were thus promoted in view of their better position in the Serie B table.

This will be the first time that Spezia’s Aquile are featured in the Serie A, despite having a more than centennial history and even boasting an Italian title of some sort. How is that even possible?

Spezia won their first Serie A promotion ever at the end of a tense double-leg confrontation with Alessandro Nesta’s Frosinone

But first, the basics: Who are Spezia and where do they come from? The white-and-black outfit (Bianconeri, just like Juventus and Udinese) are based in the coastal city of La Spezia in the small Liguria Region. Their hometown is one of the very few cases in Italy of a city name including an article – another famous one being L’Aquila in the Abruzzo Region.

La Spezia lies in the middle of the Gulf that brings the same name, which is also known as the Gulf of The Poets as Romantic poets George Gordon Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley used to spent their holidays there – the latter even found his death on a boat accident in the Gulf.

La Spezia is also very close to the enchanting Cinque Terre which millions of tourists from all over the world visit every year, making it one of the top attractions in the Belpaese. It surely is a prominent city that every Italian knows – but not necessarily for its calcio history.

Before Thursday night, Spezia had never gone above the second division and, for an interminable 54 years – from 1951 to 2005 – they had been scrambling between the third and the lower tiers of the Italian football pyramid.

Their ascent from the mid-2000s, however, was steady and constant as the Spezzini featured in the Serie A promotion playoff six times in the last seven years – only missing out in the 2017-18 campaign. Winning the playoff lottery was just a matter of time.

Spezia reaching the Serie A means that the Liguria Region, one of the smallest in Italy, will boast three clubs in the top division next season – the other two being, of course, Genoa-based Genoa and Sampdoria.

It's full-time at the Alberto Picco Stadium, the wait is over. Spezia are in Serie A for the first time since their foundation in 1906!
It’s full-time at the Alberto Picco Stadium, the wait is over. Spezia are in Serie A for the first time since their foundation in 1906!

Despite their poor track record, however, Spezia can somehow pride themselves with having won an edition of the Italian top flight. It happened in the 1944 season when the Bianconeri prevailed in the Campionato Alta Italia (“Northern Italy Championship”).

It was an edition of the league organized by the Italian Football Federation in a country ravaged by World War II, but not recognized by the Federation itself until 2002 – when the title was awarded as “honorary,” though not considered an official Scudetto.

The tournament took place in a country literally split into two parts – the South controlled by the Allies and the Fascist-ruled Italian Social Republic in the North – and mostly saw the participation of clubs from the area still controlled by the Fascist regime. The formula featured multiple regional divisions that would ultimately promote three clubs to a Final playoff round robin.

Teams were struggling to put together some decent rosters due to the wartime limitations. Many players were already on the front and others were expected to serve in the Army. One stratagem that many clubs thus used consisted of affiliating themselves with military corps or companies involved in the wartime efforts – so that their players would technically be “serving” their duties.

Juventus merged with automobile manufacturer Cisitalia, temporarily becoming Juventus Cisitalia. Spezia, on the other hand, affiliated themselves with the local Corps of Firefighters and became known as the Vigili del Fuoco di La Spezia (“La Spezia Firefighters”)

The Spezzini were one of the three clubs making it to the Final round, alongside Venezia and incumbent Italian Champion Torino. Spezia tied the first game with Venezia and then snatched a surprising 2-1 win over the Grande Torino to clinch this unique edition of the Italian championship. In view of such exploit, Spezia can feature on their jerseys a unique patch commemorating the title.

Here they are, the La Spezia Firefighters – who won the Italian title in 1944 in a country torn apart by World War II. In view of that, Spezia can wear a tri-colored patch on their jerseys nowadays (though not properly a Scudetto)

After the wartime glory, however, the Aquile fell into oblivion for more than 50 years and only managed to show their faces around Serie B in 2005. This year’s promotion to the top-flight is anything but a surprise as Spezia closed the regular season third in the table and would have already been promoted – had no playoff system been in place.

Still, the playoffs were anything but a walk in the park for the Spezzini who seemed to have wasted their chance already in the Semi-Finals when Chievo beat them 2-0 at home. But Spezia did manage to bounce back and beat the Clivensi 3-1 in the second leg to advance in view of their better classification in the table (the away goals rule does not apply to the Italian Serie B Playoffs)

The first leg of the Final with Frosinone saw Spezia taking the lead with Ghanaian forward Emmanuel Gyasi, a fedelissimo of the Aquile who has been at the club since 2016. It was a goal that they defended to the death and that ultimately proved decisive as Alessandro Nesta’s Frusinati didn’t manage to score more than once in the second game. That’s when Spezia’s better position in the table made the difference again.

Spezia’s miracle bears the name of 42-year-old coach Vincenzo Italiano (yes, Italiano is his last name – just as if a Brit was named Vincent English or somebody from the U.S. was named Vincent American…). Italiano is a young trainer whose rise is being meteoric considering that he hanged up his boots only in 2014.

A former Serie A midfielder who wore the jerseys of Verona, Genoa, and Chievo, he was coaching in the Serie D (the Italian fourth tier) until 2018. He was subsequently called by Trapani in Serie C and managed to achieve promotion with the Sicilians at the first try, bringing them back into the second division. He was then noticed by Spezia and the rest is history.

Vincenzo Italiano spent a lifetime in Verona as a player but found true coaching glory in La Spezia and the best may yet be to come for the 42-year-old manager…

But Spezia’s promotion is also the redemption story of goalkeeper Simone Scuffet. Perhaps calcio fans remember him since when, aged 17, he played half of a season as Udinese’s starting goalkeeper – drawing the attention of multiple domestic and international clubs. He was billed as being the Next Big Thing between the sticks and reportedly refused a transfer to Atletico Madrid as he wished to continue his growth in Udine.

However, things have not quite turned out as expected for Scuffet, who spent the following five seasons between Udinese’s bench and some lackluster experiences on loan. In October 2019, the Bianconeri of Udine loaned him to the Bianconeri of Spezia and that was the beginning of Scuffet’s comeback – as the goalkeeper was decisive across the season and especially in the playoff games.

At 23, he will now have another shot at the Serie A – together with a team and a city that will taste it for the first time.