An Easter break in Livorno would not be complete without taking in a match. Outside Write contributor Michael Saxton joins the Tifosi Livornesi for a must-win night game against fellow promotion chasing rivals Virtus Lanciano.
Livorno, Italy. The chances are you will not know where it is or what it’s about; so let me help you get your bearings. It’s twenty minutes down the road from Pisa, bang on the Tuscan coast facing west towards the Mediterranean. It’s a port city, one of the biggest in Italy. The Brits have been coming to trade here for centuries. We call it Leghorn. But very few British visit as tourists – I’m the exception to the rule as it is my wife’s hometown. Most holidaymakers just pass through en route to Sardinia and Corsica via the ferries at the docks. It’s a shame because it is a fine working city. A hidden gem with a medieval fortress, a series of canals like a little Venice and a food market to rival Barcelona’s famous Boqueria. But enough of that, let’s talk football.
It’s the centenary for A.S. Livorno this year, a big deal for the club, especially as it’s been out of the top flight for a couple of years and had been pushing hard for automatic promotion earlier in the season.
However, the promise of a return to Serie A took a turn for the worse in February when a run of decent results (including an away win at current league leaders Carpi) came to a halt with a couple of defeats that saw the team drop from second – an automatic promotion spot – to sixth. Matters got more critical when new manager Christian Panucci arrived in March and saw his first three games end in defeat. More on that later.
Politics in Italian Football: Red Alert
A lot of Italian football is divided on political lines. Livorno is firmly on the left. In fact, it’s a Communist affiliated club. You get the drill; stadium banners with images of Che Guevara, the odd hammer and sickle and lots of red to go with the club colour of rose-red Amaranta. Footie politics can mean that things get a bit tasty off the field when left-leaning clubs are playing those to the right, like Lazio or Verona, or clubs with wealthy patrons like Juventus, Inter and Milan.
Ah, Milan. This brings me to one of my favourite stories which illustrate the legendary Livornese humour. They’re famous for being a notorious bunch of piss takers. Back in 2004, when Italian PM and Milan owner Silvio Berlusconi had a hair transplant he spent the summer wearing a bandana to cover up the fact. Of course, the news got out. Google pictures of him entertaining Tony Blair that summer. Livorno drew Milan in their first game back in Serie A at the San Siro. What did the Livornese Ultras choose to wear for the game? Yep, you guessed it. Apparently there were thousands of them in red (communist-inspired) bandanas in the city and at the stadium. And on the pitch Livorno even nicked a 2-2 draw. There’s a brilliant blog post devoted to this. [Continues]
So to our match, which brought a team from the Adriatic coast over to the Med for a proper six pointer. A victory for Lanciano (10th) would see them leapfrog Livorno (now 8th after Panucci’s poor start) and put them within touching distance of the play offs. A loss for Livorno might even see new boy Panucci face the sack. His predecessor Gelain had lasted just 10 games, even though he won five of them. Livorno president Spinelli needs little encouragement. Managers come and go with alarmingly regularity: 22 in the last 16 years. [Continues]
Outside the Stadio Armando Picchi the mood was down beat. Inside however, the Curva Nord (the home end) was pumped up. Like most fans I find it more interesting watching the stands than the pitch when I’m visiting somewhere new. The Tifosi Livornesi didn’t seem to be that tense unlike my companions. My friend Ale who had bought our tickets reckoned it was win or bust, a match that would either condemn Livorno to another season in Serie B or propel the club back into the play off mix.
What are your expectations of Italian football, irrespective of the division? Technical, eh? Mine too. Instead, the opening ten to fifteen minutes saw a lot of long ball from both sides. Livorno looked like they could work the channels better than the Lancianese, but they didn’t look that inclined to pass it around. May be it was the stakes, may be it was the way they always played. Ale didn’t know, as he hadn’t watched them play for a long time. However once things got going, a couple of things happened, pretty much at the same time. Both sides started to play a bit, making some neat passes and getting into some useful positions, particularly Livorno. And I started to tune in to the bloke behind me…
There are always oddballs at football matches. When I had a season ticket at Chelsea, there was a bloke who sat further along our row and came to each game with two large plastic bags. He dropped them once and spilled perfectly cut-out pictures of supermodels on the concrete. He missed a couple of games after that.
At the Stadio Armando Picchi, I started to catch the odd English phrase from the guy behind us – home away, home safe, away safe, home safe, home danger. I nudged my son. He’d heard it too. The guy was oblivious to us, just talking into his phone.
“I think it’s a code, Dad. When he says ‘home safe’ it is when Livorno have possession. When he says ‘home danger’ it is when Livorno are attacking, ditto ‘away safe’, ‘away danger’,” he said. It didn’t quite ruin things but it grated a bit, especially when the ball went out for a corner or for a free kick. At that point the guy repeated the same robotic phrase: “I can confirm home corner” or “I can confirm away free kick.”
I can confirm you’re irritating…
The half fluctuated between home safe/away safe and looked set to be petering out to 0-0 at half time until Livorno moved the ball quickly through the middle, then out to the wing and then back to their burly Bulgarian striker Galabinov, who had made space outside the box. He struck the ball sweetly and it crashed home to put Livorno a goal up almost as the whistle went.
Buoyed by the goal you’d think that Livorno would have started the second half as they ended the first. Instead Lanciano began brightly. The crowd got restless. Our commentator used ‘away danger’ more than anyone would have liked. I started to get the same feeling that I used to get when watching Chelsea under Hoddle, Gullit or Vialli. Not just that one goal would not be enough, but also that you couldn’t trust the team to keep one out. Yeah, I know, typical fan paranoia. And so it proved to be as Lanciano ran out of steam and Livorno grew contented with the odd attack, or ‘home danger’ to use the commentator’s lexicon.
With a few minutes left on the clock, Panucci took off the goal scorer Galabinov. The big number 16 got a standing ovation. Four minutes of added time felt like six. When the ref blew, we digested the win. The three points had moved Livorno back in the right direction, up to seventh. The team’s position in the play-off berth was more secure; the gap between third and eighth had narrowed to just three points, but also the gap to ninth was only two. The margin for error tiny for the remaining games.
“I can confirm home win,” said robo-commentator before he hung up the call. I’ve got to ask what he does for a living, I said to my son.
“Che cosa fai per un lavoro?’
The guy looked non-plussed.”Io non sono Italiano,” came the response.
So I asked him again in English. He smiled with a little bit of embarrassment: “I provide data for a football betting website based in England.”
You couldn’t make it up if you tried. [Continues]
Getting to Livorno
Low cost carriers fly daily from London to Pisa. Frequent inexpensive trains run from Pisa Centrale station to Livorno station. The Stadio Armando Picchi is best reached by taxi. The journey is approximately 10-15 minutes and will cost approximately €30. If you are planning a longer stay, check out a wide selection of properties on Airbnb or splash some cash the five-star Grand Hotel Palazzo.
Where to eat and drink
There are bars serving food and drink near the stadium. If the weather is fine, allow more time to walk along Lungomare. This is a long stretch of pavement, trails and cycle path running parallel to the sea. The most popular bars are Baracchina Bianca and Baracchina Rossa. The latter is five minutes’ walk from the stadium.