The farcical case of Virtus Entella: a 'ghost' club without a league to play in

Italy’s Serie B was plunged into chaos by three pre-season bankruptcies and Entella, who had hoped to profit, now find themselves in limbo between the second and third tiers

On Tuesday morning Gabriel Cleur and the rest of the Virtus Entella players, coaches and staff will set out on an away trip that feels like a last resort. At the end of the 290-mile journey from Chiavari, their home town in Liguria, to Rome, they will alight at the Federazione Italiana Giuoco Calcio (FIGC) and will not leave until they have received some answers. They plan a form of sit-in protest and the crux of their complaint only scratches the surface of a shambolic state of affairs that has left Italy’s lower leagues in turmoil. Why, they want to know, do they not have a division to play in when the season is already six weeks old?

“Never in my life did I think I’d be directly involved in a situation like this,” says Cleur, a 20-year-old full-back from Australia. Two weeks ago he was sent off in Entella’s first match of the Serie C season, a 3-1 win at Gozzano, but that detail barely feels relevant now. They have not played since then and, if they have their way, will not fulfil any further fixtures in the third tier. Entella believe they are entitled to a place in this season’s Serie B and their matches have, as a result, been postponed indefinitely. The problem is that the FIGC, Italy’s football association, are yet to confirm that they agree. No decision is expected until 9 October and until then Entella are out on a limb: a ghost club with no games to play, training every day to no end, livelihoods up in the air while Italy’s arcane judicial system grinds towards an uncertain conclusion.

Cleur says it has been “mentally draining” and that even the club’s senior players, battle-hardened professionals who probably felt they had the measure of Italian football’s less edifying aspects by now, have been left feeling confused and powerless. That is because this situation has been rumbling on for almost three months. Last season Entella finished 19th of 22 teams in Serie B, the best of four relegated sides. In mid-July they received a lifeline: Cesena, Bari and Avellino, who had all finished clear of the drop, were declared bankrupt and denied permission to resume in the second division. The logical conclusion was that their places would be taken by some of those who had gone down.

But common sense has gone out of the window in a complex, enervating and seemingly endless series of legal wrangles that have achieved next to nothing. Serie B decided to go ahead with only 19 teams in 2018-19, despite the FIGC planning a play-off competition to determine the three replacements. That prompted appeals from six clubs, Entella among them, who felt a place was rightfully theirs. Italy’s Olympic committee, Coni, oversaw the hearings and originally turned them down.

In Entella’s case, everything appeared to change two days after that winning start in Serie C. They were informed by Coni that a 15-point deduction for Cesena, who have since reformed as a phoenix club in Serie D, would be backdated to 2017-18, meaning that Entella – who had finished six points behind them – could technically leapfrog them to safety. Never mind the sheer farce of competing in two divisions during the same season: their league calendar was suspended and, for Cleur and his teammates, justice appeared to have been done.

The Fiver: sign up and get our daily football email.

It is not that simple. The FIGC has to give the green light but has been virtually silent so far, and did not reply to requests from the Guardian for information. It has transferred the competence for the final decision to the Tribunale Amministrativo Regionale (TAR) of the Lazio area, a second-level court that resolves administrative matters. Essentially, the club believe, it is seeking recourse to TAR against the decision made by Coni.

“This is affecting people’s jobs,” says Cleur, whose present contract will run on reduced terms if Entella are placed back in Serie C. “The budgets will be different and a lot of players would be on lower pay, have their contracts cancelled or even be released. And it’s not just the team, it’s the technical staff, the coaches, the people in the laundry, everyone.”

Entella’s players discuss the situation among themselves in the dressing room every day, reminding one another not to drop their focus. Senior figures at the club have sat them down twice too but the point has arrived where there seems little left to say. “It’s more physical stuff we’re doing, like in pre-season, keeping yourself fit and sharp, but to not know when that is going to finish is taking its toll,” Cleur says. When Entella do begin playing again they will, regardless of division, be obliged to play catch-up for several weeks; both leagues have carried on without them and a regimen of Saturday-to-Wednesday fixtures puts them at an instant disadvantage. The feelings of frustration and anger stem from the fact that none of this is remotely their fault.

“It’s ridiculous; nobody wants to make an executive decision,” Cleur says, and that is why he and his teammates plan to converge on the FIGC’s headquarters in order “to show more of a presence, to push them to make the decision quicker.” Their rivals will be watching with interest: last week TAR rejected a joint appeal for instatement into Serie B, or at least a repechage, from Pro Vercelli, Novara, Ternana and Siena. It is unlikely that the last has been heard of their claims. Cleur believes Entella will take part in Serie B – “I honestly can’t see them putting us back in to Serie C, there’s no reason to stop our season and then do that” – but the odds are that, for nine more days, the agonising wait will go on.

“Everybody I’ve spoken to or heard of is flabbergasted by the situation,” Cleur says. But he will train as usual on Monday; the incentive of a place closer to Italy’s top flight is significant at this stage of his young career. Then, on that long trip to Rome, he will try to make sense of a chaotic state of affairs that reflects terribly on everybody except those it has affected the most.


Nick Ames

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Spezia's win over Milan the perfect Valentine's gift for table-topping Inter | Nicky Bandini
Another weekend of upended expectations in Serie A led to a shock defeat for Milan and a win for Napoli over Juventus

Nicky Bandini

15, Feb, 2021 @12:10 PM

Article image
European roundup: Bellingham double helps Dortmund thrash VfB Stuttgart
Borussia Dortmund stormed past VfB Stuttgart 5-0 with two goals from Jude Bellingham while Bayern Munich coasted to a 2-0 win over Hoffenheim

Agencies and Observer Sport

22, Oct, 2022 @3:59 PM

Article image
European roundup: Giroud sends Milan top as Barcelona’s Depay grabs late win
João Felix scored twice as Atlético Madrid won 3-1 at Real Betis while Álvaro Morata’s goal was enough for Juventus to beat Spezia 1-0

Agencies and Guardian sport

06, Mar, 2022 @8:59 PM

Article image
Salernitana’s ghost game could be a farcical end to their Serie A journey | Nicky Bandini
A Covid-related no-show at Udinese looks the last act for Salernitana unless they can find a new owner by 31 December

Nicky Bandini

23, Dec, 2021 @2:25 PM

Article image
Serie B launches ‘green card’ to promote fair play and change game’s image
Serie B is introducing a green card on Friday night in an attempt to promote fair play in the Italian second division

Marcus Christenson

15, Jan, 2016 @11:23 AM

Article image
Milan’s Silvio Berlusconi confirms sale of club to Chinese investors
Milan president Silvio Berlusconi has confirmed that he will sell the seven-time European champions to Chinese investors and expects to receive €400m (£338m) over the next two years

Guardian sport

05, Jul, 2016 @10:44 AM

Article image
European roundup: Inter loanee stuns parent club while Real Madrid held
A Federico Dimarco screamer secures Parma a shock win at San Siro and Arsenal loanee Reiss Nelson nets on Bundesliga debut

Alex Hess and agencies

15, Sep, 2018 @9:07 PM

Article image
‘Ronaldo will remain’: Juventus play down Cristiano exit before Udinese draw
Juventus vice-president Pavel Nedved has insisted that Cristiano Ronaldo will remain at the club this season

Fabrizio Romano and Michael Butler

22, Aug, 2021 @6:37 PM

Article image
Juventus unveil bold new club crest at ceremony in Milan
Juventus have unveiled a new club crest – with club president Andrea Agnelli claiming the unusual, minimalist design has been one year in the making

Guardian sport

16, Jan, 2017 @9:57 PM

Article image
Eternal rivals Lazio and Roma dreaming of the Champions League | Nicky Bandini
Two outsider managers in Maurizio Sarri and José Mourinho have the capital’s clubs going deep in Serie A’s top-four battle

Nicky Bandini

06, Mar, 2023 @12:48 PM