Venezia's woes threaten to make football a relic in city of rich history | Jonathan Wilson

Venice club desperately need a new stadium and without one could lose their Russian owner and, with him, their existence

The rain runs down the grimy windows of the vaporetto. Somewhere through the murk is the church of San Giovanni Battista and then the gardens where the Biennale is based. A quarter of an hour after leaving San Marco, we arrive at Sant'Elena. The most obvious landmark as you leave the vaporetto station is the bell tower of the church, an imposing brick rectangle that frowned down on the low floodlights that nestle in its lea. This is the Stadio Pierlugi Penzo, the home of the third-flight side Union Venezia.

It's the second oldest stadium in Italy, and it looks it. Opposite the main stand – which, thank goodness, has a functioning roof – it's not immediately clear where the dilapidated brickwork of the stadium ends and the 15th-century monastery begins. On another day there might be a ramshackle beauty to the Penzo, with the masts of boats in the harbour visible beyond the north stand and the bell tower looming to the south-east. But as the rain teems down, it's a damp, grey place.

The exterior walls bear graffiti boasting of the fury of the Curva Sud, but they're misleading – and not just because the stand is straight. No more than 100 ultras huddled behind the goal, their attempts to fulfil their obligations as fans by waving four flags somehow both depressing and impressive, a triumph of a belief in the value of being seen to do the right thing over any awareness of the desultory effect produced. At the other end, tucked into a corner of the main stand, were 18 fans from FeralpiSalò, one of them so committed to the rituals of the tifosi that he spent the entire game hanging from the security fence with his back to play.

Not that he missed much. The grey-green pitch was slow and bobbly – and soaking – and although Venezia's holding midfielder, Daniele Giorico, on loan from Cagliari, occasionally changed the angle of attack imaginatively, it was a game low on quality and invention. Venezia had begun in third – the top side in each of the two Lega Pro 1 divisions is promoted automatically to Serie B, with the second- to fifth-placed teams in each division playing off for a further two promotion spots – but there was little to suggest they were any better than FeralpiSalò, who had started the day ninth and were a persistent threat through their front pairing of Luca Miracoli and the raw but lively 19-year-old Davide Marsura.

Just before half-time the centre-back Antonio Magli bundled in a corner at the back post and the away side had the lead. The home crowd, all 936 of them, seemed neither especially bothered nor furious, but settled back into what felt like a familiar routine of disgruntlement, although this was actually a first home defeat in 13 months. As the second half went on, Venezia went more and more direct without ever looking like finding an equaliser.

It was their sixth defeat of the season, leaving them eight points adrift of the leaders, Virtus Entella. You wonder whether the club's owner, the Russian businessman Yuri Korablin, once the mayor of Khimki, is regretting the decision he made on a similarly wet afternoon in 2011.

Then, he was a tourist in Venice with wet feet. He went into a shop to buy some boots and saw a replica shirt mounted on the wall. Fascinated by the story of a club that won the Coppa Italia in 1941 (when their side featured Valentino Mazzola and Ezio Loik, both of whom would later move to Torino and died at Superga in 1949) and spent most of their history hovering between Serie A and Serie B before the financial chaos of the past decade, he headed up a consortium that bought it. Back then he spoke boldly of restoring the team to Serie A and after a traumatic period in which Venezia had twice gone bankrupt and had to reform, the security he offered must have seemed enticing.

It is true that Korablin has, so far, brought a measure of stability, although his idea that tourists might make a trip to the football a part of their holiday would probably be scuppered by the difficulty of acquiring tickets without an ID card, even if the football were worth watching. The way fans respectfully applauded on Sunday to mark the death of Igor Goncharenko, one of Korablin's friends and the right-hand man of the president – a banner marked "Ciao, Igor" was paraded before kick-off – suggested he is far from unpopular. But he will not invest further until agreement has been reached on the construction of a new stadium near the airport in the suburb of Tessera, and that seems as far off as ever.

That Korablin is growing frustrated was evident on Sunday evening. For the first time he didn't watch the game from the stand, but went up into the old television cabins on the roof. "I'm very sorry that a result has not been reached on Tessera," he said, "and I'm thinking seriously about what to do in the coming days and what steps I can take to reach a conclusion.

"I'm not at all sure that the city wants this stadium with all the positive effects it will have. I know the fans want it, probably 90% of people, but those who decide are maybe too busy thinking about the next election. Let's say there are people with toothache and instead of taking medicine for that they take something for a bad stomach or sore feet."

The new stadium was first proposed in the late '90s and it was the lack of progress on building it that led Maurizio Zamparini to sell up and move to Palermo in 2002, taking a number of Venezia's best players with him. The sticking point seems to be the Civil Aviation Authority (ENAC), which is yet to respond to inquiries about how a stadium would affect its traffic and whether it would impinge on the buffer zone around a second runway. "We're in Italy," said the deputy mayor Sandro Simionato. "We have to respect the times and the Italian laws: until there is a green light for urban compatibility we cannot do anything."

Korablin may not have the patience to wait, particularly as he seems to believe the delays are intentional. When Korablin took over, Zamparini told him: "In Venice, you can't do football." The Russian may be discovering he was right. For now, football in Venice is in danger of becoming as much of a relic as the rest of the city, and one of rather less aesthetic appeal.


Jonathan Wilson

The GuardianTramp

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