Feralpisalò: Steel and Grit
The Feralpi Group website’s history section makes no mention of the Serie B football club they own, one they ‘created’ less than fifteen years ago. Feralpisalò does appear on the annual financial statements but its brief cameo reads more like a poor school report, scolding the business of football and its penchant for turning large fortunes into small ones.
Still, this unassuming club from Lake Garda found themselves in Parma on the first day of the Serie B season, facing a club whose own great history was forged by the writing of several blank cheques from a local business with big dreams. To lose 2-0 is no disgrace, certainly not to a side that looks primed for promotion.
Founded in 2009, the club is the result of a merger between AC Feralpi Lonato and AC Salò, the former being the ‘original’ Feralpi Group club, formed by the company’s founder Carlo Pasini in the sixties. While it seems like an alien concept to merge two clubs, it’s not uncommon. Fiorentina, Sampdoria and Roma are all the result of mergers, albeit decades prior to Feralpi.
They are second to Castel di Sangro as the ‘smallest’ club to reach Serie B, based on population. However, it’s safe to say they’re better managed than FIGC president Gabriele Gravina’s old club, or anything Gravina has managed since.
They're more like RB Leipzig, though their existence is considerably less controversial.
Feralpisalò are a fascinating case study in terms of what it means to be a football club. Essentially, they are a nomadic entity that has swallowed small, local clubs to create a larger organism. By no means are they like MK Dons in England, who killed a historic club in Wimbledon and moved it 80 miles away under a different name. Rather they’re more like RB Leipzig, a team with little history and no organic fanbase to call on, though their existence is considerably less controversial than the Austrian taurine merchants.
Promoted to Serie C in only their second season as a club, they spent almost a decade plugging away at the playoffs to gain Serie B promotion. After losing in the playoffs for the sixth straight year in 2022, it’s no wonder they were so keen on automatic promotion last season.
They emulated FC Südtirol by winning a very competitive Serie C/A, albeit the Bolzano boys were a little more impressive in their title win before going on to reach the Serie B playoffs a year later.
71 points across a 38 game season isn’t typical title winning material; after all Südtirol picked up 90 points and only conceded nine times in 2021-22. Feralpisalò’s total would have left them nowhere near the top two in Girone B or C, the other divisions in Italy’s third tier. That 45 points wasn’t enough to keep Mantova safe from relegation shows exactly how attritional the division is, an unforgiving campaign that should set them up nicely for the challenge of Italy’s second tier, where nine points separates the playoffs from relegation to Serie C.
Without sounding like corporate middle management, I’d love to know where Feralpisalò see themselves in five years. Playing in a town of around 10,000 people and lacking the raw football sex appeal of a more storied club, it’s hard to visualise their path to the top, but perhaps I’m missing the point and really it’s just about building something you can be proud of.
Giuseppe Pasini, son of Carlo, became chairman of Feralpi Group in 2007, two years prior to the merger between Feralpi Lonato and Salò. Pasini is very much Feralpisalò and he is very much them, having been there since day one.
They will start the season playing in Piacenza, but hope to return to Salò during the campaign.
For years, Pasini has been talking up an expansion of the stadium in Salò, preparing it for life in Serie B and perhaps beyond. That hasn’t materialised and they will play most of, if not all of this season in Piacenza (111km away). It’s not exactly unprecedented in Italian football, but all those bus trips are sure to add up. Pasini remains confident that they’ll get back to Lino Turina before long. Hopefully they do, as the backdrop of Lake Garda is worth the rebuild costs alone.
Making the leap to Serie B has a lot to do with the erudite Stefano Vecchi. You might remember him from two brief stints as caretaker manager at Inter a few years ago, having been plucked from the Primavera dugout, but his work along the shores of Lake Garda is a high point in a coaching career that began in Italy’s fifth tier almost two decades ago.
Having led Feralpisalò to a play-off semi-final defeat in his first season, Vecchi set out to conquer the division with a 4-3-1-2 that relied heavily on the creativity of trequartista/no.10 Luca Siligardi, a grizzled veteran with a decade of experience in the top two divisions. Siligardi’s contract expired at the end of the season, so they’ll have to hope the summer’s recruitment replaces the goals and assists over time.
Fourteen teams scored more goals in Serie C/A last season, but a solid defence and the emergence of Semuel Pizzignacco in goal meant that Vecchi’s team conceded only 21 times on their way to promotion. Pizzignacco hails from the goalkeeping hotbed in Italy’s north-east, having spent his youth career at Udinese and is still a very young ‘keeper at 21, but his 22 clean sheets will have piqued the interest of some clubs further up the food chain. A year in Serie B could be the perfect audition for his next move and big things are expected of him in the future.
Like his goalkeeper, Stefano Vecchi likely has his admirers. At Inter, he brought players like Federico Dimarco and Andrea Pinamonti through the Primavera ranks, and his work in the past two years will surely attract bigger clubs, but for now it’s all about a maiden campaign in the second tier.
An away game against a promotion challenger should serve as a barometer for the level needed to play in Serie B.
Summer signings Alessio da Cruz and Andrea La Mantia in attack should give more bite to a team who lacked goals even at their best in Serie C. 41 goals won’t equate to 71 points in Serie B, so they’ll need to do better this year, which is quite a challenge.
Against Parma, they fielded five new players and looked very competitive for the first 45 minutes, before fading as the hosts took control in the second half. Away to a promotion challenger isn't a game that Feralpisalò expect to take points from, but it should serve as a barometer for the level they have to reach to match up against those top sides.
What can Feralpisalò expect to achieve this season? Much of that depends on how well they adapt to that jump in competition as the championship progresses. Südtirol swept Serie C/A in 2021/22 and were twenty minutes from a Serie B play-off final last season, and while Feralpisalò were far less dominant, they must hold out hope that they can come in and compete to survive at the very least. Bari were seconds from consecutive promotions before Cagliari scored at San Nicola in June, so there’s precedent to encourage Stefano Vecchi and his team.
Regardless of what happens this season, Feralpisalò have achieved something to be proud of by getting to Serie B. From its conception in 2009 to now, they have improved over time and haven’t had superstar power or sovereign wealth to back them, but rather the vision and backing of a ‘local’ entrepreneur. It’s not a fairytale story, but it remains one of the more impressive displays of football and business working together.