As the summer transfer window opens and teams across Europe begin their annual spending spree/discount sale, I wanted to share the perspective of American fans of Bari, Brescia, and Sampdoria, or the “Relegated Three” for the 2011-2012 season. Relegation is a part of soccer life, and much has been written on the pain of seeing your favorite team descending into lower league hell after the glories of top flight redemption. This post is not a rehashing of those feelings, but more accurately a description of why the American fans of these clubs are more miserable than the American fans of, say, West Ham or Blackpool.
First, as a disclaimer, I am a fan of AS Bari. Bari is becoming a quintessential yo-yo team; after ascending to Serie A two years ago, they had a strong campaign in ’09-’10 before absolutely tanking this season. Their history is littered with this; if you have read Tim Park’s “A Season with Verona,” the Bari side he describes is almost exactly like this year’s squad – too many overpaid over-the-hill players and not enough exciting young talent they can develop. The tragedy of this is that Bari is a great market for Serie A – the city is the second largest in Southern Italy and has one of the stadiums built for the 1990 World Cup. It is an excellent soccer market that has produced some world class talent, including Antonio Cassano.
However, due to financial mismanagement or, maybe more accurately, neglect, the team made little impact on the league this season. Last year’s team under Giampiero Ventura was attack minded but had Leonardo Bonucci, Andrea Ranocchia, and Jean-Francois Gillet to protect the back and give cover to the midfield. But ownership had been trying to sell the club at the beginning of the season and, with huge losses last season, most of the talent was sold off. Bari was relegated mathematically by week 34, but practically was relegated long before that. This story rings familiar to fans of many European clubs, including English ones, but for American fans of continental soccer teams there is a particular pain in relegation.
American fans of the Championship and teams in the relegation zone of the English Premier League do face the loss of prestige (and money) for their clubs, as well as miss out on the two games with the big clubs. However, no matter how or when your team goes down, you still have a visual connection with them. Fans of West Ham or Reading will be able to watch their teams play on Fox Soccer Plus next season (albeit after shelling out some extra cash) or can read about the clubs at Championship Talk or one of the numerous other blogs dedicated to the second tier of English football. Even in the U.S., you can follow your favorite team as it battles to move up or stay up.
As an American fan of a Serie B club, this is not the case. Bari will not be on television next year, not even on Fox Soccer Plus, and there are no Serie B blogs in English that I can go to regularly for accurate information. I rely on Google translations to check out La Gazzetta dello Sport but that is time consuming and at times confusing (translated headline today “Balotelli is time Fico Exit with Ronaldo’s ex”). My Google alerts for “Bari Serie B” will occasionally bring me snippets of news on the club, but I have to hope half the time the link won’t be blocked by my office or inundate me with pop-ups. And the prospect of buying the new shirt for the club or any merchandise is nil; I will be content with the one scarf I was able to find after hours of Internet searches.
This situation is not limited to American fans of Italian soccer: the small cadre of Americans who follow St. Pauli, AS Monaco, or Almeira will all be going through the same thing next season. Following your favorite team into the second division is like trying to follow a road in your car on a foggy night: you have to do it, but it is a challenge that requires you to pay absolute attention for a long time. We relegated fans don’t want pity from our English colleagues or fans of top flight clubs, but we do want recognition of our loyalty and dedication. I will always chant in my heart “Con il mare negli occhi e il sole nel cuore, Bari ti giuriamo eterno amore” and wear my scarf in the 90 degree heat for their first match next year. But I will watch Serie A matches on Fox Soccer next season with some sadness and the ardent desire to see il Gilletti take the field again at the San Siro like they did in 2009 and relive the joy of promotion.