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Monday, April 5, 2004
Siena's success story

Roberto Gotta

Blink and you will miss Siena's stadium, the Artemio Franchi.

Travellers milling around the outskirts of the magnificent Tuscan town could be forgiven for devoting their time to the church of San Domenico and the scenic background of terracotta-coloured roofs clinging to the side of the hill.

But turn your head left while approaching San Domenico and you can see the top of a floodlight pylon sticking out of the top of trees; get closer to the fence and you will get a glimpse of a green pitch, white lines, empty stands and a track.

Bizarrely, the tiny, 14,000-seat Artemio Franchi sits at the bottom of what looks like a depression in the ground, right in the centre of town and - with a bit of shrewd planning - guests of a nearby hotel can watch the whole game from their room high above. That, however, would set them back more than actually buying a ticket.

The club used to matter little to tourists and Siena residents. After all, why watch donkeys aimlessly kicking a ball when a few hundred yards away you could lay your eyes - albeit only twice a year - on the fire-breathing horses running the Palio.

It's one of the world's best traditions and at the same time one of its worst examples of bribery, savagery and hate.

The football side of Siena has always escaped day-trippers, as by the time we had paid our respects to the traditional places and filled our bellies with delicious cookies like ricciarelli and cakes like panforte we'd be heading home. All tourists see is its beautiful centre, the narrow streets, the unique Piazza del Campo with its Torre del Mangia tower which serves as a beacon for neighbouring villages.

Now, the football team, Siena, has become a factor in the local sports scene, which had been dominated by the town's well-supported basketball side, Mens Sana - a contender for the Scudetto and still in with a chance to qualify for this year's Euroleague Final Four.

Siena's promotion to Serie A last year - for the first time their history - has sparked an unprecedented amount of interest, with black and white flags and signs popping up everywhere. Only discreetly though, being careful not to upset the natural order which calls for the Palio and participating contrade (neighbourhoods) to attract attention all year long.

It is a well worn cliche that the football club unifies what the Palio apparently divides, but it holds some truth.

Despite last Sunday's 5-2 defeat at Lazio, which brings to 11 their goals-against tally in away matches played in Rome this year, Siena have fared well in their first season in the top flight.

This has owed greatly to a defence which started the campaign in great shape and important contributions from Brazilian Rodrigo Taddei and experienced strikers Enrico Chiesa and Tore Andre Flo (less so from Inter loanee Nicola Ventola).

But their form took a dip in February and fans quickly forgot about the brilliant start, which had seen the bianconeri win a string of home matches and surge well above the relegation zone.

Coach Giuseppe Papadopulo, a former player and Scudetto winner with Lazio and at 55 a debutant in Serie A after years in the lower divisions, barely managed to keep his anger in check when the first chants for his dismissal started.

That was also the case when - thinking back to last week's column about fans' behaviour and irrational requests - some supporters asked to meet the team in order to hear an explanation for their struggles.

Papadopulo, a proud man extremely conscious of the great job he'd done so far, should have known better; wasn't this, after all, the same club that had sacked him two years earlier, only to recall him later in the season in a bid to avoid relegation from Serie B?

After that narrow escape - thanks to a last-day win at Sampdoria - Papadopulo was expected to perform the same escape act the following campaign. But instead he beat all odds by steering Siena to Serie A with an attractive side which had not been built ostensibly to gain promotion but gained confidence as the season progressed.

The only black cloud on the exhilarating latter stages of last season came in early June just a few hours after the draw at Salernitana had given Siena the title.

Taddei's brother died in a horrific car crash in which Rodrigo himself and another Brazilian player, Andre Pinga, were injured. When the news of Taddei's brother's death reached Siena, the club decided to cancel the party which was scheduled to take place that same night in the Piazza del Campo.

It was to be a dinner for 5,600 fans in the town's most symbolic place, the square where all the crude passion and excitement of the Palio go on show.

This season's team again has a strong Brazilian flavour, with Taddei a rising star and four fellow countrymen, but some were involved in the loss of form in February and are now fighting for their places in a revamped set-up.

One is a European champion in Roque Junior, the butt of many jokes for Milan fans last year and holder of a similar reputation among Leeds supporters after his stint on loan at Elland Road in the first part of the season.

Siena's promotion to Serie A last year has sparked an unprecedented amount of interest, with black and white flags and signs popping up everywhere.

Siena like to be thought of as a model club. Their shirt sponsor is a local and national stalwart, Monte dei Paschi, Italy's oldest bank and a powerful player in all things Siena.

The owner is, oddly enough for a place with a strong sense of its roots and parochial culture, a Neapolitan, Paolo de Luca, who fell in love with the club after his son was treated at a local hospital.

De Luca's public appearance is a cross between the ruthless businessman and the caring, old-school avuncular chairman. And as a member of the lower echelon of Serie A, he is a champion for the cause of the small clubs.

But at the same time he refuses to be drawn into populism or to spout the witty soundbites which sometimes identify other "controversial" chairmen who love nothing more than seeing their face in the press.

He's been known to take his dog in the directors' box and has installed a local priest and his 19-year-old daughter on the board of directors. Also, he has been working to give Siena what every club of its size needs - a business plan that would help them keep their heads above water regardless of league standing, their model being Bolton Wanderers.

This involves the building of a new 20,000-seat stadium south of town, with the now customary add-ons of training facilities, hotels, shops, movie theatres and medical and conference centres.

You'd miss the San Domenico experience then, but, as saints go, Siena would probably be less dependent on one in their quest to keep a place among the elite of the calcio.

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