Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Largest Church in Venice

Unione Venezia (in white) takes on Mezzocorona of Trentino, 8 December 2011
If, as many people have noted, calcio (or football or soccer) is a major religion in Italy, then the largest church in Venice is neither SS Giovanni e Paolo nor I Frari, but Stadio Pierluigi Penzo which, from what I've observed, few tourists ever enter.

As recently as 2002 the Venice team--or, at times, Venice-Mestre team--was in Italy's top league, Serie A. But since being declared bankrupt after the 2009 season (as it had been after the 2005 season as well) it has vied for top spot in Serie D as F.B.C. Unione Venezia. 

A local friend who has rarely attended a game since its demotion from Serie A said that the stadium used to have a great many more bleachers, which were removed as the team's fortunes declined. To attend a Serie A game in the old fully fitted-out stadium was, he told me, a thrilling and terrifying experience. Thrilling because the fans were rabid in their support. Terrifying because the old metal stands never seemed particularly sturdy and when the crowd got to stamping its feet in unison, as it often did, complete structural collapse seemed certain and imminent.

Venezia fans still stamp their feet, and sing, and jeer their opponents, and are still as passionate as before--but there are far fewer of them. Perhaps 3,000 per game, as compared to more than 20,000 in the Serie A days.

A sampling of the team's most boisterous supporters
Unione Venezia sat all alone at the top of the standings--undefeated in 14 matches, with only 2 draws--when I went to my first game of the season last Thursday afternoon. It was a special holiday game against a team far below them in the standings, Mezzocorona, and Venezia played as if they resented being among the relatively few folks in town who had to work that day. Or perhaps they were contemplating the mystery of the Immaculate Conception, whose feast day it was. They certainly weren't thinking about playing defense. They were behind 2-0 at the end of the first period, and 3-0 as soon as the second one began. Nor could they conceive the least bit of creativity on the attack.

But the games are worth attending if only to observe the fans. I always sit near the large group of ultras in the Distinti section--there's another isolated group of them in the Curva Sud, behind the goal. The price for a seat in either section is the same, so I'm not sure why someone would choose the latter place, as the view is much worse, but there may be some details about each group of supporters I've yet to learn.

At least two or three of the ultras who lead the songs and chants and cheering spend the entire game with their back to the action--not even American high school cheerleaders see so little of what's going on. As there is no in-stadium screen showing instant replays, nor even a scoreboard, these young men miss everything. In the church of calcio they are the most selfless of sacristans.

But try as they might, there was no helping i lagunari this day. Venezia hardly even threatened to score. In frustration, I took to wandering all over the stands, then down close to the field, then up to the very highest most distant bleachers in the place, trying out different vantage points. But there was no beauty to be found in the so-called "beautiful game" last Thursday, at least not for a Venezia fan. So I turned my back to the field and looked out over the shipyard behind the stadium, the harbor, the lagoon. I was not disappointed.

When there's no beauty to be found on the field, there's always the lagoon


  1. Thank you for that insight, you may have spared me a less than thrilling day at the soccer!

    Whenever I walk past the stadium, I find it hard to believe it is the site of any passion.

  2. I enjoyed the 4 or 5 games I went to last season--but every team has a bad day sometimes. And the stadium is rather forlorn-looking, I suppose, but I prefer it to the threatened new one near the airport which is supposed to be part of some awful huge hotel/mall development designed by Frank Gehry (who's become the go-to big ego architect for what seems to be a lot of big bad ideas in the last few years).