The city of Latina in Southern Lazio is a ‘new town’, created by Mussolini’s government for the glory of fascism and ‘Il Duce’ is still a hero to many there. The municipal building is revered for its balcony from which he gave a famous speech and local architecture is typified by the “Palazzo M”, a building designed in the shape of an ‘M for Mussolini’. But now Latina has a new breed of heroes – from a plucky little football club whose exploits are shocking the nation.
It’s no accident that Unione Sportiva Latina supporters are known as amongst the most notoriously right wing and volatile in Europe. Originally known as Littoria, like many Italian places associated with the Fascist regime, the city underwent a name change after WWII, yet many banners at the Stadio Domenico Francioni still carry the name “Littoria” as an act of defiance. On one occasion in 2004, Latina ultras famously stormed the pitch after a loss, chasing the team into the dressing room to attack them for their poor performance.
Tales like this might lead you to ask: what’s to like about this football club?
Politics aside, there’s something inherently romantic about the city and the surrounding area. It’s different from the rest of Italy. It’s not pretty or showy. It’s gritty and functional. There are no renaissance fountains or ancient ruins so few tourists go there and very few people speak English. It’s a bit rough around the edges, but it’s real. Latina is a place that can’t be ignored, and shouldn’t be. It’s open and honest about what it is, warts and all, and that is quite refreshing.
The football club, placed in the centre of the city, is at the heart of what makes the place tick. Kevin Keegan famously said of Newcastle supporters “The match for them is a bit like people down south going to the theatre.” The same is true of Latinisti and in many ways their fandom is more pure than that of the likes of Roma. To choose to be a Latina fan, when it would be just as easy to be a Romanista, Laziale or Juventino, makes you a true die-hard that fans of those other infinitely more successful teams can’t claim to be with the same validation.
Even when they were in the sixth and seventh tiers of Italian football, games at the Francioni were always well attended. Through all of the trials and tribulations they’ve been though, the devotion and passion of the Latina ultras is deeply impressive. They have supported their club through thick and thin with every fire of their beings at those lower levels and if you don’t believe me, get a load of this:
How many people can say they’ve supported a football club almost from scratch all the way to top?
When I went to the Francioni and saw them play in 2007, let’s not sugar coat things, they were crap. The previous incarnation of the club, AS Latina, had gone bankrupt the previous season and two new clubs had risen from the ashes. Virtus Latina played in seventh tier Promozione, while the team I watched, FC Latina, was in sixth tier Eccellenza. Virtus were promoted to Eccellenza at the end of that season and then won promotion again to Serie D the following year.
Sanity prevailed at that point and the two clubs came back together as US Latina to compete in the fifth tier, where they performed with mixed results on debut. Despite this however, because of financial irregularities of other clubs, they were plucked out of mid-table and promoted into Serie C2 for season 2009/10. In 2010/11, they won their division and automatic promotion to third tier Serie C1.
For the first time in a decade, Latina found themselves in the same league as bitter local rivals Frosinone. To welcome them back, Frosinone fans flew a plane trailing blue and yellow smoke over the Francioni during Latina’s last home game in Serie C2. A more profound statement about Italian passion for lower league football than this is hard to imagine.
Latina’s first season in Serie C1 was a bit of a shocker though. They wound up in a relegation playoff against famous old sleeping giants Triestina, which they survived by the skin of their teeth thanks to a 2-0 victory in the home leg. It seemed like perhaps they had hit their glass ceiling and could climb no higher. But in 2012/13, with a reinforced squad at their disposal, a huge change in fortunes has occurred.
Sitting in second place on the table at the mid-point of the season, success thus far has been a real team effort. Their leading scorers have been unable to make much of an impression on the race for the golden boot with Dario Barraco (6) and Nigerian striker Kolawole Agodirin (3) together making up half of a somewhat meagre team total of 18 goals – only the 9th best offence in the league. Their miserly 13 goals conceded is third best however, largely thanks to Maltese international defender Andrei Agius.
That combination of attack and defence is good enough to place them just two points short of first and with a game in hand over leaders Avellino, they are arguably in pole position for automatic promotion to Serie B. They are set to be very hard to stop in the second half of the term, particularly if Brazilian star Jefferson, on loan from Fiorentina, can finally find form.
A lot of the credit for their meteoric rise goes to inspirational former club president Michele Condò, who led Virtus Latina all the way from Promozione to the verge of the big-time. He retired due to ill-health during the summer break and sadly passed away in early December. His parting words to the club, which came on the back of last season’s disappointments, may yet prove prophetic:
“I leave, reluctantly, this wonderful adventure, but not without giving my heartfelt thanks to all the fans and supporters who, with their essential contribution, have made possible what seemed to many only a pipe dream. Thank you so much from the bottom of my heart, with the hope we will resume together the path stopped.”
If Latina do go on to win promotion to Serie B in 2013, it will be largely thanks to Michele Condò’s tireless hard work. His memory and his good deeds will be with them always as they resume the path and plough onward to who knows what great heights.
I’ll be following them all the way.
Categories: Roma/Italian Calcio
A grassroots sports photography enthusiast based in Auckland, New Zealand, and a fan of the most magnificent football club on earth - A.S. Roma.