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Mountain High in Bolzano




I guess the Austro-Hungrian and Ottoman Empires both helped the displacement of people throughout the Eastern side of Europe in particular with Bosnia, Macedonia, Romania to name just three who have significant ethnic populations. I had certainly experienced morsels of such in Trieste, with its dual language status for Slovenian and Italian, but in Italy’s most Easterly outpost, it still felt distinctly Italian, with their language and the cuisine the dominant partner, albeit in a more Austrian feeling architectural setting. Rijecka, who played a European tie at Aberdeen at the start of the season, is a Croatian city on the Adriatic that used to be Italy! It was perhaps an unusual location to set eyes on a Fiume (Rijecka’s previous Italian name!) football scarf just days before, but if you are ever going through the museum at Anfield, a selection of scarves hang from the ceiling at one part, and amongst them is this rare gem! 

These anecdotes merely act as scene setting for my second visit to the Dolomite region of Italy, known as the Alto Adige, or Sud Tirol, depending on your persuasion. I was further north this time, having experienced Trento some years before, where it certainly felt more Italian. Bolzano is the flip side to Trieste, with the Italian language seemingly largely banished to mutterings in corners of Bozen as they’d have you believe the town is singularly called! It is a region with a complex history which I will return too, but this particular football and cultural expedition was also a first ever football match for my beautiful partner, Tania from St Petersburg, once photographer for my article on San Marino for FW, and now co-writer here. On our arrival and her thoughts on Bolzano, I will let her explain:

“Это была прекрасная 90-минутная поездка на поезде из Вероны через все более впечатляющие горы …… English would be better!! It was a beautiful 90 minute train ride from Verona, through increasingly spectacular mountains, with so many vine groves sitting dormant awaiting the spring growth for a new harvest all the way up the line. Bolzano is a wonderful city, surrounded by spectacular mountains. The streets are very clean with a nice atmosphere, and it was easy to relax. The buildings aren’t classic Italy, we could easily have been in Bavaria. It is a real mix of German and Italian influences. When you come from St Petersburg, even thinking about eating outside in the middle of March, let alone January is something we could only dream about, but the sun was warm and eating outside in the main square having lunch was a new and wonderful experience for us both. As northern visitors we felt obliged to indulge the local cuisine and we tried the local strudel, not once, but twice!”.

The first of those strudel had come from a delicatessen in the city where my request in Italian had been totally ignored and responded too in blurty German, which meant nothing to us! I was determined not to revert to English and the transaction had been rather frosty, a similar encounter would occur in the football stadium later at the German only speaking cafe! The strudel was jolly tasty though, better than the lunch time outdoor restaurant version!

Before getting to the football, a little understanding as to why this region is so different won’t go a miss perhaps, as I am sure some readers are already surprised to read of such Germanic ways in Italy! The movement of German speakers south goes further back than the Austro-Hungarian days, indeed, as early as 7th Century with a first Bavarian ruler. In 1027 it was conferred to the Bishops of Trento, becoming part of the Roman Empire. By 1363 the Hapsburg Empire ruled, albeit overseen for centuries by two Italian and two German officers appointed by the Austrian Duchess. It’s most pertinent and tragic history started during the First World War when Italy was promised land if they entered the war by the Triple Alliance, and so on the 24th May 1915, three and a half years of heavy fighting in the region commenced with the loss of countless thousands on both sides after Italy declared war on the Austro-Hungarians. When a peace treaty was finally signed, Italian troops marched into a predominantly German speaking Bolzano, and a period of Italianisation commenced, with high immigration of Italians from the south encouraged. The use of the German language was banned as was referring to the region at the Tirol. Ahead of the Second World War, Mussolini signed a treaty with Hitler where the region would not be invaded, and allowed the German population the option to relocate to other parts of the Weimar Republic. Those who refused to move were subjected to even greater Italianisation with the loss of their language and removal of their German names! Bolzano would still be used for the German cause when Italy surrendered in 1943 and the Nazi’s moved in, setting up a concentration camp here, one of only two on Italian soil, ironically the other was in Trieste!

All of these facts merely go to add credence to why in one regard, having been given back all the rights of language and culture in the ‘50’s, the German based populace seem reluctant to embrace Italy. To this day Bolzano is part of an autonomous, self governing region of Italy having gone through one last dreadful passage of its history when German separatists turned to terrorist tactics to gain further concessions, nearly bringing Northern Italy to its knees with strikes on power stations in the ’60’s.     

Having set the fraught historical picture, stepping off the train in Bolzano immediately brings the sight of the awe inspiring snow covered jagged peaks of the Dolomites in the distance. A Bolzano-Eye carousel is right across from the railway station, and if time is short, a whirl on this wheel high above the city will bring stunning views. 

The Druso Stadium is a 20 minute walk from the railway station. If you turn left as you come out of the station and follow the road round and the head across the river via the main bridge, taking an immediate left down a path into a riverside park as soon as you cross the bridge. Here you are close to the ground, and the floodlights are visible. In the coming year or so you could follow the river round and gain access to the stadium, but the Druso is undergoing significant upgrade as the club prepares for fulfilling the dream stepping up into Serie B. For now you’ll need to follow the path to the right at the signpost away from the river. Minutes later you will be behind the main stand which runs the length of the pitch and is also the main entrance. The away fans are housed in a temporary scaffold seating area behind the goal to the right, a feature that so often becomes permanent in Italy, but with the other two sides under construction and looking likely to be more permanent and covered areas, once completed the Druso will be an impressive venue. Thankfully the relatively shallow terracing won’t impact on the view from the main stand, a stunning vista of mountains, which certainly added colour to Tania’s first football experience! 

In the early ‘90’s there became a growing desire to have a professional football team in the Italian league, following the collapse of FC Bolzano in the eighties. Endeavouring to “fast track” the new club up a few leagues and avoiding a potential 9 league ladder to Serie A, the unsuspecting SV Miland from nearby Bressanone, or Brixen were acquired and renamed FC Sud Tirol-Alto Adige in 1995, tipping the hat with its name to the dual language area, but the new choice of badge certainly leans the club more towards German speakers. Indeed, they have an infuriating need to pander to both world’s, with even the shirt numbers as the teams are read out given in both Italian and German, with the excellent club magazine published in both languages, page by page. 

SV Miland had just been relegated to the 7th tier at that point when they were acquired, and while Bressanone remained the clubs home at that point, two back to back promotions brought them to Serie D, which was the fifth tier in those days. In 2000 they gained promotion to the now defunct Serie C2, the fourth tier, the first step on the professional football ladder in Italy. That year the German aspect of the club grew in prominence and Alto Adige was lopped off the official name, even if it stayed on the badge as the club moved to Bolzano! Nine years later they were promoted to the third tier for the first time, and while the clubs sole relegation was experienced two years later, they were quickly back in the third tier, where they remain to this day, always competing at the upper end of the table and entry into the protracted 28 team promotion play offs as a regular occurrence.

In Italy the club was more generally referred to as Alto Adige, just as the region is called. Indeed, until more recent times the FIGC league tables had the Italian name, but given the badge alteration in 2016, FC Sud Tirol is now exclusively used. Whether this has added greater enthusiasm for the club from the German speaking world in Bozen and beyond remains to be seen. At this particular encounter when we were in town for joust with Rimini, on a glorious sunny winter’s day, a mere 700 turned up!  

Once upon a time Bolzano had no professional football team, and while FC Sud Tirol lead the way, AC Virtus Bolzano, perhaps a more Italianesque club are just one step behind them in Serie D now, and might explain the dropping of Alto Adige at FC Sud Tirol.

The construction of a Serie B standard ground ahead of being promoted is perhaps a very German attitude! Presently the ground has a 2,500 capacity, having lost 1,000 in reconstruction, but 5,000 is the required standard for the next level, and this or beyond that number will be the aim of the present significant work. In general, Italian clubs seem happy to get the promotion firmed up before worrying about the venue! This can sometimes be a hindrance with AC Mestre’s need to play some distance away at Portogruaro (64 km), which was more to do with a fear of playing across the lagoon in Venice and being swallowed up again! However, with the rent, the lack of fans etc this situation merely saw them go bust anyway! Carpi needed to move to nearby Modena when they were in Serie A, but now have a Serie B standard ground, albeit in C now!. Little Sassuolo moved into Reggio Emilia, and became so successful they bought the stadium! This season, Pordenone, who came out of FC Sud Tirol’s division last season are needing to play in Udine, a considerable distance away (55kms),  as they are another club with a cycling velodrome round their own pitch making reconstruction tricky, and while they are doubtlessly a well organised team, protracted periods asking fans to travel is asking for trouble, especially in a country where ground hopping or even crossing the road to watch another team is largely an alien concept!      

A moment of good fortune welcomed us to the Druso Stadium! I had forgotten to tell Tania to bring her passport, and while I had bought the tickets online, I was amazed that the vague wafting of my passport under both tickets was enough to get us through the solitary ticket check! Ordinarily the details are poured over before entry is granted! The entrance takes you straight to the sole club bar/cafe/club shop, where German is the language of choice. I had arranged central main stand seats as a gentle introduction to calcio for Tania. It was very much to her liking as the seats had cushions, a welcome soft seat on a cooling day as the sun fell below mountains. 

The visitors Rimini were bottom of the table and in need of a win. The hardy 20 or so who had travelled north from the southern reaches of coastal Emilia-Romagna were in fine voice, getting in a round of “Italia, Italia” in just as Padova’s considerably larger throng had at Triestina! I had seen Rimini twice before, a 1-0 win at Mantova and a commendable 0-0 at the Bentegodi versus Hellas Verona, albeit a result that knocked them out of the Serie C play offs that season. In this encounter they were immediately in trouble, let Tania take up the story; “When the game started it was obvious Sud Tirol were so superior. Rimini had no cohesion in their play, and two goals in the first six minutes was a spectacular introduction to football for me. It was going to be a long day for Rimini. The view from the stand was stunning and it was a nice crowd, a quiet atmosphere, overall I enjoyed the experience”.

Indeed, Rimini were blown away, but what surprised me of a Tyrolean pitch in January was the dust coming out when the ball bounced, and the horrendously uneven bounce! It shows how dry the winter had been, but a slight watering of the field might have helped the play. That said, Sud Tirol are used to their surface and they took full advantage racing into the two goal lead. It could have been more before Rimini settled and gradually they started to be a nuisance, halving the lead by the break was a welcome event for those of us showing Riminense sympathies! Tania and I enjoyed a wonderful holiday there last June, and both being Italophiles, our support was pinned on the visitors, quietly of course in a quiet crowd! New clubs lack the deep rooted fan traditions, with a small gaggle of “ultras” trying to make some noise at the far end of the stand for Sud Tirol. Interestingly their repertoire of songs was strictly from the Italian song book! 

Sud Tirol came out after the break in a hurry, and very quickly they’d re-established their two goal lead. Rimini’s resistance never floundered, and their spirited play was a glimpse of light that they might get off the bottom of the league and avoid relegation by the seasons end, and with a morsel more composure they might have scored one or two more, but Sud Tirol could have also scored a few more. It was an open and entertaining match, but only one more goal was scored leaving a 4-1 home win, a well deserved three points were staying in Bolzano, enough to keep them in the top five, but Vicenza and Reggiana are looking likely to contest the sole automatic promotion slot.

We made a quick exit as the train south back was just thirty minutes after the finish. It was dark all the way, but a wonderful meal sat outside under a heater in the sumptuous Piazza Delle Erbe in Verona awaited, as we reflected on our Tyrolean day, acting as a fine end to a cracking day. Bolzano takes a little getting used to from an Italian arrival point, but if you are headed south from Germany or Austria, it’ll feel just like home!       

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