Published On: Thu, Mar 21st, 2013

Cagliari, Cellino and the Is Arenas Debacle

Fraud, embezzlement, shady construction, intimidation, political corruption. It all sounds like the elements of a plot devised by the famous Italian crime novelist Leonardo Sciascia; however, instead of revolving around the Sicilian Mafia, the main protagonist is a Sardinian businessman who happens to own a football club.

It has been a goal of Cagliari president Massimo Cellino’s to get his club into a new stadium and out of the rundown Stadio Sant’Elia. Built in 1970 on the heels of Cagliari’s lone scudetto, it underwent a major renovation in the buildup to the 1990 World Cup, reducing the capacity from 60,000 to 39,905. Ten years later, the Sant’Elia underwent a second major renovation, this time constructing stands between the end of the goals and the original terraces, which were separated by an athletics track. As a result, the capacity went down to 23,486.

In 2007, Cellino drew up plans for a new stadium, tentatively named the Karalis Arena. At first, the city council and mayor were interested in his plan, because of its potential to be used as a host stadium in Italy’s bid to host the 2016 European Championships. However, when Italy lost out  to France, resistance started to build.

The original plan was to build the new stadium close to the city’s airport, but the plan was met with much resistance from the local aviation club. The city council also baulked at Cellino’s plans even though he assured the local government that the construction of the stadium would be privately financed. Nevertheless, Cellino is still holding onto his plans to build the stadium he always wanted for his club.

Flash forward to the end of the 2011-12 season. Cellino, as a means of protest, declared that the club would never play in the dilapidated Sant’Elia again and Cagliari played its remaining home matches in the Stadio Nereo Rocco in Trieste; 1,076 km away from their home ground. Understanding the impracticality of doing this for an entire season, Cellino scoured the Cagliari suburbs, searching for a temporary home for his team.

He found a suitor in the form of Mauro Contini, mayor of Quartu Sant’Elena, a suburb of the Sardinian capital. Contini and the city council agreed to the renovation of the Stadio Is Arenas for use by Cagliari for the upcoming season. Initially consisting of only one main tribune, temporary stands were put up around the entirety of the pitch, increasing the capacity to 16,500. From the outside, the stadium looked clean and intimate with the steel stands placed close to the pitch. All in all, very modern looking.

Then the problems set in. Although the renovations of the Is Arenas were complete, the club’s home opener against Atalanta was originally set to be played in Trieste, but at the last minute it was decided that the club would play in Quartu Sant’Elena, albeit behind closed doors due to safety concerns.

Even the local branch of the World Wildlife Fund objected to the new stadium, claiming that the lights and noise emanating from a full stadium would disturb the wildlife in the nearby Moletargius Regional Park.

By the time Cagliari’s next home match rolled around versus Roma, the stadium situation still had not changed. The local council declared that the stadium still did not meet the safety standards necessary to allow spectators, and as a result, the match was to be played behind closed doors as per the FIGC.

In a truly bizarre twist, Cellino urged supporters to show up at the stadium anyway in spite of the ruling. Local authorities were forced to call off the match, and the FIGC, in response to Cellino’s act of protest, awarded Roma a 3-0 win. Cellino duly protested the ruling, stating that by encouraging supporters to go to the stadium, he averted ” a situation where only the ultras turned up and thought of the idea that season ticket holders could also get in.”

The problems continued. Yes, the stadium is now  ready for spectators, no, it did not pass inspection, yes it’s ready for spectators but not in the main tribune. This exchange has become a theme for the Sardinians this season. For the players, it is an unsettling situation, not knowing when or if your match might be cancelled or played behind closed doors; the Sardinians own the fourth worst home record in the league, collecting 19 points from 14 matches.

Things went from bad to worse when on February 14, Cellino, Contini, and the Commissioner for Public Works Stefano Lilliu were arrested on charges of fraud and embezzlement. Investigators allege that Cellino diverted funds from other projects, intimidated city officials, and purposely deceived the council members over the construction plans. Cellino listed the stands as a temporary rather than permanent structure in order to bypass permission from the city council to commence building. The drama did not stop there, as after Cellino’s arrest over the Is Arenas scandal, L’Unione Sarda reported that the local prosecutor also wanted to investigate Cellino’s purchase of property in Santa Caterina di Elmas, the proposed location for the Karalis Arena.

The most surprising element in all this is the massive amount of support Cellino has received from supporters, players and club officials. Fans stayed outside the prison where Cellino was held, shouting slogans in support of their imprisoned president. After the club’s 2-0 win away to Pescara three days after the 56-year-old’s arrest, midfielder Radja Nainggolan tweeted a photo of him and his teammates holding a sign in support of Cellino. More recently, the entire Cagliari board resigned in protest over the closing of the Is Arenas to the public for their upcoming match versus Sampdoria, a match in which they won 3-1.

Despite the rumours of the Is Arenas being knocked down, Cagliari still hope to continue playing their home matches there until Cellino’s dream stadium can be built. The Islolani’s next home match is March 30 against Fiorentina, and it is likely that the match will once again be played behind closed doors barring an Easter miracle.

Follow Frank Lopapa on Twitter: @fnlopapa VIP Lounge