Watching Football in Venice
Words and photos by Charlie Teasdale
Illustration by John Molesworth
In hindsight, late August might have been the worst possible time to visit Venice. There’s the heat, which is monumental, and all the people, who never seem to get to where they’re going, just wandering the streets, gawping at the splendour, adrift in the belly of the city. And as Autumn looms the Venice air hangs heavy – a city slow roasted by the summer. The Grand Canal burbles, the gondoliers’ warble can take on a maudlin tone. I had to get to the edge of it all, to the Stadio Pier Luigi Penzo.
Venezia FC have played in the unassuming, 12,000-capacity stadium perched on the Eastern edge of the city, for over a Century and under various names (the best being ‘SS Serenissima’). You most likely didn’t know there was high-level football in Venice until about a year or so ago, when the club suddenly broke into the global style stratosphere with its collection of intentionally throwback kits.
Under new-ish American ownership, Venezia FC made the decision to lean into the burgeoning clamour for retro football shirts, the Nineties and sporting nostalgia, and nailed it. Long sleeves, Kappa sponsorship, button-collars – the works. In no time at all, they went from an under-the-radar (if not glamorously located) Italian team to the ‘coolest’ club in world football (with a campaign photographed by friend of Drake's Chris Kontos).
In town for the first game of the season - a grudge match against Genoa, a fellow relegatee from Italy’s Serie A the season before - I asked where people congregated before games and was told to head to for the Via Giuseppe Garibaldi.
The walk from Piazza San Marco isn’t long, 30 minutes maybe. But as you move along the water’s edge, the aged boggle of Venice melts away and something more recognisable emerges. Public parks, apartment buildings, mini supermarkets… An ancient, roadless, waterlogged city is hard to compute. But a wide, sun-dappled avenue filled with football fans? That I can understand. Brought up on Channel 4’s Football Italia, I was hoping to find a churning sea of ultras chanting in unison, the crack and hiss of flares ricocheting on osteria walls. But I was met with calm. Even the waiting riot police were at ease, helmets off, smoking in the low evening sun.
Outside the ground, a queue of Venezia fans gradually lengthened from a kiosk selling tickets while the noise of the Genoa faithful rumbled within. Italy’s oldest football team; an army waiting just over the hill. They had been let in early to avoid any clashes, I assume, and they were in full voice to an almost empty stadium.
When I got in, I found a few men chatting over espresso from the kiosk, others eating panino coppa, and a main stand gradually filling with families as Talking Heads rang through the PA system. The sun was setting as Genoa’s first flare sparked on the far side of the pitch — a bouncing mass of red and white occupying an entire corner of the stands. (Genoa was originally established by Englishmen in 1893 as a means of promoting the country abroad, hence their colours. The club’s movement into football is credited to Dr James Richardson Spensley, a Stoke Newington-born man known as the ‘father of Italian football’.)
Venezia’s own ultras arrived shortly before kick-off, and the game began. The home side resplendent in its ‘anrancioneroverde’ colours. A kit sent from history to save us from banality. The interweaving of fashion and football has never been as tight, both in terms of the rise of retro kits and big fashion's intermingling with the game. But Venezia’s kits are genuinely brilliant. Something between Italia ‘90 and Palace.
It was a cagey affair, set to the call and response of the two sets of fans. Their drums never wavered, their chanting unbroken. Flags perma-scything through the air, bare chested men screaming, gyrating; almost manic. Just one goal to discuss at half time, a well taken Genoa counterattack.
The equalizer came in the 68th minute, only for Genoa to pull ahead again in the closing stages. Venezia pegged them back to 2-2 with a last-minute goalmouth scramble, and the home dugout erupted onto the pitch, arms aloft in those swooping runs only celebrating subs seem to offer. Then a lengthy VAR deliberation, and disaster. Offside. Genoa, in truth, had won the sing-off, and they won the game, too.
Afterwards, in the Parco delle Rimembranze, a curved strip of grass dotted with tall pine trees shielding the stadium from the rest of the city, the gloomy murmur of defeat drifted in the warm evening. Gripes about the goal that never was, aspirations for next week’s game at FC Sudtirol near the Austrian border. (A game Venezia would win 1-2.)
The deflated crowd moved together with people peeling off until I was almost alone. Back at the Piazza San Marco, street vendors tossed those glow-in-the-dark toys high into the dark sky, couples wandered giddily among the pillars of the Palazzo Ducale and men in suits made a beeline for Harry’s Bar. Everyone here had been at the spritz, drunk on the sun and majesty of the city. Blissfully unaware that football had been happening just a few minutes away.
Charlie Teasdale is the Style Director at Esquire.