Venezia and the tornado

An article published at In Bed With Maradona explaining how FBC Unione Venezia’s plans for a return to Italy’s professional leagues were disrupted by storm damage to their unique ground.

Unione Venezia were preparing for a return to professional football when the tornado struck. Venezia’s ground, the Stadio Pierluigi Penzo, is a jewel of Italian football, located on the idyllic island of Sant’Elena at the eastern tip of the main Venetian archipelago. Surrounded by water and accessible by vaparetto waterbus, football fans might regard the Penzo as a truly romantic vision of Venice, in contrast to the tourist trappings of nearby St Mark’s Square.

Newly promoted to Lega Pro 2 (formerly Serie C2), the club was undertaking minor works to bring the 10,000-capacity Penzo up to the standards required by the league, including replacing a few missing seats, checking the lighting, and installing CCTV and Wi-Fi. Then, at around 11am on 12 June, the skies over the Venetian lagoon turned black.

Until recently, ‘the Lagunari’ were regular competitors in Italy’s top two divisions. Their downfall began in 2002, when the club was relegated from Serie A having won only three matches all season. Implication in the Casa Genoa match-fixing scandal and subsequent financial problems saw the club dissolved and reformed twice, each time suffering a two-division relegation, eventually ending up in Serie D, Italy’s fifth tier, and the top level of non-professional football.

Things began to improve for Venezia following the arrival of a Russian consortium led by Yuri Korablin in February 2011. The former mayor of Khimki and his partners spoke of a return to Serie A, and outlined plans for a new €100 million stadium on the mainland. The Penzo, the Lagunari’s home since 1907, is beloved of local fans and daytrippers, with tourists making up a good proportion of Venezia’s matchday crowd. To take Venezia out of Venice seemed unthinkable. But the plans were forgotten amid a flush of success, as the club finished second in its regional gironi in 2011, and then won the overall Scudetto Dilettanti in 2012, securing promotion back to Lega Pro.

Tornados are not unheard of in Venice – the region experiences an average of four every year. This one, however, was unusually severe. Tourists standing at the relative safety of St Mark’s waterfront filmed the violent funnel cloud as it advanced across the lagoon. It passed directly over Sant’Elena, flinging boats in the air, uprooting trees, tearing the roof off a vaparetto ticket office and damaging the island’s ancient church. 36 boats were destroyed and one man was treated for head injuries, but, incredibly, there were no fatalities.

At the Penzo, a falling tree smashed the boundary wall of the south stand, and a perimeter fence was flattened. The entrances to the stand suffered severe damage. More than 1,000 seats were ripped out. Benches and barriers were uprooted, windows were smashed, and the electrical system was damaged. Club officials announced that the Penzo was ‘unusable’. This was eight days before Venezia were required to submit evidence to Lega Pro regarding the suitability of the ground. The club immediately took steps to request the use of the Stadio Mecchia in Portogruaro, 80km away on the mainland.

Arriving at Sant’Elena’s vaporetto stop, the first thing you see, past the ticket office and its prostrate roof, is a small monument: ‘To the victims of the tornado, 11 September 1970.’ On that night, Venice’s worst tornado killed 36 people, including 21 who drowned in a capsized vaporetto at Sant’Elena. Today, 48 hours after the latest tornado strike, part of the local park is fenced off where trees have been uprooted, and a handful of narrow streets have barriers across them due to dangers from damaged roofs.

At the Penzo itself, the damaged entrances have been boarded up, and municipal workers are removing the fallen tree that has crashed through the south stand wall. Gaps in seating can be seen over the perimeter wall. Surprisingly, all four floodlights have survived. The damaged boats that were stacked up in front of the stadium in the immediate aftermath of the tornado have been removed. The clean-up is happening remarkably quickly – so quickly that the club hopes to abandon its plan to move to Portogruaro.

‘There is enormous damage, and lots of work to do,’ said Venezia’s director general Oreste Cinquini, ‘I saw that some workers have already started to fix the wall that has partially collapsed. This speed is comforting. We will work through the summer. I believe, however, that we can play the first home game of next season at the Penzo.’

At a meeting on 20 June, the city council agreed to repair the damage caused to the Penzo by the tornado, with the club set to resume the improvement work required by Lega Pro. A deadline was set for 31 July. If the work is completed on time, professional football will return to Venice, and the Penzo, and a piece of football romanticism will have been saved.

The photos on this page were taken by the author approximately 48 hours after the tornado strike:

Stadio Pierluigi Penzo, Venezia 2

Stadio Pierluigi Penzo, Venezia 3

See also: video of the tornado from Venezia Today (scroll down page), and images showing aftermath around the Penzo from Corriere Del Veneto.

[UPDATE: Venezia finally received approval to resume playing at the Penzo on 7 September. Two days later they played their first match back at their home ground – and lost 1-0 to Castiglione. Thanks to Biffa for the photo below.]

Penzo Reopened

Published by Paul Brown

Writes about football, history, true adventure. The Guardian, Four Four Two, When Saturday Comes, The Blizzard, Longreads, Deadspin, etc. Latest book: The Ruhleben Football Association. Twitter: @paulbrownUK