Vol. 5 Num 994 Sun. March 18, 2007  

Bari searching a saviour

Barman Michele Lo Russo had more on his mind than the Italy-Russia business summit taking place in his native city this week.

He was just desperate for a rich Russian visiting the city for the summit to buy his ill-starred local football club and rescue it from a downward plunge in Italy's football league.

"Football makes us sick here. The team needs money," said the 43-year-old, as he swept a marble counter at the Di Savoia cafe in Bari on a chilly morning in this southern Italian city.

The Bari team has failed to win a single one of its last 11 games and sport columnists warn that the club is now verging on relegation to Italy's third division.

At its last 2-0 thrashing by Cesena on Tuesday, the San Nicola stadium in Bari was virtually empty. Fans booed after the game, players argued and the coach apologised for the team's performance.

"Bari Disaster," ran a headline on Wednesday in the Gazzetta del Mezzogiorno, a regional daily newspaper for southern Italy. "Unwilling and empty, Bari melted at the first hurdle," Gazzetta said.

During the game, fans unfurled a banner in garbled Russian that appealed to Russian businessmen visiting their city for the summit to buy the club.

Many here look to Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, owner of Chelsea football club, as a potential saviour.

"That guy, he really understands football. If he came, I'm sure he would make a difference for us," Lo Russo said.

Italian newspapers reported earlier in March that a representative for Abramovich met with Bari boss Antonio Matarrese several months ago to discuss a potential purchase for "tens of millions of euros."

Even the city's mayor, Michele Emiliano, has got involved in the dispute in a city where many follow football passionately but cannot bear to watch their team lose again and again.

"In the light of the economic vitality of Russian entrepreneurs it could be interesting to check on their possible interest in buying Bari," Emiliano was quoted by Bari Live, a news website, as saying ahead of the summit.

In his comments, Emiliano even appealed to Bari's credentials as a city with Russian links because it is believed to hold the remains of Saint Nicholas, who is deeply revered by Catholics and Russian Orthodox.

The purchase of the club by a Russian "would further reinforce relations with Bari, which already feels itself the most Russian city in Italy," Emiliano was quoted as saying.

Sergio Fanelli, a local councillor in this port city of some 300,000 people and a diehard Bari fan, wrote an open letter to Emiliano last week to bring the point home.

Fanelli said that the team's performance was becoming ever more "indecorous" and complained that good games for Bari were a thing of the past. "There haven't been any in years."

Overcoming old Italian stereotypes about Russians is all part of the deal for Fanelli, who looks at the Moscow arrivals with admiration. "They're not communists, they don't eat babies any more and they have lots of rubles."