MILAN (Reuters) - Unusual in many ways, unglamorously-named SPAL will know that they have definitely hit the big time when they visit Inter Milan on Sunday for their biggest game yet since returning to Serie A after a 49-year absence.
The only team ever to have competed in Serie A using an acronym as their name, Sunday’s visit to one of Europe’s most imposing stadiums will cap a remarkable rise for SPAL who only five seasons ago were playing in the fourth tier.
It is not just the name which is unusual about the team based in Ferrara, a historical walled city of around 130,000 people situated between Bologna and Venice.
The club, full name Societa Polisportiva Ars et Labor, was founded by Salesian priests in 1907 and is one of the oldest in the country.
After being wound up and relaunched twice, mostly recently in 2013, to wipe out debts, SPAL won promotion from Serie B with an all-Italian squad, another rarity nowadays in the country.
Another small piece of history has already been made this season thanks to forward Marco Borriello, whose goal in the 3-2 win over Udinese means he has scored for a record-equalling 12 Serie A clubs.
Although little-known among the younger generations of Italian fans, SPAL were a regular fixture in Serie A during the 1950s and 1960s but fell on hard times after being relegated in 1968.
The crisis years saw SPAL languishing in the lower divisions until the turning-point in 2013 when the club was re-founded and merged with neighbours Giacomense.
Under new leadership, they quickly moved up to the third tier and things got even better after Leonardo Semplici took over as coach in December 2014, guiding them to successive promotions in 2016 and 2017 to take them back to the top flight.
Whether they can establish themselves is a different matter.
The modest Paolo Mazza stadium holds only around 13,000 people, even after being upgraded, and they spent only 4.5 million euros ($5.39 million) on transfers during the close season, compared to 86 million euros for Sunday’s opponents Inter.
But their start has been above expectations with a goalless draw away to Lazio followed by a dramatic 3-2 win over Udinese.
“Normally, we would expect to lose the three points against Inter. We know they are stronger than us but we will try to put our ideas into practice and, with humility, to make it into an enjoyable match,” said Semplici, formerly in charge of Fiorentina’s youth divisions.
“It’s especially emotional for me, who started at the bottom, to be able to face Inter coach Luciano Spalletti,” he added.
“We will go to San Siro with enthusiasm and the intention of causing an upset, because we deserve to be in this division and we want to stay here.”
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Writing by Brian Homewood, editing by Pritha Sarkar