Italy's oldest club, where tradition meets ambition (2024)

Italy's oldest club, where tradition meets ambition (1)

Thousands of fans marched towards the Piazza De Ferrari, torches in hand, a golden griffin on a half red-half navy background illuminating the square, fireworks lighting up the skyline, another birthday well celebrated in the long and complex history of Genoa Cricket and Football Club.

As a player and in his backroom roles that have followed, Marco Ottolini has always been deeply invested in the Italian game, though it is only since joining Genoa as sporting director he has come to fully appreciate the intoxicating passion that surrounds Italy’s oldest club.

"On 7 September every year, there is a big celebration," he tells BBC Sport. “When you arrive there you understand what this club means for the people.

"There are a lot of young supporters, children and teenagers, and then you can see old men kissing each other and crying for the club. It gives you shivers!"

Genoa, founded by English expats, were one of Italian football’s early dominant forces, winning the inaugural championship and nine in total - their last Scudetto coming a century ago.

Fans have had to endure a troubled recent past, but the club brought their landmark 130th year to a close on Friday with victory over Champions League-bound Bologna that means they will finish 11th in Serie A after bouncing straight back following relegation, recording their best top-flight points tally in nine years.

Serious questions surround the American investment group who own them and a number of other clubs, 777 Partners, yet those inside Genoa are confident the Italian side's project is proving successful and sustainable.

Chief executive Andres Blazquez is targeting a return to European competition in the next two seasons for the first time since 2010.

Blazquez was brought in when 777 took over in September 2021, inheriting what he says was a “big mess” from the previous ownership, with the playing squad's wage bill costing almost double what the club were making.

The takeover was welcomed by fans, with Tobia Salvai, of the Genoa UK Supporters' Club, telling BBC Sport in September the club was previously "badly managed".

Yet Blazquez admits mistakes were made in a first year that ended in relegation to Serie B, with Andriy Shevchenko appointed manager and only lasting two months in the job, and with a one-point deduction for a missed tax payment.

"We didn’t manage to stay in Serie A but we acquired players such as Morten Frendrup and Albert Gudmundsson that are now some of the pillars of the current team,"” adds Blazquez.

"We started a clean up, putting the right people in place to rebuild the club."

Italy's oldest club, where tradition meets ambition (2)

One of those was Ottolini, who joined from Juventus in July 2022, though any ambitions of reaching Europe back then seemed far-fetched when he was met with almost 60 players on the books.

"The team manager was calling me saying 'we only have 30 seats in the dressing room, where do we put the other players?'" explains Ottolini, who was also having to placate disgruntled agents wondering why their client was not given a seat.

Ottolini set about restructuring the squad - he wanted two key players for every position, extra attacking options and "Serie B experts".

Following the dismissal of Alexander Blessin in the December, Ottolini also made the decision to appoint Alberto Gilardino as head coach - a World Cup winner and Serie A legend as a player, but someone who was coaching Genoa’s under-19 side at the time.

"I met him just to know him personally and had the impression he could have the profile for the first team," says Ottolini, who last week extended Gilardino’s deal until the end of next season.

"Not everyone was convinced, which is normal when a coach arrives from the under-19s in a crucial year, but it paid off."

Italy's oldest club, where tradition meets ambition (3)

Il Grifone were promoted in second place, lowering their wage bill in the process and maintaining the eighth-best average attendance in Italy despite being in the second tier.

"It confirmed we did things well on the sporting side and we did things well in the city and social side," adds Blazquez, who says the club would often take more fans to away games than the home side.

Promotion and Genoa's subsequent performance in Serie A this season has brought a lot of interest in what is proving to be a well-recruited squad.

Defender Radu Dragusin, who followed Ottolini from Juventus, joined Tottenham in January in a £25m deal, Iceland forward Gudmundsson is on the radar of a number of top clubs and Danish midfielder Frendrup was a reported Liverpool target, while Argentina-born striker Mateo Retegui, who arrived from Tigre last summer, is in Italy’s preliminary Euro 2024 squad.

"The sporting project is to try to make a good mix of younger talents and more ready players that can give us the spine to the team,” explains Ottolini. "We play in front of 32,000 people every week and this can create value in the younger players."

Ottolini needs targets who will buy into Genoa's footballing project but selling it as a place to live is the easy part, with the port city nestled between the Ligurian Sea and the Apennine mountain range. Locals call it "La Superba".

"When you enter the club you can really smell football, it’s in the walls," Ottolini says of Genoa's history and tradition.

"Then we speak about how nice it is to live in Genoa, by the sea, the town is beautiful. The climate is really great.

"I don’t say the food because they don’t eat too much, but also the food is nice!"

Talented midfielder Frendrup, who was drawn in by the atmosphere at Stadio Luigi Ferraris, agrees: "The club is so historical and I wanted to be a part of this journey, those things made me fall in love and want to come here.

"It is a crazy football city. You learn to live with it that football means so much to the people here. The city is also just beautiful, so it is easy to get used to!

"We have good staff and some older players who take care of the younger ones, it is a really good step for a young player like me."

Italy's oldest club, where tradition meets ambition (4)

The intention this summer is to hold on to key players, something chief executive Blazquez is confident they will do, while wanting a majority of incoming business to be completed by the time pre-season starts in July.

Genoa hope to match any on-field success by making themselves more visible to new audiences off it - there has already been an Amazon Prime documentary while singer Rita Ora modelling the golden 130-year anniversary shirt certainly helped.

There is hope they can continue to grow their profile by tapping into the club's history, their English links and those to Boca Juniors - who were founded by a group of Genoese migrants.

"We are doing more and more initiatives," says Blazquez. "Genoa as a city in the world has a very rich history and what it means to be from Genoa is not known to many people."

Meanwhile, there are plans to develop the stadium they share with rivals Sampdoria, who are currently in Serie B, to meet Uefa category four criteria so it is eligible to host games during Euro 2032, which will be staged in Italy and Turkey.

By the time that tournament comes around, the nation's oldest club will be closing in on another landmark celebration.

Fans will gather, fireworks will fly, old men will kiss and cry for the club they love.

Italy's oldest club, where tradition meets ambition (5)

Italy's oldest club, where tradition meets ambition (2024)
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