No team from the island has ever won a major trophy, with the Italian game dominated by clubs from the more affluent northern half of the country, and Sicily has produced few players of international significance, aside from 1982 World Cup winner Claudio Gentile and 1990 golden boot Toto Schillaci. But there is still an almost volcanic fervour for football there, and especially in Catania, which makes perfect sense: the ancient port city sits in the shadows of Mount Etna, whose eruptions can be seen from the crumbling Stadio Angelo Massimino, their home ground.
So far, so good for the three Aussies who have taken on the gargantuan task of rebuilding this club back to full health, essentially from scratch. The other is Socceroos legend Mark Bresciano, a former Palermo player who introduced his old teammate Grella to Pelligra, a third-generation property developer who has invested hundreds of millions into projects across Melbourne, Adelaide and the Gold Coast.
They were all sitting together watching a match back at home, which Grella was scouting for talent, when the conversation turned to Palermo’s recent takeover by the City Football Group, and then to the plight of Calcio Catania, which had dropped from its heyday in Italy’s top league to Serie C after consecutive relegations, ongoing financial issues and admissions of match-fixing by their former owner, who was arrested.
Eventually, the club was dissolved and permitted to start over this season in the semi-professional obscurity of Serie D, which is actually made up of nine different regionalised leagues and more than 170 teams. Pelligra won a tender process run by the local council to take charge of the ‘new’ club, now known as Catania SSD. He appointed Grella as his chief executive, and is taking advice from Bresciano, one of Pelligra’s business partners, who may yet join them in an official role once his term expires on the Football Australia board.
The ultimate goal is to take them back to where they belong: Serie A, where they played between 2006 and 2014.
“They were down at the bottom of the barrel,” Grella said. “Then comes along three Aussie guys. Everything’s going in the right direction, but I think the key is that the club has a direction to follow. The people are seeing an opportunity to have longer-term, sustainable success.
“With the City Football Group at Palermo, you’ve got two big, big, players here now, who can redevelop and reshape football in one of the most beautiful regions of Italy.”
For Pelligra, who has been fated as a hero on each of his trips back to Catania, this is a deeply personal venture. His mother and grandfather were both born in a small town near Taormina, one of Sicily’s biggest tourist hotspots and the setting for the second season of The White Lotus. It’s a 45-minute drive north of Catania.
“That’s my bloodline,” Pelligra said.
“It had an emotional attachment, but I don’t like having trophies that don’t perform. For me, it was about a team that could be a legend again. Sicily’s got something special, with a lot of the players there. The only problem is they’re rough diamonds that never get an opportunity to play.
“We went and looked into it, I sent my guys up there to do the [due diligence], they rang me back and said, ‘This is clean. You’re starting pretty much from scratch, you can set the team up the way you want it, Ross. You’re not inheriting anything that’s going to cause you any issues. And you’ve got a big fanbase.’
“I knew the club, but I had forgotten how strong the fanbase was. I’ve got to be honest, the night I went to the stadium and I met the fans … it was just joy, overwhelming being there and seeing that everyone was so excited and passionate about the fact that an Australian owner with Italian roots, from Sicily, had come back to support them.”
Club ownership is increasingly the domain of cashed-up American tycoons and state-owned investment funds, but Pelligra is part of a growing number of Aussies who have taken ownership stakes in smaller, less famous foreign clubs. Clem Morfuni, who turned his Sydney plumbing business into multinational services company Axis, took over English League Two side Swindon Town two years ago and has been credited with revitalising the team and the town. Billionaire Peter Lowy bought a stake in Leeds United, the team he has followed his whole life, in late 2021. The late Metricon founder Mario Biasin, together with Melbourne Victory chairman Anthony Di Pietro, once purchased Triestina, in north-eastern Italy. And until only recently, alleged fraudster Bill Papas was the owner of Greek second-tier outfit Xanthi FC, and was convincing enough to lure Tony Popovic as coach until it later emerged he had purchased the club with stolen money.
This isn’t Pelligra’s first step into the world of sport: he’s also bought the basketball team in Varese, in Italy’s north, as well as the WNBL and Australian Baseball League teams (and the stadium where the NBL’s 36ers play) in Adelaide, where he has been dubbed the city’s ‘development king’.
Sources say he is also close to finally completing a deal to buy Adelaide United together with a local businessman, which could see the Reds become Catania’s sister club. Those who know Pelligra best believe he could have a huge influence on the beleaguered A-Leagues through his sheer ambition, willpower and wealth.
After 20 games (at time of writing), Catania sit 14 points clear on top of the table in their Serie D group, and look bound for immediate promotion. A bit like when Juventus were briefly relegated to Serie B in 2006, their crowds are absurdly oversized for the division they’re in – and point to the lofty expectations of the community, who still think of them as a Serie A club in exile, and which Grella has to carefully manage.
He reckons Pelligra has the “courage of a lion” for taking this challenge on, but knows the turbulent nature of Italian football too well to get carried away with how well they’ve started, because trouble could always be lurking around the corner.
“I told him before we took over the club, his life in this city will dramatically change. Especially if you win. He’ll be like a god here,” Grella said.
“Ross gets stopped in the street, he gets stopped at the restaurants, he gets stopped at the airport … I keep them all at arm’s distance, because I know, I’ve lived in Italy for a long time, I know the way they are. I’m sort of like the bad cop, he’s the good cop.
“If things go the way we think, then mate, he won’t be able to walk the streets.”
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