arise, winged lions!

words: peter macia

photography: alessandro simonetti


Venice is a city sealed in a realm of the senses. It is the biblical hues of Titian and Tintoretto and the sweeping drama of Vivaldi’s heavenly strings. It is hot polpette steaming when fork-split and chilled prosecco skipping across the tongue. Even now, as the old city struggles to stay afloat, its presumed demise is less cautionary tale than epic romance. As noted admirer and frequent visitor Henry James once wrote, Venice is the “orange gem resting on a blue glass plate,” and even history’s most reckless raging bulls were loath to upset this delicacy. It has survived Attila the Hun, Charlemagne, Napoleon, and modern world wars to become the very picture of classic Italy, an eternal little island in the sun where all the beauty of life is protected by unpredictable tides. But this picture is relatively modern. After spending nearly a thousand years as a small trading outpost (it was settled by mainland war refugees in the 5th century), Venice emerged from the sea as the hub between east and west, becoming a platform for wealthy oligarchs to showcase their god-blessed position on earth. During the Renaissance, roughly between 1400 and 1600, their accumulation of wealth reached its zenith, and these men spared no expense in letting everyone know, hiring the region’s most gifted artists and architects to turn Venice into the physical embodiment of their good fortune.

This, of course, did not last. Almost as soon as trade had appeared to guild the city, Venice lost its status as the fulcrum of between empires. Alternative trade routes and the final end of Roman Empire dispersed Venetian wealth to the mainland. Italian money concentrated in the modern industrial and financial centers in Rome, Milan, Turin, Naples, and Florence, and Italy sought to exploit the resources of foreign soils through colonization. The men who controlled this flow of wealth began to patronize a new and more populist art form in order to appease the lower classes and impress their peers. Great stadiums took the place of the palazzos and basilicas as places where dignitaries and common folk alike could marvel at their art collections. The painters, architects and composers of old became strikers, playmakers, and especially in Italy, defenders. The Agnellis, Morattis, and Berlusconis spent their fortunes commissioning the great works of Ronaldo, Zlatan, Maradona, and Zidane, among others, and set out to impress and conquer the rest of Europe. In the late period of this epoch, Italian clubs appeared in the final of the Champions League, or its predecessor, the European Cup, an astounding 27 times in 60 years, winning a dozen of those finals. Italy, as it had been 500 years before, was once again a power, and its art the envy of the world.

Italy except for Venice, that is. All this time, Venetian football languished while clubs up and down the mainland shared the spoils of the top division. From Piemonte to Campania, 16 different clubs have won the league over the years. Even Cagliari of Sardinia and Verona in Veneto, across the lagoon from Venice, managed one apiece. Over a century of associated football brought Venetians exactly one title, the Coppa Italia (Italy’s domestic cup competition) in 1941, an affair which was likely subdued by il Duce Mussolini’s recent decision to send hundreds of thousands of young Italian men to fight in southern Europe and northern Africa under Nazi command.

The follies of powerful men continued to plague Venetian football in the post-war years as the local club changed hands and names multiple times, culminating in a nearly disastrous stretch between 2002, when the club was last relegated from Serie A, and 2015, when the third bankruptcy in a dozen years resulted in demotion to Italian football’s fourth division.

Heartbroken and disillusioned, supporters fled in droves. In 2014, its average attendance dipped to just 5,000, and the latest of its self-proclaimed saviors jumped ship. In a country and league where a club’s status directly reflects and affects its owner’s status and power, Venezia became a risk most investors were unwilling to take.

Joe Tacopina is not most people. “I want Venezia to win a Scudetto,” Tacopina says, referring to the badge worn by Serie A’s champions. He is sitting in his 24th floor office on Manhattan’s Madison Avenue, surrounded by framed news articles touting his victories in some of New York City’s most notorious legal cases, and his statement sounds like just the kind of over-the-top opening salvo he might employ when the evidence is mounted against him. Since 2015, Tacopina has flown from New York City to Venice every few weeks, juggling his duties as a high-profile defense attorney and owner of Venezia F.C., the latest iteration of Venetian club football. Tacopina has become famous in New York City as someone does not mince words or ambition. “I would like to be in a position where we have a shot to win the Italian championship.”

Tacopina decided he would buy an Italian football club while attending his first Italian football match in 2004. For most of his life, he had watched his Italian immigrant father Cosmo suffer (“Win or lose, he always seemed to suffer”) through A.S. Roma’s matches in front of the family TV in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. Suddenly, at the invitation of a friend, he found himself sitting in Roma’s Stadio Olimpico. It was his first game since a childhood visit to the Meadowlands in the late-1970s to see Pelé play for the New York Cosmos. The experience was a revelation, but not because of the team’s play. What inspired Tacopina was the stark contrast in quality between the 40,000 supporters and the stadium itself. “I couldn't understand the juxtaposition between that passion, that intensity, and then everything else around it, which was defective and broken,” Tacopina says. “I didn't know why everyone was sitting on newspapers, and I looked around and I realized, 'cause there's bird shit on the seats and no one cleans it off.” At halftime, he discovered further shambles. The scoreboard was broken, the two concession stands were swamped, and there was nowhere to impulsively buy Roma merch for his five children. When Tacopina got back to his seat, he began writing a letter to the proper authorities.

“My buddy at the Italian [football] federation said, ‘That's really nice, Joe. They’re gonna take that and throw it in the garbage pail. Why don't you do yourself a favor? You want to change Italian football? Buy a team.’”

It is not difficult to imagine why many wealthy men actually get into the business of owning sports teams nowadays. Yes, it can be lucrative, and especially in Italy, it can make one incredibly powerful. But to be a hero, to be held aloft like those who score the goals, is like buying a second chance at life.

This appears to have driven Tacopina’s efforts at Venezia. He is no longer just an investor or brand builder, but a patron of a neglected corner of Venice’s artful pride and joy. He has made massive and swift changes to the club on the administrative and marketing levels, but more importantly, he is rebuilding the supporters’ trust. This is the most un-American aspect of world football: clubs are institutions with deep ties to the surrounding societies, in many cases having grown out of local businesses or labor unions over a century ago. Generations upon generations support these clubs, and foreign, or even domestic, owners often fail to appreciate this emotional and social investment. Not Tacopina.

“If you appreciate that, that you own something that's so important to that community, and treat it like it is the community's, and that you're just the honored custodian, then I think you're off to a good start. … I mean, yeah, I'm the one who puts the money in, I'm the guy who makes the decisions, but I appreciate that Venezia Football Club is going to be there long after I'm gone.”

In Tacopina’s first season in Venice, Venezia romped through the fourth division and spent most of the 2016-17 season at the top of Lega Pro, Italy’s third tier. In both of these leagues, Tacopina’s money has gone a long way quickly. He has invested heavily in players and backroom staff, and Venezia are playing a style designed to endear them to both Venetians and the tourists who often make up half the attendance. This is not the classic catenaccio (or “door-bolt”) that so many Italian sides have used to shut down the opposition to great effect, but a high-scoring, high-flying 4-3-3 orchestrated by manager Filippo Inzaghi, one of Italy’s greatest-ever attacking players.

Hiring Inzaghi has been one of Tacopina’s biggest coups at Venezia, and an early validation of his vision. During Inzaghi’s playing days with Juventus and Milan, he was a defender’s nightmare, the type of striker who scored by walking the offside line like a tightrope and jumped into dangerous positions as if he were taking a bullet for his mother. His highlight reels are less about technical skill than a seemingly supernatural ability to complete an exquisite team move by having the ball bounce off his body and into the back of the net. With Inzaghi on the pitch, his teammates knew that they just needed to get the ball near the goal, and they would end up chasing Inzaghi to the corner flag for hugs and kisses. He was a winner, plain and simple.

“I'm as enthusiastic today as I was on my first day at school,” Inzaghi said on the day he was announced as manager of Venezia F.C. “This is Serie A to me. The league we are in doesn't make a difference, and neither does money. Otherwise I would have gone somewhere else. We've got a president who has Champions League caliber." Inzaghi’s enthusiasm and confidence have been crucial as his team navigate the uncharted waters of promotion. Many of the players have experience in Serie A and B and were brought in by veteran sporting director, Giorgio Perinetti, but climbing up from the bottom requires something closer to religious devotion than simply showing up to play. Venezia must win if they are to fulfill the dreams Tacopina has woven. Every match, every point is a brick in the promised youth academy or the new stadium, to be built from local Murano glass, that will provide thousands of jobs for Venetians.

On Saturday, April 15, 2017, Venezia welcomed Fano to their current home, the elegantly dilapidated Stadio Pierluigi Penzo, built in 1913 on the island’s western tip. The stands were packed with supporters in black, orange, and green, singing and chanting until their lungs give out. In the 39th minute, Marcello Falzerano, a 26-year-old journeyman from Pagani, burst down the right wing and whipped a cross into Fano’s goal mouth. Promising young striker, Stefano Moreo of Milan, cushioned the ball with his right foot and swung at it again as fell backward, tucking it into the bottom left corner. It was awkward but effective. Inzaghi must have wiped away a tear.

Fano equalized in the 58th, but Venezia were able to hold on for the point. It was all they needed. After what seemed like eternity, they were back in Serie B and one step closer to Tacopina’s outlandish hopes.

Everyone who sacrificed to take part in Venezia’s future will enjoy this victory for a long while, but they will also know that the next challenge will be their biggest yet. Inzaghi, Perinetti, the players and staff, and of course, Joe Tacopina will have to get ready for a fight against clubs with equal resources. But more importantly, he will have to prove that he is truly in it for the people and not just another rich guy who leaves Venice with nothing but a memory of his vanity.

“To me, courage is the commitment to do something that doesn't give you the guarantee of success,” Tacopina says. “What I wouldn't trade growing up in Brooklyn for the world for, is the grit that it provided me with. The grit, and the mental and physical toughness, quite frankly, that it provided me with, where I'm not afraid of anything or anybody. And, there are challenges that people have said I'm crazy to take on, but it's not about crazy. It's about having the courage to say, ‘Okay, to do something special, you have to take a chance. You have to do something that's not been done before.’” Tacopina have now taken a chance and done something special. Only time will tell if they can make history.