Alessandria turning heads in Italy with Cup run

Alessandria forward Antimo Iunco, left, battles for the ball with Andrea Rispoli of Palermo during a recent Coppa Italia match. (Tullio M. Puglia/Getty)

Club name: Unione Sportiva Alessandria Calcio 1912 (Alessandria for short)
Founded: 1912 (reformed in 2003)
Team nickname: I Grigi (The Greys)
Based in: The city of Alessandria in the Piedmont region of northern Italy; about 90 kilometres south of Turin
Compete in: Lega Pro Girone A (Italy’s third division)


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Why is Alessandria in the news?
Having already eliminated Serie A clubs Palermo and Genoa, Alessandria bested second-division side Spezia earlier this week in the quarterfinals of the Coppa Italia, the Italian equivalent of the FA Cup.

In doing so, Alessandria became the first third-tier outfit to reach the semifinals of the Italian Cup since Bari in 1984.

Alessandria’s opponent in the two-legged semifinals will be AC Milan. The opener is slated for Jan 26. Milan will host the return match on March 1.

This is a special achievement because
The English media nauseatingly prattles on about the “romance” and the “magic” of the FA Cup, but what’s going on in Italy is a genuine cup fairytale.

The Coppa Italia doesn’t lend itself to many upsets or miracle runs by small teams, mostly because of a format that heavily favours the Serie A giants in terms of home-field advantage and seedings. The top eight clubs from the previous Serie A season don’t enter the tournament until the Round of 16 (which began in January this year), while the other Serie A teams make their debut in the third round.

Alessandria, meanwhile, began its Coppa Italia campaign (along with 26 other Lega Pro clubs and nine Serie D teams) in the first round back in August.

After defeating lower-league teams Pro Vercelli and Juve Stabia, the Piemontese cub faced a daunting fourth-round fixture away to Serie A’s Palermo. Its reward for recording a massive upset at the Stadio Renzo Barbera? A Round of 16 contest away to Genoa. An extra-time win at the home of the Serie A club set the stage for a quarterfinal showdown with Serie B’s Spezia, who themselves upset topflight heavyweights AS Roma.

After beating Spezia to become the first third-division side to reach the Coppa Italia final four in more than three decades, Alessandria is on the cusp of advancing to the final for the first time in 80 years.

A brief club history
Formed in 1912, Alessandria competed in the first formal Serie A campaign, finishing eighth in 1929–30. Seven years later it was relegated to Serie B when it finished in last place. They returned to the first division after finishing second in Serie B in 1956–57, but were relegated again in 1960.

Alessandria dropped down to Serie C before returning to the second division in 1974. A year later, though, they were back in the third tier. They bounced around between Serie C and the fourth division for roughly 30 years before dropping down to the amateur leagues after declaring bankruptcy in 2003.

The club was reformed under the name Nuova Alessandria before a consortium of local businessmen rebranded the club Alessandria in 2004.

Since then, the club has competed in the fourth and third divisions, and was also relegated after former president Giogio Veltroni was found guilty for his part in a betting scandal.

Most famous alumni
Former Italian World Cup winners Luigi Bertolini, Felice Borel, Giovanni Ferrari and Pietro Rava all played for Alessandria at one point during the respective careers. Former Juventus coach Carlo Carcano and legendary playmaker Adolfo Baloncieri also spent time there.

But the most famous star to turn out for the club? That would be Gianni Rivera, widely regarded as among the best Italian players of all time. Born in the region, Rivera cut his teeth at Alessandria, making his professional debut at the club as a teenager in 1959 after coming through the team’s youth academy.

After spending part of two seasons at Alessandria, he was sold to AC Milan where the stylish playmaker became known as the “Golden Boy” of Italian soccer, and helped the rossoneri win three Serie A titles and two European Cups. He also won the Ballon d’Or in 1969 as the European player of the year.

The club’s most famous moment
Look no further than this past Monday when substitute Riccardo Bocalon scored two late goals—in the 83rd minute and in stoppage time—to lift Alessandria past Spezia and into the Coppa Italian final four.

Here are a few interesting facts
• Alessandria made it to the final in the second edition of the Coppa in 1936, before losing to Torino.
• Due to the size of Stadio Giuseppe Moccagatta—it holds 5,827 spectators—Alessandria is expected to move its home fixture against AC Milan to Turin.
• Italy’s third division is divided into three regional leagues: North (where Alessandria plays), North and Central, and South. The winner of each league earns promotion to Serie B; teams two through four in each section go into the promotion playoffs.
• Alessandria currently sits second in its league table.
• Manager Angelo Gregucci is a former defender who played for Alessandria from 1982 through 1986.

What they’re saying about Alessandria
“My boys have rewritten the history books tonight.” – Gregucci to Italian state broadcaster RAI.

Italian sports daily La Gazzetta dello Sport asked Gianni Rivera who he’ll be supporting in the Coppa Italia semifinal:

"It won't be easy because two teams that were important to me at different times will be squaring off. I hope that Milan can reach the Champions League by finishing well in the league, while I hope Alessandria can progress in the Coppa Italia. I would gladly accept that."