You would not have been able to discern that Bologna are one of Serie A's historic giants on Sunday, when a dreary 2-1 home loss to Catania plunged them into the second tier, but the Emilian club's seven scudetti would suggest otherwise. So would the historic Torre di Maratona, an ornate six-story tower built in Bologna's hazy red brick, sprouting from beneath the main stand of their Stadio Renato dall'Ara. The tower was constructed to represent the spirit of competition and the strength of athletic endurance, and has long served as a glorious symbol for both the club and its stadium.
But despite various proposals to open it up to the public, the tower has been closed for more than 20 years, and its ideals have seemingly been forgotten. It's a similar story on the pitch, where the rossoblù are no longer a footballing powerhouse and are now facing an uncertain future in Italy's second tier. The grandiose stadium built for success almost a century ago will be playing host to Serie B football next season.
That isn't to say relegation has come as a surprise. Since Stefano Pioli led Bologna to their first top-half finish in a decade in 2012, things have gradually disintegrated. Key players departed and weren't adequately replaced, leaving them with a squad woefully ill-equipped for the strains of Serie A. Relegation was inevitable, and with the technical and financial implications it brings, getting back to Serie A could take a long time.
The first signs of trouble appeared perhaps with the departure of Gastón Ramírez in the summer of 2012. The young Uruguayan international earned himself a move to Premier League club Southampton after a wonderful couple of seasons in Bologna. He had built a great partnership as an attacking midfielder with Alessandro Diamanti, a late-blooming Italian playmaker who thrived in unison with the child prodigy. Diamanti earned an unlikely spot in Cesare Prandelli's Euro 2012 squad due to his his impressive performances.
Both operating behind Marco Di Vaio in Pioli's 3-4-2-1, Ramírez and Diamanti had the freedom to drift across the attacking zone, daring defenders to come forward. The duo's movement and incisive passing helped Bologna finish in ninth place, but Southampton's £13 million bid that summer proved too much for the Emilians to resist. The departure of Bologna's midfielders was packaged with other losses, including club legend Di Vaio and impressive veteran goalkeeper Jean-François Gillet.
Still, Bologna's summer transfer window was pleasingly considered and cohesive. They brought potential Ramírez replacement Panagiotis Kone from Brescia on a permanent deal for fewer than €3 million, young striker Robert Acquafresca from Genoa for a fraction more, and Italian international forwards Alberto Gilardino and Manolo Gabbiadini on loan to fill the hole left by Di Vaio.
Bologna also managed to keep a hold of their coach, despite Pioli being touted as a potential replacement for Walter Mazzarri at Napoli. Pioli was the architect of Bologna's safety -- a quiet motivator and brilliant tactician. His team was superbly drilled, and played with a tactical discipline and aggression that made up for the weakness of its defence. Most tellingly, he became an adopted Bolognese -- no mean feat for a native of Derby dell'Emilia rivals Parma. Unsurprisingly, the summer shakeup resulted in a few stutters and tactical tweaks, but once again Pioli comfortably led Bologna to the pre-season objective -- safety.
But once planning for the new season began, things started to look troublesome. Several key first teamers departed back to parent clubs, leaving Bolgona with a string of unconvincing and untested options. Perhaps Pioli was unfortunate to have been too good, or at least good enough to let president Albano Guaraldi believe that the team could get away with cutting corners and maximising profits.
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The midfield was weakened by the loss of talented youngster Saphir Taïder to Inter Milan -- the Algerian's replacement Francesco Della Rocca having been part of the Palermo team relegated to Serie B just weeks earlier. Up top the capture of veteran Rolando Bianchi looked a good one, but the misfiring Acquafresca, young Metalist Kharkiv loanee Jonathan Cristaldo and Serie B journeyman Davide Moscardelli as backups made for a flimsy attack. The defence hadn't been strengthened, either, during the transfer window.
Bologna were in trouble right from the season's outset, picking up just three points during their first eight games, including a 5-0 rout away at AS Roma. Wins over Livorno and Cagliari provided brief respite, but after a 2-0 defeat to relegation strugglers Catania in January, they won only once more. Pioli attempted to tighten up the defence, but it came at the expense of the attack. Diamanti tried his best but couldn't carry the attack alone, getting little help from inconsistent performances by Kone and Bianchi's attacking isolation.
The defeat to Catania spelled the end for Pioli. The club's statement said it all: "A sincere thanks to Pioli and his staff for their work over the years, conducted with great professionalism, passion and a rare care for our club." It was a firing no one could have considered fair, but one carried out because of desperation. Guaraldi was running out of ideas to halt the slide and hide his mistakes. "Grazie Mister Stefano" read a big banner in the Dall'Ara crowd. Pioli had been given an impossible job, and the supporters made perfectly clear that they knew who was to blame.
Pioli's replacement was Davide Ballardini, who had guided Genoa to safety last season and had never been relegated as a coach. Unfortunately, the Bologna job was much more difficult than anything he had attempted, and was about to get even harder. He continued where Pioli had left off, playing an unwatchably defensive 3-5-1-1. Ballardini grinded out three draws in his first three games before a defeat at home to Udinese.
That game would prove to be Diamanti's last in a Bologna shirt. In early February, with the club a point above the drop zone, Bologna sold their best player to Chinese club Guangzhou Evergrande for €9 million -- too late in the year to reinvest.
From then, Bologna barely stood a chance. They gradually slumped further into the relegation mess until results on the season's penultimate matchday condemned them to Serie B. At the end of their defeat 300 Bologna fans surrounded the team and prevented it from reaching the coach, instead screaming for contracts to be torn up over a cordon of riot police. Captain Kone -- as one of a few players to emerge from the season with any value at all -- was consoled by a supporter after breaking down in tears in the melee. "The dressing room is destroyed, we are mortified. Kone has been crying alone on the pitch," coach Ballardini is quoted as saying in La Gazzetta dello Sport.
President Guaraldi wasn't at the stadium when relegation was confirmed -- he'd been advised by police to stay at home. It was probably for the best.
The concern now is how Bologna will cope with relegation. With the club having just shelled out for a new training ground, already stretching their economic capacity, it could hardly have hit at a worst time. In all likelihood, they'll lose almost their entire first team, and the fear is that they will have to endure the struggles that Siena went through after their relegation last season -- defaulting on financial obligations and narrowly avoiding bankruptcy. Siena were left with an eight point deduction, which will almost certainly prevent the robur from making the promotion playoffs in a few weeks time.
A similarly uncomfortable summer surely awaits Bologna. Their fortunes this season have already shown that when it comes to football, history and reputation counts for nothing. Let's hope they pick up where Palermo left off this season and bounce back. Let's hope that, unlike the Torre di Maratona, they don't just end up a hollow relic of past glories.