Unione Sportiva Sassuolo Calcio, recently promoted from Serie B for the first time since the foundation of the club in 1922, will be the surprise guests at Italian football’s top table this season. With just 41,000 inhabitants, the northern town of Sassuolo is the smallest ever to be represented in Serie A.

Located in the province of Modena in Emilia-Romagna, one of Italy’s most affluent regions, the Neroverde reached the promised land last season by finishing top of the second tier with 51 points, having recorded 16 victories, three draws and three defeats. Boasting the best attack (46 goals) and the best defence (15 goals conceded), their triumph was well-deserved.

It was in 2004, when the team found itself languishing in the lower reaches of Serie C2, Italy’s fourth division, and even flirted with relegation to Serie D, that everything changed for the modest outfit, overshadowed until then by the Ferrari Formula One racing team (based in nearby Maranello),

“It was at that moment that I was offered the team for €35,000. My only link with the club up to then was that they played in the area covered by my business,” explained Sassuolo owner Giorgio Squinzi, president of Confindustria, the powerful Italian employers’ federation that groups together 116,000 companies and represents many thousands of workers.

“Our company, MAPEI, had already been involved in sport following our partnership with cycling from 1993 to 2002,” continued Squinzi, whose MAPEI bike racing team was one of the most formidable of the 1990s.

“When we took over the club, we made sure that we adopted a professional approach. We took our time, didn’t cut any corners, took things one step at a time and put in place a plan that brought us to Serie B via four promotions,” recalled the Italian businessman, who has never hidden the fact that he has been an AC Milan supporter since he was a boy, and that he has no intention of “renouncing his faith”.

He has promised to follow Sassuolo’s matches with AC Milan this campaign “objectively”, and their clashes with Juventus and Inter Milan “passionately”. “My dream is to beat the Nerazzurri at the San Siro,” he said.

Little stadium, big ambition
The newly promoted club have a reputation for being something of a breeding ground for high-quality coaches, as Massimiliano Allegri, currently in charge at AC Milan, and Andrea Stramaccioni, formerly of Inter, have since proved.

The latest miracle-worker to take the helm is 43-year-old Eusebio di Francesco, a former Italy and Roma midfielder. He oversaw last season’s historic success, which earned him a two-year contract extension, but he has already made it clear that he will not be breaking the bank in order to meet the top-flight challenges that lie ahead.

Di Francesco has instead placed his confidence in ambitious players, players seeking vindication and players looking for increased playing time and a showcase for their skills.

Slovenian international midfielder Jasmin Kurtic, 25 years old, who has signed from Palermo, promising Italian forward Simone Zaza, 22, who is co-owned with Juventus, and great Romanian hope Marius Alexe, 23, touted as a possible successor to Adrian Mutu, all fit that particular bill.

In addition, athletic and imposing goalkeeper Antonio Rosati, 30, has joined from Napoli, and Chievo’s 23-year-old Brazilian attacker, Diego da Silva, who scored 10 goals last season, has come in on loan. Last but not least, the promising Portuguese striker Aladje, one of the revelations of the FIFA U-20 World Cup Turkey 2013, has also departed Chievo in favour of Sassuolo.

What is clear from this recruitment drive is that the Serie B champions will be able to rely on an ambitious and competitive squad, one that already included 24-year-old Swiss international Jonathan Rossini.

As their home ground, the Stadio Enzo Ricci, holds just 4,000 fans and the local council is unwilling to invest in a new stadium, the Neroverde will play this term’s matches at the Stadio Citta del Tricolore (formerly Stadio Giglio) in Reggio Emilia, which boasts a capacity of 30,000.

And with the stadium having been placed in administration, the club are considering purchasing it outright, but will have to find €3 million to complete the deal.

The Serie A newcomers’ positive pre-season results demonstrated that their various pieces were beginning to slot into place, and that they were still capable of a lot more, even though the straightforward target set by Squinzi for the 2013-14 adventure is to “comfortably avoid relegation”. 

Indeed, a prestigious victory in a friendly tournament at the end of July suggests that Sassuolo might not end up simply making up the numbers this season, as their opponents were none other than Juventus and AC Milan.