Serie A: Walter Sabatini, the man behind Salernitana’s great escape from relegation

Walter Sabatini is unique in the world of soccer. If there was ever a man who could save Salernitana from relegation, it could only be him. When he was appointed as the club’s new sporting director, Salernitana was last in the table with only eight points after 17 matches. The new owner and president of the club, Danilo Iervolino, who had saved the club by buying it literally hours before it financially failed, decided to give all the power of making sporting related decisions to the Italian sport director.

Current Lazio owner Claudio Lotito was the owner of the club until the summer leading up to the 2021/22 Serie A season, but then he had to choose between Lazio and Salernitana. In Italy you can’t own two clubs in the same league. Lotito chose Lazio, and Salernitana were left without a real owner for almost six months.

The upheaval almost sunk Salernitana, but ultimately Iervolino saved them on the last day of 2021, preventing the clubs bankruptcy. It led to one of the most remarkable escapes club football has ever seen. After his work by him in the January transfer window, and also thanks to the incredible work of coach Davide Nicola, the club managed to avoid relegation after an insane comeback. Though, after the season, Salernitana and Sabatini parted ways and decided not to continue together. It was a surprising decision that still seems inexplicable. Still, Sabatini’s reign at Salernitana was short, but remarkable.

Before Salernitana, Sabatini was perhaps best known as the executive who discovered players such as Marquinos and Miralem Pjanic when he was at AS Roma, Javier Pastore and Paulo Dybala when he was the Palermo’s sport director and many others during his long career. He’s a charismatic character, deep thinking person and someone who lives soccer as a state of mind. “Soccer is a form of art, it’s my life, I express myself through it and ca n’t live without it”, he told DAZN during a documentary which followed him after his appointment of him at Salernitana.

Sabatini is not a conventional sport director and human being. He’s a person, who sees soccer in a different way. He can’t sleep much and watches players the whole day: “I don’t have nightmares during the night because you can only have them if you sleep. I can’t sleep at all. I wake up when the sun rises, and start to work,” he said in the documentary. The iconic image of Sabatini is one of a man constantly thinking what to do and what players he can bring to his club while holding a cigarette, another thing he can’t live without. During one press conference when he was at Roma he literally paused for a smoke break, saying, “I need a time out now, time for a cigarette,” and he was allowed to smoke.

When he was at Inter Milan, that smoking caught up with him. In September of 2018 he suffered a collapsed lung and went into a coma, as he told Secolo XIX. “My body sent me signals for years. That Saturday I had to leave for China, if I had taken that plane I would have died. On Friday night between cortisone in a vein and anxiolytics they had stabilized me a bit then I disappeared from life While I was in a coma I think I saw heaven, it looked like a supermarket.”

Sabatini came back to life, and went on to do what he does best, discover talented football players. After spells Sampdoria and Bologna, he was called by Iervolino to save Salernitana in January 2022. “When I arrived at Salernitana, some TV said that we had 93% possibilities to relegate, well, I think about the other 7%”, he told DAZN. While Iervolino took care of the financial aspects of the club, he gave the keys of the project to Sabatini who had the task of creating an “instant team” and integrating young talents with experienced players. Sabatini started to work and brought players such as Simone Verdi, Federico Fazio, Ederson, Diego Perotti and integrated them with some others who were already there, including former Bayern Munich star Franck Ribery.

“Franck told me that there was no difference here between losing and winning, and that’s bad. I spoke to the team. I told them that since my arrival it’s like the Martial Law,” Sabatini said. “I decide everything. I do what I want. I’m not here to go swimming in the sea, I’m here for that 7%. This is a storm where we need to survive, I don’t want to relegate, I never did, it would kill me and since I love life and don’t want to die. We need players for the next six months.” Sabatini worked to create a team that could stay in the league, but results didn’t arrive at the beginning. On February 15 the club decided to sack Stefano Colantuono and appointed Davide Nicola, a survival specialist when it comes to saving clubs from relegation. Results still did not come. It wasn’t until April when Salernitana won against Sampdoria away from home that their form suddenly changed, and while from that moment on results it came quickly it seemed likely it would be too late.

At the end of the season Salernitana managed to stay up with only 31 points, 18 in 15 matches under Nicola, enough to play Serie A soccer next year. The last match of the season summed up the incredible ending of the year. Salernitana lost 4-0 against Udinese at home, but Cagliari drew at Venezia and were relegated. In the last minutes of the match, the whole stadium and players on the bench were only watching the other match on their phones and then started to celebrate like never before. At the final whistle, Sabatini seemed exhausted, as if he had played the match himself. He hugged his top lieutenant, Pietro Bergamini, who was with him all the time on this journey, and went into the dressing room in silence. I have waited for all the players and the coach. One by one, they all thanked Sabatini who was was sitting there, alone. Each one of them said something in his ears, thanked him, praised him. They knew that without him this miracle would not have been possible. In that moment the Salernitana players were the voice of the fans as well, who loved Sabatini since his arrival. Now he will go somewhere else, with the same attitude and the same passion.

For Sabatini, “soccer is not a game, it’s a tragedy, I’ll never say it’s just a game.” However, and luckily, soccer can also be a tragedy with a surprising and positive ending. Like a dream, Salernitana’s dream.

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