Don't judge the book by its cover.
This is an everyday story of mistaken identity, and real hereos. And hopes of a better future.
"Turn over to the Parma game immediately," it read. The unexpected text, received from an infrequent sender, demanded instant reaction. Even on a sleepy Sunday.
The game from the Tardini had just finished, and the home defeat (by now sadly no longer a coupon buster) had been clearly a bridge too far for a fanbase and a town that had suffered enough. The pitch was agitated and passions ran high.
Parma's Antonio Cassano, one of the last decade's larger than life and most recognisable characters in Serie A, was having his ear bent below the stands. By, we observed, a rather stern and serious looking ultra fan who had descended to the pitch to make his views known at more than close quarters.
To be clear, he was not exchanging views with Cassano. He was telling him what to do, and Cassano was nodding.
In fact, Cassano appeared unusually sheepish in a way that drew the eye. He is not usually lost for words and listening to someone, anyone, has never been his strong point. Every image demands context, and the truth is often less than obvious.
It appeared we were witnessing the latest example of the intolerable power that the extreme fan gangs (ultras) have over Italian football. A well trodden litany of grief jangling its way inevitably onto the Monday front papers.
Aren't they the real bosses, who can prevent games from starting or ending, who control which people enter and exit the stadium, who have the "rights" to sell replica kits in stadium. Which players can be bought or must be sold by the club directors. By the way, none of the above is an exaggeration for literary effect.
In fact, recent examples have taken the powerplay to even higher levels. Genoa players having to remove their strips, fold them, and deliver them to the ultra fans during the game, in cowering contrition at a poor performance, is a personal favourite. Or the national notoriety attained by Napoli ultra, a certain Genny 'a Carogna (very-bad-news Genny), who negotiated with police and TV channels as to whether a major game could begin. "Genny has said the game can start" shouted the excited commentator. TV satirists had a field day for weeks. Send him to negotiate with merkel.
So here we were again. The Italian disease. No wonder the families wouldn't come to the stadium anymore. Only then was it clear the reason for the unexpected text.
It was Cesare!!!!
Cesare. Part of our family. A gentle giant of a man. A kind and generous soul, almost shy. Utterly respectable, trustworthy, and loved by all. A man to trust your kids with.
Cesare, yes, a true die-hard Parma fan, for sure, but never an ultra. Surely impossible? But there he was. No longer 19, he had tripped while struggling down from the stands, minutes earlier, and it was Cassano who had caught him, in a concerned way, to break his fall.
In fact, on closer gaze, it was clear that Cassano wasn't under siege. He had actually moved to pitch side to seek solace.
He appeared to ask Cesare and others: "What more can I do, what more can I do?"
The ugly truth
A slightly different truth suggested itself. Here it is.
Parma Calcio is a footballing basket case. Owned and run by a mixture of the crooked and the incompetent. It hasn't paid its players for months, whilst it drowns in debts, and the latest owner has scarpered, dropping the stinking mess in the hands of some shady Albanian/Russian/Cypriot no one knows.
Wellcome to Italian football. Club ownership changes alarmingly regularly, debts never get paid, too many guys with 5 o'clock shadows present themselves as a saviour with a plan. With more past criminal convictions than actual money. Think Leeds, and you get the idea.
Players turn to match fixing to try and earn a penny when clubs don't run the monthly payroll. It had been seven months without pay. So sad.
Justice for true fans
As these charlatans come and go, there is one constant. It's people like Cesare. True fans. Who go there come rain or shine, win or loss, glory or humiliation. Because it's a passion. Because he loves his town, his clubs, his mates.
Cassano recognised him as one of the good guys. And wanted to explain that he was done. At wit's end. Today, Cassano left Parma Calcio. But he needed to tell Cesare. People like him deserve better because they have been very, very poorly served by their footballing leaders.
The new head of the Italian FA was recently banned for racism. The clownish new president of Sampdoria thought it simpatico to racially abuse Thohir, the Indonesian owner of Inter. Daily knock about stuff from the Arthur Daleys that run the game here.
God, if only it were just that.
Italian football's demise
But this is a country that, 20 years ago, had the pick of every talent in the global game. It was the zenith of anyone's career. It was La Scala. No other football came close.
So it takes a real talent for biblical incompetence to deliver such a decline. But they have managed it. And they are still there. Both Milan and Inter don't have a bean between them. Almost no one owns their own stadium.
But this week, and maybe only for this week, let's us all say "enough".
A brave future
The guy in the picture with Cassano is the future. They love their game, their club. Why don't we give them the chance to run it.
Fan ownership has never been done in italy. It should be.
Cesare Frambati for president. He has my vote.