Walking ( and talking..) with Friends

Franco Sciannimanico - President of FITET with a very young fan and future player - last name well known in the ITalian TT circles ; MUTTI

Franco Sciannimanico – President of FITET with a very young fan and future player – last name well known in the ITalian TT circles ; MUTTI

Ever thought about the possibility to live your life in Italy?  Beautiful country?! – No doubt.    Good food?!– More than enough. Lively around the family dinner table? – You bet.  Important with a friend or two with some good connections? – For sure.

One man that easily would know a thing or two about the Italian way of life is the sixty-seven year old President of the Italian Table Tennis Association (FITET) ;  Mr. Franco Sciannimanico.

We are meeting in Terni, during the European Top 10 event. Since a number of years back the Italian Association is using this city as a meeting point for all youth events.  The Palatennistavolo complex is relatively roomy with two playing halls under the same roof. Very much the ideal place for youth events, although all hotels involved in the event requires transport of some sort   .

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But here we are – another European youth competition organized in Italy and Franco is opting for three full days in the venue – not skipping one beat of the seemingly endless actions.  Two out of the four Italians competing in Terni are  from Franco’s club ; Sterilgarda Castel Goffredo  – a dominating force in Italian Table Tennis and once reaching to the top of Europe when the women’s team took back to back European champions league titles in 2006 and 2007.

“It is much harder now to field a competitive team for the European events.  The financial crisis in Italy is making it very difficult to find local sponsors. I think that the salaries have dropped at least 50 % in the last few years both for the men and the women’s league. Also it is a known fact that the sponsors here in Italy will not increase their contribution only because you are competing in the ECL – they are often more focused on the Italian titles Franco said.

The lack of sufficient financing is also the main reason for an almost complete collapse of the “Serie A” – national Table Tennis Pro league. Only four men’s team and seven women’s team competed last year.  This year the situation is slightly better, much to the relief of the FITET;

“We are now up to six and eight very much due to the fact that we have introduced restriction when it comes to the use of foreign players in the matches. You are only allowed to play with one foreigner and that brought some of the clubs back. The second division however is full – but in order to compete in the highest league you need a budget of around 150 000 E for salaries and travel so it might be hard to make that jump. But we are trying to build the league again and take care of club development explained the FITET President.

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Franco Sciannimanico was elected president back in 2004 and took over an association described as “disorganized and in bad financial state.  At the time much of the national team work was centralized and involved only a few coaches and players with very little progressive development going on in the regions or around the best clubs. The ambition is different now – at least according to the association. The key to success is solid investment in the future – in young players and also in an attractive event strategy targeting the membership.

“Overtime we have tried to return some power to the clubs and now I feel that we do have a better system in place – more young players involved and also a new approach to the Italian championships with more than 2500 players getting together for a yearly championships meet in June each year. I remember in the beginning that many people thought I was crazy introducing the idea of a major national championships – but now – it would be impossible to pull back – it is a very popular event and we try to stage it in a nice setting each year . I think we have succeeded with that one Franco explains with extensive translation help from his FITET secretary.

The importance of Walking and Talking - with friends of course..

The importance of Walking and Talking – with friends of course..

The clubs are an important part of Italian Table Tennis. In fact they also have the elective power holding all the  votes for the presidential election held every fourth year.  The voting process is interesting as it calls for the President in power to gradually (each time of election) strengthens his support among the voting clubs in order to win the mandate.   Overall a pretty unique system that should set up well for some wheeling and dealing to stay in power.  Franco with two times re-election on his resume surely knows the importance of walking with friends – a quality much needed in Italian sports and general life I guess.

 It also doesn’t take more than ten good seconds to befriend the lively and fun-loving Italian president. On the other hand – it is a privilege to travel under the ITTF flag – who doesn’t want to be friend with us?

In Terni I am following  the FITET President from the distance  as he fatherly engages in the competition , directing the traffic – supports his players – and also strategically wise takes his  time to  “walk and talk” with friends when dignitaries of different makes and models join the competition in progress  . I am impressed by the passion, clearly the love for the sport is there and that’s a good sign for Italians.

Table Tennis in Italy is of course – like in many other countries in Europe, more like a small family living its  life in a big sport thirsty community.  God knows that families have their fair share of disagreements– in Italy perhaps more than in any other place.

Looking at it from the outside it seems like Franco has been able to negotiate his way forward quite well.  Working peace is for the moment present in Italian Table Tennis – although an initiated source with the finger on the pulse of Italian Table Tennis told me that some of the recent coaching changes for the national teams came as a letter in the mail following the latest re-election campaign.

At the moment most of the positions are filled by former national team players – Lorenzo Nannoni remains involved –Valentino  Piacentini is making a comeback with the cadet players – but the chief coach/ technical director hired in the beginning of the year to drive the national team program is the “old fox “; Patrizio Deniso once (during the bloggers time on the floor) Italian head coach..  Regardless of what – Italian table tennis is somehow clawing itself back to fame and fortune in Europe. The European Juniors Boys team title earlier this summer in Ostrava is a proof of that and the Italian President is also referring to the medal success in the recently organized Euro Mini championships in Schiltigheim as an important signal “that our youth strategy” is working.

Frequent hosting of European Youth Events part of the strategy for the FITET

Frequent hosting of European Youth Events part of the strategy for the FITET

On top of that Italy is also a hot-bed for European top youth events. The organization of this event (Europe Top 10) will be followed by a true test next year when the European Youth Championships will be staged in Northern Italy with the city of Riva del Garda hosting. Italy again – in the middle of the touristic season and in an attractive place? Sounds like an organizational challenge of great dimensions?

“Yes it is Franco admits. But this region is applying a strategy to on a regular basis host international events. Already we have had several meetings with the city and regional authorities and they will support the championships. It’s a great – wonderful place with plenty of hotels near the congress style venue. I think we will manage and host a nice European Youth championship.

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According to FITET the number of registered players in Italy is  growing.  Andrea Strinati , member of the national council and based in Terni is joining the discussion.  “I think that Franco has been able to create some kind of unity and optimism in Italy.  We are now some 17000 players – up from about 7000 ten years ago Andrea explained.

 Sport is important in Italy. Last year the Italian government threw the impressive amount of 450 million Euros in support to the Italian   NOC ( CONI) for further distribution towards in total forty-eight sports.  They also ordered the mighty soccer association to take a close look in the mirror and to “release”; 0, 5 % of the TV rights money from Pro soccer for the benefit of the other sports. It came up to a whopping 2, 4 million euro!  extra cash for the other sports to share . Who said soccer was BIG in this country?

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Money and financial resources set aside, we are also in a country that is marching to the beat of its own drum when it comes to administration and efficiency. The FITET currently employs twenty two people at their office located in the Olympic Stadium in Rome.  This is probably a number of employees that would swing them right to the top of the wonderful world of International Table Tennis. How come? I ask Franco when we after a few days of getting to know each other found the time to sit down for a one on one talk about the state of Italian Table Tennis.

Well. It’s easy – CONI ( The Italian Olympic committee ) made some research a couple of years ago and found that they had to regulate each of the national associations in a certain way. Much of our support is tied to a number of professional functions as we do work in all areas of sport governance, including a fully integrated Para Olympic section.  We have by the way excellent opportunities to contribute to the progress of Para Olympic Table Tennis Franco explained.  First of all we have an excellent training center in Lignano Sabbiadoro and also some advanced talks with the Vatican to perhaps stage a celebration of Para Olympic Table Tennis at the Vatican with the Pope himself getting involved.  This is something that I will bring up with the ITTF President just as an idea for the future Franco said.

Another event somewhere in the world is drawing to an end. We are in Europe – We are in Italy and I am thinking that this could be one country in Europe set up for quick improvements in our sport. . After all – Table Tennis in Europe is a beautiful mess for the moment and many continental titles are there for the taking by any National association ready to go to work and getting all the necessary pieces to move in the same direction. 

Last stop with the fun-loving and vibrant Franco Sciannimanico is the local restaurant for Sunday lunch. I recommend ordering to pasta here. It is handmade and a specialty of this restaurant said Andrea Strinati , obviously knowing his stuff.

The food turn out great – and let’s face it – Italy for five good days – without the worry of daily life, is more like a ride in heaven than anything else.  We live –We talk – We eat = We play  and We love !

 

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