Away Days: Hunting for the ‘Higuain of Serie B’ (& diced tomatoes) in Lecce
Serie B’s runaway top scorer is a 33-year-old journeyman who has been called the ‘Gonzalo Higuain of Serie B’. I went to discover what that means.
Massimo Coda signed for Lecce on a free transfer in August 2020, and within seven games the club president was talking him up as “l’Higuain della Serie B.”
The praise was just about justified. When Saverio Sticchi Damiani spoke to La Gazzetta dello Sport, Coda had just scored in four successive games. Then he bagged a hat-trick in the first match after the interview.
Now 33 years old, Coda has become the main man at U.S. Lecce. In that 2020–21 season, the striker scored 22 goals, finishing as Serie B’s top scorer. This season he’s on course to repeat the achievement, sitting on 17 goals with nine games to go.
Needless to say, ‘Coda 9’ shirts are front and centre at the Lecce club shop.
But what does a second-tier Gonzalo Higuain look like in the flesh? Given that the actual Argentine striker always looked a lot like a Championship clogger, was the Lecce president giving a backhanded compliment? Or is Coda really something special?
I’ve been staying in the Italian region of Puglia for the last few months, and I was desperate to see Lecce play, especially with this veteran goal machine leading the line.
So I grabbed tickets for the home fixture on Saturday 12 March. It was perfectly poised: lots to play for, decent weather and Coda in typically scorching form.
So who are U.S. Lecce, exactly? Trying to contextualise them within my own narrow understanding of football clubs, I’ve come to think of them as Italy’s Norwich City: a club perennially straddling the divide between the first and second tier.
Since the year 2000, Norwich have been promoted or relegated 11 times, while Lecce have moved divisions on 10 occasions. Come the end of this season, it’s quite likely that Norwich will get relegated and Lecce promoted.
There are other parallels too.
Both clubs have great kits that are half yellow, and both are situated in agricultural regions in the east of their respective countries. Puglia has more than 50 million olive trees, accounting for 40% of Italy’s olive oil production, while Norwich has the English equivalent: a decommissioned mustard factory.
Running with that comparison, it would be easy to consider Massimo Coda — currently playing for the 14th club of his career — as an Italian Grant Holt as much as a Serie B Gonzalo Higuain.
Like Holt at Norwich, Coda seems to have found, perhaps belatedly, a club that gets the best out of him.
Although the Italian has been fairly prolific throughout his career, his numbers over the last year and a half have been astonishing.
To be clear, Lecce the city doesn’t have much in common with Norwich. Full of Baroque churches and elegant piazzas, the Italian city is known as the ‘Florence of the South’.
With that in mind, it’s hard to really think of it as a football city. In fact, on match day there was barely a red and yellow shirt to be seen around the city centre; I had to double-check that I’d got the date right.
However, on the two-mile walk from the centre to the Stadio Via del Mare, signs of fandom start to appear.
First, the usual stickers on street signs. Then, closer to the stadium, a giant mural commemorating the club’s record appearance holder, Michele Lorusso, and his teammate Ciro Pezzella, both of whom died in a car crash in 1983.
The concrete stadium is a wonder. Roofless on three sides, with more than 40,000 brightly coloured seats glowing in the afternoon sun, it’s everything you’d want from an Italian ground. And instead of advertising foreign bookmakers, the hoardings around the pitch invite you buy pasta and diced tomatoes.
Just over 12,000 show up for the promotion crunch match of Lecce vs Brescia — a figure kept down by Italy’s fairly severe Covid restrictions as much as the club’s status in the second tier. But despite the patches of empty seats, the place has a real atmosphere.
Although I’m here for Lecce and Massimo Coda, it’s hard not to be drawn to the man in the Brescia dugout.
Filippo Inzaghi, already on his fifth club after just eight years in management, still looks like Jonny Greenwood dragged through a Kappa store, and he’s the recipient of a fair few heckles from the stands.
I can’t understand any of them — hammering home my lack of preparedness for this article — but they don’t sound particularly reverent.
I’m sat behind Inzaghi in what should be a premium seat, right on the halfway line and a few rows back from the turf, but the track around the pitch makes it feel a bit like watching a non-league game from over a fence.
What’s worse, every other stand is bathed in sunlight, and the combination of wind and shade means I spend the game jealous of the people who spent less money on their ticket than me. Some fans in the stand directly across are showing bare arms.
But there’s more at stake here than keeping warm.
Going into the game, Lecce are top of the table, just two points ahead of visitors Brescia, who are in fourth. A win for either team would be a huge step towards promotion to Serie A. (As part of the bumper weekend, second-place Cremonese face third-place Pisa on the Sunday).
Inzaghi should be nervous: Coda, the Higuain of Serie B, has scored a preposterous eight goals in his last six appearances; if he scores again today, he’ll equal a Serie B record by scoring in seven straight games.
It takes 19 minutes for Lecce to open the scoring, but it isn’t the league’s top scorer who gets it. Instead, it’s the man who trails Coda in second place: 24-year-old Brazilian winger Gabriel Strefezza.
It’s the first goal I’ve seen in Italy, and it does the moment justice. Strefezza carries the ball from the right touchline, just in front of Inzaghi’s technical area, to near the edge of the Brescia box, cutting inside and sending a curving shot into the near corner.
A cynic — maybe one trying to keep warm in the shaded west stand — might point out that the wind was blowing hard in the direction of the Brescia goal, but, nonetheless, golazzo!
Lecce taking the lead prompts a loud response from the whole stadium and the lighting of a solitary flare in the impressively packed Curva Nord, where the ultras sit.
Unfortunately, the party is spoiled 10 minutes later when Lecce goalkeeper Alessandro Plizzari attempts to sweep up and instead headbutts a Brescia attacker.
It’s a stonewall pen — a funny one, to boot — and although Plizzari impressively saves the spot-kick, Brescia captain Dimitri Bisoli scores on the rebound. Boos abound.
Throughout the game, Coda shows glimpses of quality, holding up the ball and making neat passes. He doesn’t come particularly close to scoring though, his best effort a weak header in the second half.
Funnily enough, a former team-mate and compatriot of the real Gonzalo Higuain makes an appearance. Forty-year-old Rodrigo Palacio – he of the cursed rat-tail haircut – comes on in the 65th minute, gets injured, then gets subbed off in the 75th. I don’t feel sorry for him at all.
Strefezza shoots narrowly wide in the 89th minute, and the crowd acknowledge that an opportunity to secure top spot has been missed.
By Sunday night, Pisa have beaten Cremonese to take the lead in Serie B — for now.
Massimo Coda might well be l’Higuain della Serie B at the moment, but I sincerely hope the big man gets a chance to strut his stuff in Serie A next season. He’s said as much himself, pointing out that he’d rather have top-flight success than second-tier records.
The veteran, who turns 34 this November, has only played two seasons in Serie A, and neither went to plan.
In 2014–15, Coda’s Parma — despite having an ageing Antonio Cassano on the books — lost most of their games, finished last and were dissolved after going bankrupt. Gone. Just… puff.
Three years later, Coda got another chance, this time with Benevento, who were competing in the top flight for the first time ever. They lost their first 14 matches, setting a record, and got relegated.
Coda can’t take too much responsibility for either of those disasters and Lecce — though prone to flip-flopping between divisions — have a more solid platform for success than either of those teams.
If the Lecce striker shakes off the Higuain tag and channels his inner Grant Holt, there’s no reason he can’t be a top-flight success.
I might not be there to see it, but I’ll certainly be cheering him on.
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