Venice floods through Venezia FC owner Joe Tacopina: 'These people are resilient. They are Venetians'

Writer AA Gill had this line about Venice being a "Dorian Gray city," a wonder of such overwhelming and timeless beauty that presumably a simulacrum must exist elsewhere, fading fast, losing its looks and turning ugly. "Somewhere up there in the world's attic, there's another place with the haggard, poxed and ravaged face of unspeakable evil," he wrote. "And I suspect it's Cardiff."

That's harsh on Cardiff, perhaps. Unfortunately, and here comes the inconvenient truth, whatever pact Venice made to retain its beauty is no longer respected by climate change. And these days, the only line that matters to the city is 187. That's the height the water reached (measured in centimetres, the equivalent being 6-foot-2) earlier this month when the tides from the lagoon inundated and flooded the place where Ernest Hemingway set the love story "Across the River and Into the Trees." Recorded higher only in 1966, the difference between then and now is that in 2019, these instances are predictably much more frequent. There were 56 cases of flooding last year alone, though nothing quite as bad as what Venice suffered this November, when 88% of the city found itself under varying depths of water.

"I'm 5-foot-5 with my shoes on," a pensioner told the newspaper La Repubblica. "If I go to buy artichokes on the Rialto will I be able to breathe through my nose?"

Joe Tacopina, the American owner of second-division football club Venezia, has a place not too far away in Cannaregio, one of the city's six boroughs. He calls the experience "surreal," and when you hear the haunting, otherworldly drone of the warning sirens, it's possible to empathise.

"The water was imploding in stores," he says. "There's a bar right across the street from where I live. A little guy runs it by himself and you can see the espresso cups floating around like they were in a bathtub."

After five years in Venice, the New Yorker has come to expect days when he needs to pull on his Wellington boots just to get around his sestiere. "They put down these planks that you walk on and you muddle your way through," he explains, a scenario known to often catch tourists by surprise. This was different. "This one brought the city to its knees," Tacopina adds in a somber tone.

Disruption to his team has been minimal so far. Only a couple of Venezia's players live on the island, and the international break came at an opportune time. The next home game isn't until Nov. 30, when Pippo Inzaghi, the coach who guided Venezia to the playoffs the season before last, returns with his new club, top-of-the-table Benevento. Part of the charm of the Penzo, where Venezia play, is that the ground is reached by boat, not bus.

"If we needed to play there on Saturday, we probably could," Tacopina says. "It's literally at the end of the island, so the water does not get encapsulated or trapped like it does in other parts."

In 2024, the team will relocate to a new stadium on the mainland where it already has a training facility at Taliercio. The national team worked out there on Saturday before flying to Palermo, where they wrapped up the qualifiers for next summer's European Championship with a perfect record, beating Armenia 9-1, the Azzurri's biggest win since 1948. "I spoke to [Italy manager Roberto] Mancini before and during practice," Tacopina says. "He was thrilled with the field, so that was fine. We've not been affected from a training standpoint, more from an emotional standpoint."

The perspective Arrigo Sacchi once shared, that football is the most important of the least important things, captures Tacopina's mood. He has found it pretty dispiriting, to say the least, seeing tourists stopping to take selfies with distressed locals climbing out of windows with whatever belongings they could salvage in the backdrop. "Put your phone down and go help them," he says. "A natural disaster is not a photo op."

Wading through Saint Mark's Square with the president of the Italian FA (FIGC), Gabriele Gravina, and Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma, the risk to Venice's cultural legacy dawned anew. "When you see the basilica, they have to inspect it because the salt water can cause so much damage that it's going to weaken the foundations and cause it to collapse one day," Tacopina says, Venice Mayor Luigi Brugnaro estimates that the damage already amounts to more than $1 billion. "And that's what they know at this point," Tacopina observes, dismayed.

The FIGC is expected to make a donation to the relief effort. Other clubs in the region have also shown their solidarity. Fans of Venezia's rivals, Padova, unfurled a banner saying, in the local dialect, "Venezia... Forsa" during Saturday's game against Feralpisalo, while nearby Cittadella have promised to contribute the gate receipts from Pisa's visit to the Tombolato last weekend to help get the city on its feet again.

But until the government finishes what it started in 2003 and completes MOSE, the flood-defence system, a project that's been dogged and delayed by corruption -- it will be 10 years late if it becomes fully operational in 2021 -- Venice remains at the mercy of climate change-induced natural disasters. "Unfortunately, there are things that are typically Italian," Tacopina says. "And I say that with love and respect. My parents were born here, but sometimes 'typically Italian' means incredibly slow. Why this thing has not been taken care of, I really don't know."

In Daphne du Maurier's short story, the aptly titled "Don't Look Now," a prediction is made that "one day, tourists will travel here to peer down into the waters" where "they will see columns and marble far, far beneath them, slime and mud uncovering for brief moments a lost underworld of stone." Such worst-case fears have not yet become reality, but you don't need to be Greta Thunberg to be angry at the complacency.

"[MOSE] has to be done," Tacopina says. "There has to be a solution. This city is one of the pearls of the world. Historically, it's one of the great cities. It's a landmark location. One of the five. It's unique, it's art, it's culture, it's Tintoretto, it's Vivaldi, the most incredible things come from this city. The Metropole Hotel where Vivaldi wrote the "Four Seasons." It's still there. The city was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987. The entire city! It needs to be embraced and protected. It really does. Because I'm telling you, it worries me. I don't know how this city can continue to take this level of pounding and sustain itself. There's a dwindling population here to begin with (52,472). People are moving to the mainland, and things like this make it harder and harder."

Meanwhile, residents of Venice and a total of 6 million people up and down Italy remain vulnerable to flooding. All Tacopina and his team can do is be there for their city.

"My mantra wherever I've been, whether it's Roma, Bologna or Venezia for the last five years, has been to live the community," Tacopina says, "be part of the community, embrace the community and understand that the football team is owned by the community, not by an individual or a group. I've spent a lot of time here. I see some owners who come back and forth once every two months or something like that. I don't. I'm here, fully immersed, and part of that is being here when there's a need. We will do anything and everything we can within the limitations that come with combating a national disaster."

Tacopina need look no further than the bar across the street for inspiration. "As I mentioned, espresso cups were floating in the bar on Sunday morning. Come Sunday night, there were people in there and they were serving coffee. I don't know how that happens.

"These people are resilient. They are Venetians."