South Coast Bournemouth aren’t the only team who will be sampling top-flight football for the first time next season; all across Europe, there are a number of unlikely outfits causing a surprise.
Some have already secured promotion, whilst others are still fighting tooth and nail to emulate the recent examples set by the likes of Eibar, Paderborn and Evian Thonon Gaillard.
So, step aside Cherries: your 180,000 population and 12,000-seater stadium look positively huge compared to some of these minnows.
Carpi – Italy
Declared bankrupt in 2000 after relegation to Serie D, the story of Carpi FC 1909 is a remarkable one. The Italian minnows’ rise to prominence puts Harry Kane to shame; just six years ago Carpi were playing in the fifth tier of Italian football.
However, the Biancorossi’s galvanization in the intervening years is a true football fairytale and, on 29th April, after a 0-0 draw against Bari, it was confirmed that Carpi would be rubbing shoulders with the big boys for the very first time come August.
Carpi play in the 4,000-seater Stadio Sandro Cabassi stadium, which could have been a contributing factor when Lazio president Claudio Lotito remarked that their promotion would cost the other Serie A clubs dear when it came to negotiating a new television contract.
Carpi, managed by experienced lower league boss Fabrizio Castori and containing little by the way of top-flight experience in their squad, will find it tough – but who wouldn’t want to watch them try?
Gazelec Ajaccio – France
Founded in 1910, Gazelec Ajaccio have always been the third team in Corsica, lagging behind 1978 UEFA Cup finalists SC Bastia and crosstown rivals AC.
However, there appears to be a new team in town and, after AC Ajaccio’s ill-fated, Ravanelli-shaped experiment last year, Gazelec have finally got one over on their neighbours. Even better, it looks as if they might be set to join Bastia in Ligue 1 next season.
A recent run of five draws in eight games has reigned them in a little, but Gazelec currently sit in the second promotion spot, well clear of top-flight stalwarts Nancy in fourth.
Ex-Lyon defender Jeremie Brechet is perhaps their most well-known player, although they have plenty of Ligue 1 pedigree in their ranks, with mid-30s veterans Gregory Pujol, Julien Francois and David Ducourtioux all playing their part.
One final note: After forever living in their rival’s shadow, Gazelec could soon be playing not one, but two leagues above AC: L’ours currently occupy the final relegation spot in Ligue 2.
Frosinone – Italy
The team from a town near Rome look set to join Carpi in Serie A next season, despite only being promoted from the third tier in June of last year. Frosinone have been a fixture in Serie B over the years, but have never played in Italian football’s top flight.
The Canarini (Canaries) now need just one more win to seal their spot, after a fantastic season under the tutelage of ex-player, and former Genoa, Napoli and Torino forward Roberto Stellone.
The club have entertained fans all season long; despite Carpi’s domination of the division, Frosinone have only scored one goal less than the Biancorossi, but they’ve conceded 46 – the same amount as relegation battlers Ternana.
Arsenal fans will recognise the name of Arturo Lupoli among the Frosinone ranks; the once highly-touted striker signed for the club in January, and will be hoping to add to his so far meagre total of one top-flight appearance across all divisions.
A win over Crotone will ensure promotion, and a chance for Lupoli to finally have his day. Anything less, and the club will go into a final day showdown against third-placed Vicenza for the final automatic promotion spot.
Ingolstadt – Germany
Over the years, Deutschland has been the place to be for fairytale, rags-to-riches stories, with the likes of Ulm, Unterhaching, Hoffenheim and Paderborn traversing the leagues to pit themselves against former European champions Bayern, Dortmund and Hamburg.
Now, there’s another story: that of FC Ingolstadt 04. Formed, as the name suggests, in 2004, Ingolstadt are an amalgamation of two former 2. Bundesliga sides, ESV and MTV.
The club, who play at Audi-Sportpark, a modest, but modern, stadium which holds 15,000 supporters, started life in the fourth tier of German football, and quickly worked their way up.
This season, Die Schanzer have led the way for most of the campaign in 2. Bundesliga and, despite a recent blip, look well set to become the Bavarian city of Ingolstadt’s first ever Bundesliga representatives.
Managed by former Austrian international Ralph Hasenhüttl, Ingolstadt lack the financial muscle Hoffenheim have used to survive in the Bundesliga but, with internationals like Mathew Leckie (Australia), Alfredo Morales (USA), Tomáš Pekhart (Czech Republic) and Marvin Matip (Cameroon) among their ranks, this cosmopolitan side won’t be whipping boys.
CD Tondela – Portugal
Tondela, from a small town of just over 28,000 people in the Viseu District of Portugal, were only promoted to the Portuguese Segunda Division in 2012.
This season, they have surpassed all expectations, rising to the top of the league after two unremarkable, but solid, seasons in midtable. Tondela were sat in their usual tenth spot when manager Carlos Alves Pinto resigned in October.
However, Quim Machado came in and oversaw the provincial club’s unstoppable surge to the title; they currently sit in first place, three points clear of Chaves but, crucially, five ahead of third-placed Sporting Covilha with just two games to play.
What’s most impressive is the fact that, like Carpi, Tondela are a team without any real star names. The Auriverdes (green and yellows, the colour the team plays in) owe much of this campaign’s success to Toze Marreco and the Argentinian Piojo; between them, the strikers have netted 34 league goals.
Tondela, if promoted, will join an ever-burgeoning list of smaller clubs who have recently graced the Primeira Liga, including Arouca, Moreirense and Trofense.
Tondela will be hoping they don’t follow the example of the last team on that list – Trofense won just five games in 2008-09 and went straight back down to a league they have just finished bottom of.
In with a chance
Girona FC – Spain
For a team that hails from a city more notable for flights than football, the Albirrojos have had a remarkable campaign, which could still end in promotion to Liga BBVA for the very first time.
A third-tier side for most of their history, Girona have been solidly midtable throughout their stint in the Seguna, with the exception of the 2012/13 season, when they were well beaten by an Aleix Vidal-inspired Almeria in the play-off final.
With a squad that includes Florian Lejeune, once linked with Manchester United, and Jonas Ramalho, the first mixed race footballer to play for Athletic Bilbao, the Catalonians have remained on the coat tails of the famous Real Betis all season, keeping the likes of Real Zaragoza, Sporting Gijon and Real Valledolid at bay in the process.
The real challenge now is to finish the job; Girona currently sit second in the table, two points clear of draw specialists Gijon, with five games to go. The next is against Zaragoza. Win that, and the Gironaistas will be a step closer to making history.
In a footballing landscape dominated by an increasingly powerful aristocracy, it is refreshing to see teams who have been also-rans for their entire history have a shot at glory against the landed gentry.
Let’s hope that the likes of Carpi continue to act as torchwielders, offering hope to even the most hopeless of footballers.