PAUL GRECH looks back to 1920s fascist-regime Italy and an incident between two northern powerhouses that would alter the country’s football landscape forever.
It was meant to be a season of celebration for Bologna. Not because of any anticipated success – sadly such dreams have faded away – but in remembrance of past triumphs. In particular they wanted to celebrate once more their last triumph in the league on the fiftieth anniversary of that success.
They had hoped to honour that scudetto win with a calm league season, as they had done in the previous two years, and perhaps maybe even push for a Europa League spot. Instead, the team collapsed and when they lost to Catania with a game to go, it confirmed what had been evident for months of listless performances: Bologna were getting relegated to Serie B.
So much for honouring Fulvio Bernardini’s title winning side of 1963-64. That team had class but it also had fight and character. Midway through the season they were docked three points because of a doping conviction and consequently saw Inter overtake them. Still, they kept going, ultimately ending the season with the same points tally as the Milanese side before winning the play-off 2-0.
That had been their first scudetto for twenty three years and would ultimately prove to be the final national hurrah for a club that, between 1924 and 1941, had been a dominant force in Italy, winning the league title six times.
In that pre-Champions Cup era, the side that boasted the imported talents of Francesco Fedullo, Raffaele Sansone and Michele Andreolo along with Italian stars Carlo Reguzzoni, Eraldo Monzeglio, Mario Montesanto and Angelo Schiavio – one of Italy’s all-time great goal scorers with 242 career league goals – could also lay claim to being one of the strongest in Europe. Twice they won the Mitropa Cup, a competition that featured the two strongest sides from Italy, Austria, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, whilst in 1937 they beat Chelsea 4-1 to win the Tournoi International de l'Expo Universelle de Paris.
Such international success was greatly appreciated by the fascist government that had begun to take an increasing interest in the game of football a decade earlier. Originally, Benito Mussolini had been primarily interested in those that were considered to be ‘noble’ sports; boxing, hunting and motor racing. Eventually, however, they couldn’t ignore a game that was so popular.
Yet in 1924 that wasn’t the case or, at least, the influence of the central government wasn’t a direct one. A number of Mussolini’s devotees had already realised that football was a way to get access to a mass audience.
One of these was Leandro Arpinati. Although he never held an official role in the club, the high ranking official of the Partito Nazionale Fascista and personal friend of Benito Mussolini was a big fan of Bologna FC as well as a member of the Lega Calcio. He would end up playing a big role in the club’s immediate future and, later, in the transformation of Italian football.
Under his supervision, Bologna had put together a young squad of talented players - and a devastating strike force made up of Schiavio, Bernardo Perin and Giuseppe Della Valle - which could challenge for the highest honours. In order to do that, however, they had to get through the complex structure that made up Italian football at the time.
Indeed, Bologna played in the Lega Nord (the Northern League) that in itself was further split into two. Drawn in Section B, they faced the formidable might of Pro Vercelli – then one of Italy’s foremost teams – and Juventus. In particular, the Turin side matched Bologna all the way until a defeat at the hands of Pro Vercelli allowed Bologna to pull ahead.
Topping the section meant that they could go on to play in a two-legged final to decide the winner of the Lega Nord. There they would meet Genoa who had won Section A after finishing one point ahead of Mantova. Genoa were the reigning champions, having overcome Bologna the previous season, and were looking for their tenth league title success that would have seen a star added to their badge. They could count on two big assets: the passionate crowd that regularly ignited the Stadio Marassi and star striker Cesare Alberti.
Ironically, the latter had started out at Bologna for whom he made his debut at sixteen years of age and within the space of two years he had developed to such an extent that a call-up to the Italian national team seemed inevitable. A cartilage injury put paid to that and indeed looked as if it had brought his career to a premature end.
Soon afterwards, Bologna released Alberti and he didn’t play for the next two years. It took an experimental (and highly risky) operation at the hands of Genoese professor Federico Drago to give him back his mobility. Alberti remained in Genoa after the operation and began training with the local team in a bid to regain his fitness.
That he did, and in 1924, Genoa offered him a contract. Alberti immediately repaid their faith as he scored twice on his debut against Hellas Verona.
His former employers would soon have cause to regret this turn of events as he scored in Genoa’s 2-1 win in the first leg of the final held in Bologna, seemingly wrapping up the Lega Nord title. Perhaps this overconfidence undermined them as seven days later it was Bologna’s turn to surprise, also winning 2-1 and tying the overall score at 3-3.
This meant that a replay in a neutral ground in Milan was required. Once again, Genoa raced ahead early on and by half-time were leading 2-0. Bologna went into the second half looking to claw something back but this seemed to be an impossible task with Genoa comfortably controlling the game.
Then came the game’s turning point.
A powerful shot by Bologna’s Giuseppe Muzzioli was seemingly turned into a corner by Giovanni de Pra. Not everyone saw it that way, however. A group of Bologna fans – including some dreaded camicie nere (black shirts) that marked out the military element of the fascist movement - made it on to the pitch and surrounded referee Giovanni Mauro. Their claim was that the ball had finished between the posts and bounced back out via a hole in the netting.
It was an outrageous claim but one made forcefully until the referee ceded to their pressure. To calm down the Genoa players he told captain Renzo de Vecchi that he would indicate all that happened in his match report, ensuring that Genoa would be assigned victory regardless of the final score.
And so the game went on with the Genoa players confident of their victory even when Schiavio barged the keeper to score Bologna’s equaliser. The rules stated that a tied game should then go into extra-time but Genoa refused to continue with what they saw as a farce.
The problem was that when Mauro deposited his report a couple of days later he went back on the promise made to de Vecchi and confirmed the 2-2 score, a decision that he reached after Arpinati allegedly exercised his growing influence within the football association.
Thus another replay was set up but not even this would prove to be decisive. The game itself finished with the two teams tied at 1-1 and went by without any significant incident. Off the pitch, however, it was a totally different story with fans coming together at the Porta Nova train station with many left injured in the resulting violence that included some gun fire.
This was a shocking turn of events and resulted in the league being suspended indefinitely to allow matters to calm down. That is how matters stood until Arpinati managed to get the ban lifted and another replay set for the 9th of August with the game taking place at seven in the morning on a secondary pitch in the Vigentino district in Milan.
Of this game only Bologna were informed and the Genoa directors only got to know about it a few hours before it was due to start. Most of their players had gone on holiday so they had to be rushed back and, whilst they did make it, they were out of shape. Not so Bologna who finally managed to win 2-1 in a game where the only spectators were a large number of camicie nere.
That victory didn’t guarantee them the title as they still had to beat the winners of the Lega Sud. The gap between the two leagues, however, was a huge one and Bologna ran out easy winners over Alba Roma (4-0 at home and 2-0 away) to win their first scudetto.
Heavily fought over though the games between Genoa and Bologna had been, that epic tussle had far greater consequences than merely determining the Italian champions for 1924-25. Alarmed by the crowd trouble that had marked the games – seeing in it a possibility of further public dissent and an outlet for social unrest – and attracted by football’s hold over people, it marked the turning point for the Italian game.
The opportunity for the regime to take hold came a few months after that title deciding game. Further dissatisfaction with referees – who at the time were exclusively made up of former players and administrators – led to the dissolution of the Lega Nord which kicked off a series of events that ultimately led to the presentation on the 2nd of August 1926 of a document that came to be known as the Carta di Viareggio (Viareggio Paper).
This paper completely revolutionised the Italian game. Professionalism (or, as the paper diplomatically defined them, non-amateur players) was legalised and clubs could now also sign players from other regions, something that had previously been prohibited. Counterbalancing this was the decree that no foreign players were to be allowed to play in Italy, a decision that reflected the regime’s nationalistic ideology.
The biggest change, however, came with the creation of one national division to replace the fragmented league structure that had been prevalent up till that point. The disparity in strength between the Northern and Southern clubs was reflected by the inclusion in this new Divisione Nazionale of seventeen clubs from the Lega Nord and just three from the Lega Sud. In truth, this mattered little for the real reason behind the creation of this new league was the desire to project an image of national unity.
A side effect of this new structure was that a number of clubs that had been set up in various cities no longer fitted in and most were forced into mergers. In Florence, the high ranking fascist official Luigi Ridolfi joined up Club Sportivo Firenze with Palestra Ginnastica Fiorentina Libertas to give rise to AC Fiorentina.
The situation was even more complex in Rome. Whilst Lazio was already a relatively strong club that refused to merge, the same could not be said of others, primarily Alba and Fortitudo who had both been included in the Divisione Nazionale. Neither squad was strong enough to compete so Alba swallowed up neighbouring club Audace whilst Fortitudo did likewise with Pro Roma.
Masterminding these moves was Italo Fosci, one of the three authors of the Carta di Viareggio and, when both these sides were relegated, it was he who stepped in once again forcing the two to join together along with another local side – Roman – thus forming the second big club from the capital city, AS Roma.
The man elected to head the Italian football federation (the FIGC) and bring about these changes was Bologna’s own Leandro Arpinati. Despite his past and loyalties, Arpinati would prove to be a fitting leader for the association. When Torino were accused of bribing a Juventus player on their way to winning the title in 1926-27, they were stripped of the scudetto. Crucially, however, Arpinati opted against granting the honour to the second placed side, his own Bologna.
Arpinati would go on to become the most powerful man in Italian sport, gaining the presidency of the Italian Olympic Committee (the CONI) between 1931 and 1933, and playing a key role in Italy winning the right to host the World Cup in 1934.
Ironically, he wouldn’t get to see that competition. Disenfranchised by the regime’s fundamentalist attitude, he became a dissenting voice and in 1934 was sent to prison because of his views. There he would spend the next six years in various states of arrest before Mussolini pardoned him in 1940. The day after the liberation of Bologna on the 21st of April 1945 he was shot dead, no doubt pay-back for his fascist past despite having harboured a number of allied and political refugees throughout the war years.
After the war, Bologna would never recapture their former glory – despite some occasional triumphs like that league title of 1964 and the Coppa Italia won in 1970 and 1974 – and neither would Genoa. Yet the changes that their rivalry unwittingly helped bring about remained even if the controversial nature of their origin was largely forgotten.
PAUL GRECH - @paul_grech