Wednesday, December 3 rd, 2014
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Bars, fights, and street games: the unprofessional past (and present) of Italian football
In Italy, it wasn't uncommon for professionnal footballers to take part in bar tournaments back in the 50s. In Bologna, one of those games triggered an endless legal case in Serie A. But summer amateur tournaments are still not dead
by Pier Vittorio Mannucci
The name of Gino Cappello might not be familiar even to the most die-hard Serie A fan. However, he was the protagonist of a case that today might sound out of the world, but it tells much about the history, and maybe also the present, of Italian football.

It was 1952, it was summer, and we like to imagine that it was a hot summer, one of those summers that heat up bodies and spirits. Gino Cappello is a striker under contract with Bologna, but during the summer he is playing in a tournament that might be of a lower level in terms of technical ability, but where competition is probably harsher than in Serie A: a tournament between bars and cafes in the Bologna province. Still today bar tournaments are very important amateur sport events, involving fans and supporters almost as much as professional Calcio. At the time, however, there was no specific rule forbidding serie A players to compete in such events, and thus Cappello found himself in a team that advanced to the final.

The game between Bar Otello and Bar San Mamolo gets immediately hot, with every player using every trick, legal or illegal, in order to prevail. At one point, referee Palmieri calls a dubious foul that makes Cappello go crazy. He protests, and then hits the referee, trying to put him on the ground. The two are separated before things could get really bad, and Cappello gets a lifetime ban for the fact. Interestingly, the disqualification would apply also to Serie A, basically banishing him from every kind of competition.

Cappello, astonished and furious, calls the  Bologna management, who obviously gets even more astonished and furious, with the perspective of losing their key player and captain for a summer bravado. The Football Federation, however, resists their protests, and initially confirms the lifetime ban. Cappello decides to bring the whole story to court, and he gets fully discharged, forcing FIGC to reduce the disqualification to one year. Two years later, Cappello will become the first official “dieci” (number ten) of the Italian national team, playing in the 1954 World Cup in Switzerland.

If you think that this case was just an isolated episode, you are wrong. Even the Viareggio Cup, probably the most important international competition for youth teams, finds its origins in a bar tournament. While the first official edition of the cup took place in 1949, in fact, the previous year the inventor of the tournament, Torquato Bresciani, organized a sort of “rehearsal”, involving eight bars located in Viareggio. The final saw Bar Lencioni prevailing 3-0 against Bar Fattore, conquering the first cup and making a small but significant step into history. Here is the winning eleven for Bar Lencioni: Bonuccelli, Fiorini, Michelotti, Di Beo, Gianni, Pardini, Lencioni, Benetti, Greco, Bacci, Cupisti. It is not Sarti, Burgnich, Facchetti…, of course, but it is anyhow a piece of the history of Italian football.

One would think that these things are not happening anymore in today’s hyper-professionalized, hyper-organized football. However, there are urban legends about players taking part to summer tournaments and street games, risking their well-paid and insured talents only to score a goal against the team of the neighbor street, parish, or gang. In Milan, for example, some allegedly well-informed people say that Mario Balotelli, when he was still playing for Inter, used to take part into such competitions, displaying a will to compete equal if not superior to the one he displayed in Serie A or Champions League matches.

Whether these voices are true or not, they are coherent with the history of football in Italy, and they show the true heart of Calcio, the thing that made it special and different from everything else: a spontaneous, popular spirit, where historical rivalries count more than money and fame, and where defending the honor of your neighborhood and friends is worth the risk of losing your career.

Saturday, August 9 th, 2014
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