For those unfamiliar with Italian league football, the recent promotion of Pro Vercelli to Serie B after 64 years spent flittering between Serie C and the amateur leagues will mean very little. But for dedicated fans of the Bianche Casacche (White Shirts) the besting of Carpi 3-1 in the 2012 Liga Pro Prima play-off represents a significant advance for the tiny Piedmont club with an illustrious, and often contentious past.
In spite of their contemporary minnow status, Pro Vercelli are one of the most heavily decorated clubs in Italian football history. Between 1908 and 1922, they collected seven Serie A titles, more than Lazio, Roma and Napoli combined. At the height of their success, their modern training methods, unparalleled fitness, and aggressive style made them almost unbeatable. In short, they were one of the best teams in the world.
Formed in 1892 by local P.E teacher Domenico Luppi, the Pro Vercelli Gymnastics Society initially specialised in gymnastics and fencing. Then in 1903, local fencer and high school student Marcello Bertinetti – who subsequently achieved two Olympic Gold medals for fencing at the 1924 and 1928 games – returned to Vercelli after a trip to Turin to watch Juventus with his latest purchase: a football. With his friends, he founded U.S Pro Vercelli Calcio.
The team played their first official match on the 3rd August 1903 against Forza e Constanza. The next year, they participated in the Lombardy Cup in nearby Casteggio, and travelled the 70km distance by bicycle. While crossing the River Ticino, the group tried to avoid paying a bridge toll, but the keeper of the bridge noticed and managed to catch striker Sessa, and forced him to pay for all 11 players. The team lost 2-1 to Milan, but returned to Vercelli as heroes.
It was in Casteggio that the team first wore the distinctive shirts which acquired them their original nickname. Though they had originally chosen to play in black and white striped shirts with heavily starched collars and cuffs – a direct homage to Juventus – they soon tired of of having to repaint the stripes onto the shirts after they repeatedly faded in the wash. The solution: play in all white, with black shorts.
The next month, in a friendly against Audace Torino, Vercelli fielded their famous ‘Midfield Line of Wonders’ for the first time: Pietro Leone, Giuseppe Milano, and future team captain Guido Ara. They had arrived at the club at the same time as Bertinetti, and when asked by the club executives why they wanted to form a football team, Ara had responded, “To become champions of Italy.” The executives laughed, but welcomed the trio for being so presumptuous.
Ara was a genuine character, considered by many as the first genuine star of Italian football. Nicknamed, ‘L’elegante Guido,’ he was full of invention: an elegant dribbler who excelled at feints, precision passing and headers, who retained the robust physicality that was the hallmark of Vercelli’s ‘Wonders.’ Ara would purposefully live in apartments on the upper floors, so he could jog on the stairs, and trained by chasing the tram, or by cycling to games. “Calcio (football)” he would say “is not for little girls.”
By that time, Pro Vercelli were owned by Louis Bozino, one of the foremost criminal lawyers in Italy. A local resident, and keen fencer, Bozino was a close friend of Jules Rimet, he later served as President of the Italian Football Federation (FIGC) and Vice President of FIFA. His association with Pro Vercelli persisted, and he served the club in various permutations until his death in 1937. He used to reward offensive players with a cigar for every goal they scored.
Training at Pro Vercelli was unique: they were the first Italian team to set up modern coaching and conditioning regimes. Young and middle class, they were able to train more than older players at other clubs. Corners and free kicks were practiced in training and the team controlled possession rather than simply playing the long ball. Their superior fitness and physicality made them unstoppable at the end of games, and gained them a second nickname, the Leoni (Lions).
The club rose quickly through the Italian subdivisions, reaching the national league in 1907. Strictly amateur, not one Vercelli player took a wage from the club. Playing for the joy of the game, they won the National title at their first attempt, Between 1908 and 1913 they captured all but one. Along the way, Ara and his team mates narrowly avoided being killed when a derby between Vercelli and Casale descended into a violent brawl between spectators, accompanied by multiple gunshot wounds to rival fans.
In 1910, they lost out to Inter Milan in one of the greatest injustices in Italian football history. That year, the FIGC changed the rules to allow a play off after the two teams had finished on equal points. Vercelli had scored more goals – the deciding factor in previous seasons. In consultation with Inter, a date was chosen when several Vercelli players were committed to play in the Queens Cup, a military tournament in Rome. Vercelli protested, but to no avail. Having decided to play in the Queens Cup, the play off did go ahead. Vercelli fielded their 4th team – a team of children and young teenagers, the eldest being captain Alessandro Rampini, who was 13. Inter won the match 10-3.
Initially banned from football for their impertinence, the ruling was overturned after Ara and his brother Emilio cycled to Genoa, Florence, Rome, Bologna and Milan gathering signatures for a petition to the FIGC. This victory was bittersweet: the ban had prohibited Vercelli players from being selected for the first Italian national team squad. As a consolation to this fact, the Italian squad had worn imitation Pro Vercelli shirts out of respect.
After the ban, Vercelli players dominated the national squad for the next three years. On one famous occasion, a 1-0 win over Belgium in May 1913, they numbered nine of the 11 players on the field. Ara shined, and scored the winning goal. After 60 minutes, Italy were awarded a free kick. Stepping up, Milano dummied his kick towards Ara, which caught the Belgians off guard, and Ara hit the ball into the left hand corner. It was one of the first examples of a worked free kick. A telegram sent back to Vercelli read, “Pro Vercelli beat Belgium!.”
By that time, Pro Vercelli was a name recognised throughout the world. Their success culminated in an invitation to tour South America with Torino in 1914, the first time Italian teams had visited the continent. Whilst in Rio De Janeiro, they played the likes of Botofogo, Palmeiras and Fluminense. However, the coming war threatened to break up the team. High scoring winger Carlo Rampini accepted a job in Brazil, while Ara served as a gunner in the Grappa Mountains on the Italian Front. Felice Milano, brother of club captain Giuseppe, died in the trenches of the Western Front at the age of 24.
Milano would lose another brother and team mate, Aldo, as a consequence of the political violence of the post war period. In January 1921, Aldo, a militant fascist, joined other fascists in visiting a nearby town to remove a plaque they believed was insulting to the war dead. During the mission, Aldo was shot by a local government doorkeeper. Some claim he was taken to hospital; others that his body was left in the street. Either way, nothing could be done.
When the league resumed in 1919, Pro Vercelli continued their success. They achieved two further titles in 1921 and 1922, the latter with Ara at the helm. It was their final title. Soon after, they were invited to play a marquee friendly against English league title holders Liverpool, who had crushed all other opponents on their European tour. For all their talent and skill however, they could only draw with the Leoni. “You have not beaten us today,” said Ara, “and you will never achieve it.”
Late into the 1920s, Vercelli began to decline. Professionalism entered the game, and the small town could not compete with the lure of richer clubs from the cities. Their talisman Ara left in 1926 to manage Como, and after returning between 1932 and 1934, left for good. He later managed Fiorentina, Roma, AC Milan and Genoa. However, his influence ensured that Vercelli remained competitive: using the tried and tested methods of passion, harmony between players, and a utilitarian attitude.
Most importantly, he ensured that Vercelli continued its fine youth policy. Notable players include goalkeeper Giuseppe Cavanna, who travelled to the 1934 World Cup, midfielder Teobaldo Depetrini, who found lasting fame at Juventus, and most famous of all, Silvio Piola. After 51 goals in 127 appearances for Vercelli between 1929 and 1934, he signed for Lazio for a record fee. A World Cup winner with Italy in 1938, he remains the all time top scorer in Serie A with 274 goals. “We will never sell Piola,” Louis Bozino stated, “not even for all the gold in the world. Once we sell him, the decline of Pro Vercelli will begin.”
Those words were prophetic. Pro Vercelli were relegated from Serie A at the end of the 1934 season, and have yet to return. Further relegations ensured that they quickly lost touch with the professional game. In the following decades they repeatedly struggled with their finances. Affairs reached a head in late June 2010, when enrolment in the Lega Pro Division II was ensured only through a fundraising drive, which managed to scrape the 140,000 euros needed to fulfil the registration.
Two weeks later, the club were excluded from the Lega Pro, and only a merger with more prosperous town rivals AS Belvedere Vercelli ensured the continuation of its records, though this proved the turning point. At the end of the 2010-11 season, Pro Vercelli finished in third place, and were promoted to fill spaces created in the higher league. After a second successive promotion, supporters of the White Shirts can once again dream of a return to glory days of Serie A.