On the 2nd of August this year (2005), football fans from the Sicilian city of Messina blockaded the strategic ferry route between the city and the Italian peninsula, protesting against their club’s relegation to Serie B. Another small episode in a long history of impassioned football support, and political intrigue (the Sicilian club were re-admitted to Serie A, despite being in breach of various financial regulations), in one of the world’s most exciting and popular championshipsc Serie A. The fact that Serie A was founded by the Fascist government of Benito Mussolini is not something routinely mentioned amongst the trivia of top goal scorers, and clubs with the most Scudetti.
In fact, though, the fascist government quickly realised the popularity and potential of Calcio, as it is called in Italy. “It really took off after the war,” comments Simon Martin, historian and author of Football and Fascism – The national game under Mussolini. “Obviously some of the first clubs had been established as early as the 1880s-1890s, but particularly after the First World War, it really took off. And this is one of the reasons that the fascists wanted to take over the game.”
And the reason for the game’s popularity (that borders on religious obsession)? “It took off initially because it was introduced,” Martin says with all the certainty of an academic who also happens to be a fan. “There is a debate over its origins, – he continues, -the fascists themselves were quite keen on suggesting that Calcio Fiorentino was the origin of the modern game of football. Some people suggested that it had come from down south, from Naples. But effectively most people now agree that it was introduced by English merchants, particularly in Genoa. Genoa football and cricket club being one of the first, if not the original, clubs in the country. It boomed once it was introduced, much like every where else. That was as much due to creeping industrialisation as anything. It’s not by chance that the game boomed particularly in the North, in the industrial triangle of Genoa, Turin and Milan, where there were businesses beginning to sponsor sport, be it for philanthropic motives or for reasons of social control. It isn’t really a big sport of the South, because of the countryside, the lack of big cities meant that it lacked the masses required. It was closely linked to the growing industrialisation, which occured quite late in Italy.”
The sport’s popularity in the 1920s, coupled with a climate of social tension that brought Fascism to power, ensured that football would come to the attention of the ruling regime. A specific date can be placed upon the intervention of fascism into Italian football. “The real moment is 1926, with the Carta di Viareggio, – explains Martin. – There is evidence of fascist interest in the sport slightly earlier than that, but really it’s difficult to speak of anything black and white. Prior to 1926, Mussolini’s sporting interests were mainly with ‘nobler’ sports like fencing, boxing, shooting, and motor sports.” The Carta di Viareggio came about after a number of highly controversial matches, and refereeing decisions during 1925, leading to widespread calcio-chaos as Martin puts it. “In 1925, there was a play-off between Bologna and Genoa, which went to about five re-play matches. At one match an incident of crowd disorder occured, in Turin. Some shots were fired in the crowd, and the subsequent replay was played behind closed doors, where the only spectators happened to be Bologna fascists, led by Leandro Arpinati (who would go on to be President of the FIGC, the Italian footballing federation). They’re recorded as having stood on the sidelines flashing pistols and generally being quite intimidating. So, particulary in Bologna, Arpinati was very aware of the game and its influence. The key moment for fascism in football followed in 1926, when they [the government] introduced a panel of so-called experts to come up with this thing called the Carta di Via Reggio“. The document restructured the game and its administration, with appointments to football’s governing bodies falling into the remit of Mussolini. “That’s the begining of what a lot of people refer to as ‘football in a black shirt’.”
Football, though, wasn’t necessarily the first choice for communicating with the masses. It became, de facto, one of the most practical. “They did play around with the idea of fascist theatre, a theatre for the masses, and they tried this experiment of a theatre for 20,000 people in Florence. It took a lot of money, and a lot of effort, and it wasn’t very successful. With football they realised straight away that, while they were spending all this money elsewhere, every weekend there were maybe 200,000 people more going to see football matches, along with the people who don’t go but are interested in it”
And so, a new national league was set up by the fascist-controlled FIGC. The first national league was in the 1928-29 season, although it was two divisions – north and south – with the winner decided by a play-off. The first single, national league – Serie A – was in1930. The league was comlimented by an extensive programme of stadium building and the introduction of physical education programmes.