“The fascists were quite astute in this period, in that they recognised football for what it is: a sport enjoyed by the masses. It was the only way really that they could effectively reach mass society, be it through people actually watching the game, or by reading papers, or listening to other people reading the newspapers. They were very keen to attach themselves to the sport all over the country, but that was it. There was no imposition in the sense that it became a fascist game. That clubs had to be led by fascists. They kind of did it by default, with the creation of the national league. When they created Serie A, they wanted to create a sense of national identity. So, rather than having these different leagues, Lega di Campania, Lega Lazio, etc, they wanted a national league that said ‘this is one country’, so then Naples would travel up to Juventus etc. They realised at the same time that to have a national league you couldn’t have a whole number of small teams. For example, in Rome at the time there were a number of biggish sides, but they got merged into one to form AS Roma, which was led by a local fascist leader, Italo Foschi. Arpinati was head of the football federation at the time, and he realised this. He said to teams that if you want to be in the league you have to unite your resources, so by default many of the Comunes [local government], which were run by fascists, encouraged their teams to come together to form one team to represent the city. It wasn’t a regulation, but because the cities were controlled by the fascist party, it was almost by default.”
In this period, Bologna, the capital of Emilia, the region where Mussolini was born, had a remarkable series of victories, winning the Scudetto an impressive five times between 1929 and 1941. “Bologna were a particularly strong side in this era,” agrees Martin, before explaining the way football worked at a local level. “They were a strong side principally because of the importance the local party, which had been led by Arpinatti, placed on football. A lot of money was invested. For example they built a stadium [seen at the time as both modern and a wonderful expression of fascist architecture]. They threw a lot of money at football and the team. There were tax breaks, and handouts from the Comune. The Comune was very supportive of Bologna because they knew that it in turn was very good for them. It was great publicity for the city.”
Part of the impulse for the State to involve itself in football was the powerful role it could play in creating a unifying identity. Italy, after all, had only existed as a unified nation since 1861 (with its capital in Turin). For the fascist government, the creation of a national league enabled them to create a sense of belonging to the nation. It also, though, had the unwanted effect of creating or refuelling local rivalries. “The regime was very concerned about campanilismo, this retreat into local identity, which we tend to associate more with the middle ages and the era of the city-states. There’s a lot written by the regime against this tendency, for example ‘there’s no place for this idiotic localism in our society’. So they were very keen to stop this kind of rivalry. There are reports in the national archives of some games being particularly heavily policed, where they expected trouble to happen. It was like a double edged sword for them. I don’t think they expected this to happen. It may have been a little naïve of them, but when it does happen, they don’t abandon football, but rather warn people that this is not how sport should be in a fascist state.”
While local rivalries may have been fostered, the growth of Italy’s prestige internationally was an important part of the regime’s propaganda. Sport certainly played a philosophical part in fascism, with Leandro Arpinati lecturing that “for the physical improvement of the race, nothing is as useful as sport that teaches everybody an amount of discipline and moulds muscles with character” [Martin Football and Fascism, pg 32] At the same time, though, in reality, winning, and the propaganda opportunity that victory provided, was the be all and end all. “Winning was absolutely and completely important, – Martin concurs. – They were ruthless about the players they used, and the things that they did to win. Initially, in 1926, when they restructured the game, they did introduce a ban on foreign players. Initially there was a quota of two players for two years, after which there was to be a complete ban. Then they went to the Olympics in 1928 and the World Cup in 1930, where they saw teams like Argentina and Uruguay doing really well, and playing for these teams there were players born from Italian emigrants. The Italians took a very pragmatic approach, and rather than scrapping the law and admitting defeat, they let these players, who had already represented another country, come in under the categories oriundo or rimpatriato . So they were ruthless in the pursuit of winning. There was one player, Luisito Monti who played in the 1930 World Cup for Argentina, and then moved to Italy, where they payed him lots of money and got him into the national team. In the end, they wanted to win. They weren’t too worried about how they did it, or with whom. Ultimately what they wanted was to win, to provide the propoganda opportunity to say 1) how well organised the fascist State was, and 2) how they were regenerating not only Italy, but also Italians, and victory was evidence of it. That was up to 1938 of course, before the introduction of the racial laws, under the influence of Nazi Germany, but even then that was done under duress”.