Winning means little though unless it is publicised, and given a clear message. Fascist control of the media in Italy ensured that victories would be interpreted as a vindication of the regime. “The press at this stage was subjugated and under state control. Oddly enough the Fascists were initially a bit suspicious about radio, worried about its potential for being subversive. But they did establish a national broadcasting company, then a network, and it became quite succesful from the late ’20s and early ’30s. Not everyone could afford a radio so matches tended to become central events in local town, city, village society. Radios would be in bars, and maybe the local dopolavoro centre, and so you’d be guaranteed to get a lot of people around. The advantage of course was that you don’t have to be literate either. So it became a great medium for the government. One of the most famous commentators of the era was Niccolo Carosio who adapted or invented his own sort of language, which fitted in with the linguistic nationalism of the regime. So, many of the English words associated with the game were replaced. Referee became arbitro, corner kick became calcio d’angolo.
The media at the time, though, consisted primarily of newspapers. “The Gazzetta dello Sport was probably the daily mouthpiece for the regime. Having taken over the Olympic Committee, there was also a magazine called Lo Sport Fascista, which, I hate to say, had quite intelligent sports writing in many ways, but everything obviously had a strong fascist leaning. The Gazzetta was the real mouthpiece for the regime. Like the radio, even for those who were illiterate, as it would be read aloud in the local bar and clubs, and imparted. Much of what was being written was exactly what the regime wanted, and was increasingly militaristic. As the thirties go on, when you get to the World Cup of ’38, it really was portrayed by the media as a military conquest on a foreign land.”
One side effect of the Regime’s close identification with the Italian game was that Italian clubs and the national team were perceived to be fascists when playing abroad, during this era. “It was the case with the major clubs that competed in European competitions, and the national team. You have the example of when the national team went to France in 1938 for the World Cup. It’s disputed, because there’s nothing recorded in the papers at the time, but it has been suggested that there were large-scale anti-fascist protests in places like Marseilles, with protesters being held back by horse-back police etc. Certainly the national team was seen very much as representative of the regime. Also at a club level, Bologna was very much seen as a fascist team. Juventus as well. There’s the example of Juventus going to play in Czechoslovakia, and the players are attacked, the fascist dignataries are abused, for being fascists. It’s an interesting example, because at the time Czechoslovakia was the only democracy in central Europe, being slowly surrounded by right wing fascist states. So they were a little bit touchy, perhaps. The club sides didn’t represent the regime, but they were very much seen to be.”
If it’s fair to say that from the 1926 onwards football in Italy was controlled and used by the fascist regime, what happened after its fall? Is there a discernible line that connects todays championship with its fascist origins? “I think there’s a fundamental continuity in the sense that Serie A hasn’t really changed, in terms of structures. It’s been tinkered with, and there have been a number of restructures, but essentially it’s stayed the same, The continuities are quite strong in many ways, particularly in the early years of the Republic, because not much changes. Many of the Club presidents, who may have been local fascists, or at least fascist sympathisers, remained. There was never any discussion about removing them. There was a guy called Ridolfi who was the head of the Fascist Association in Florence who continued to be head of the Football federation into the mid-50s. The Republic uses the game in many ways, naturally as probably most governments would do, in the same way that the fascists did. It’s a way of uniting Italians. Initially it was used as a way to distract people from the harshness of the post-war period. In the disputed Trieste region, it’s used to establish an Italian identity to the area. So, while Triestina are never particularly a strong side in the period, they repeatedly find themselves being put back into Serie A. Both by the Fascists and by the Republic. This was a way to reassert the Italian identity of the region. If Trieste was in Serie A, how could one discuss that it should be in Yugoslavia. Cycling is used in the same way, when in 48 they take the Giro d’Italia through, and there are big Italian demonstrations in the region.”
Indeed the break between fascism and football was subtle, mirroring changes in Italian society. A symbolic moment, though, can be easily picked. “I would say the real break between fascist football and the Republic is probably in 1949 and the Superga air crash, where the Torino team gets wiped out. That’s the point where you can say that there’s a definitive break between the fascist era, and that of the Republic, and, – he stresses, – it wasn’t at the end of the war. It was definitive because it wiped out the entire Torino team, who had won the league title four consecutive times, and would have won a fifth title that year [they were posthumously awarded the title]. They won their first title in ’43, obviously still under fascism. Most of these players had grown up, had been in a sense creations of fascism. They had gone through the fascist sporting system. They were very representative of the system. They provided 9 of the 11 players of the national team. When you lost them, you, in a sense, lost a whole generation. Italian football suffered their loss for nearly twenty years. Not only because of that, but principally because of that. It does force a grain of national introspection. It mirrors the national experience as well. After the war there were a couple of years of national celebration, until people realise that it’s time to roll up the sleeves and rebuild Italy. The next successes all kind of coincide with the emergence of the economic miracle of the fifties. Football kind of reflects the ups and downs of modern Italian history.”
Simon Martin is a Leverhulme Trust funded Research Fellow at the British School of Rome. Football and Fascism has been awarded the 2005 Lord Aberdare Literary Prize for Sports History.
Football and Fascism – The national game under Mussolini by Simon Martin is published by Berg.