At the end of April 1945 northern Italy was definitely liberated from Nazi soldiers and from the fascist government supported by them. The day of liberation of Milan and Genoa, on April 25th, became the National Liberation day. Before that day Italy had been occupied for 20 months by Nazi army, and before those 20 months it had been ruled by Benito Mussolini and the fascist party for 20 years.
If football had become an instrument for the regime’s propaganda, on the wave of the international victories in 1934 and 1938 World Cups and 1936 Olympic games, it is true that some actors of this show were and have always been against fascism, and some of them paid with their lives this opposition to the regime.
Bruno Neri was probably the most famous partisan footballer, a picture of him refusing to make the roman salute before a match in Florence in 1931 became iconic after the war. During his football career, which started in 1926, Neri played in Faenza, Fiorentina, Lucchese and Torino. He played his last match in 1944, wearing Faenza jersey again in the “Northern Italy championship”, a mutilated tournament for a torn country. During his years in Lucchese, which was a sort of “antifascist football ghetto” in the fascist period, his coach was Ernő Erbstein, Hungarian Jewish coach who brought Lucchese up to Serie A. Brilliant manager as his compatriot Árpád Weisz, but luckier than him as he escaped fascist and nazi persecution. He died in 1949, coaching the Great Torino team, in the plane crash of Superga. Bruno Neri ended his life as a fighting partisan, being killed in a clash against German soldiers in July 1944.
Raf Vallone played in Serie A for Torino (he won the national cup in 1936) and Novara between 1934 and 1941. He participated in Italian Resistance in the antifascist group Giustizia e libertà (“Justice and freedom”), and after being arrested he escaped from detention, diving and swimming into the Como lake. After the war life was better for him. He participated in several movies as an actor, becoming one of the famous faces of neorealist cinema.
Giacomo “Mino” Losi
Giacomo “Mino” Losi, born in 1935, was a kid during the war, but nonetheless he participated at the Resistance of Cremona, in northern Italy, as a staffetta (relay). During the German occupation of Italy male adults had to answer to the frequent call-at-arms, so they didn’t have much freedom of movement. That’s why communication among partisan brigades, and also transportation of weapons, food or other materials, was entrusted to women, or even kids, who were called relays. After the war, the former staffetta Mino Losi became a star in AS Roma, especially during the 50s and the 60s. He played as a defender, collecting 386 caps with Roma and 11 with the national selection, in 15 years.
Some footballers didn’t participate directly in the armed resistance, but they suffered persecution or death because of their antifascist beliefs. That’s the case of Carlo Castellani, player in the Tuscany teams of Empoli, Livorno and Viareggio between 1926 and 1939. Actually the team of Empoli city had to change name in his last years, being dedicated to the “fascist martyr” Italo Gambacciani from 1938 to 1941. Castellani was arrested in March 1944, because of his family’s opposition to the regime. He was sent to Mauthausen lager, where he died in the following summer.
The same destiny hit Vittorio Staccione. Born in 1904, raised with socialist ideas, he made his debut in Italian Serie A in 1924. Afterwards, he was transferred to US Cremonese, where he was identified as an enemy of the regime. This meant that his name was often erased from the starting list of the matches, by putting an “X” in its place. He nonetheless kept playing well, so FC Torino took him back. After winning a Scudetto with the garnet team, he went to play for Fiorentina, where he had the best part of his career. He also went on to play for Cosenza and Savoia. At the end of his career Staccione came back to Turin, this time as a worker for the FIAT car factory. Still a fervent socialist, during nazi occupation he was reported by the OVRA (the fascist secret service) to the SS command, for having participated in partisan activities. He was also sent to Mauthausen camp, where he died in 1945 of septicemia.
Bruno Scher was born in the Istrian peninsula in 1907 and had become a subject of the Kingdom of Italy after World War I. At the time he was 25 years old, in 1932, he played nine matches in Serie A with Bari, and he was also able to score twice. Well informed people started to talk about an interest of a big northern Italy club for him, maybe Ambrosiana Inter, and also Italy’s coach Vittorio Pozzo was looking at him. But in that moment his football career had a stop. Scher was put on the bench because he refused to change his surname, which sounded too “exotic” for the fascist ears. He was proud of his Istrian origin, and moreover he had always been known to be an anti fascist. He was sent off to the third league, in the antifascist ghetto of Lucchese but, as we wrote, in 3 years that team climbed to Serie A, and then his “foreign” surname became a problem again. The proud Istrian refused to change his name for the 2nd time, and again he ended in the third division. After the war, alone and moneyless, Scher was helped only by his friend and former Lucchese teammate Aldo “Magic Cat” Olivieri, who called him to be his vice in coaching Triestina. Scher died at the end of the 70s, almost forgotten.
These life stories can tell us about how the instruments of a dictatorship’s propaganda can nonetheless host opposition against it. Football became popular in Italy in the fascist ventennio, partly replacing the heroes of cycling in the popular preference. But many footballers came from the working class, the part of society which had always been less enchanted by fascist ideology. The largest part of footballers of that age played for the regime, committed or not, but some of them decided not to hide their ideas and feelings, making their life much more difficult. Would you hazzard your job and your life not to disavow your ideas? Thinking about nowadays, can you mention some examples of footballers who used their popularity to spread civil or political ideas, in exchange of having their career compromised?
Find out more
Read a recent book about football opposition to fascist regimes: The defiant: a history of football against fascism, by Chris Lee. Here and here are two articles about the relation between Benito Mussolini and football.
A biography of Bruno Neri is available on our site.
For Italian readers, two biographies of Bruno Scher , Vittorio Staccione and the story of the anti fascist football ghetto of US Lucchese are available on the site minutosettantotto.it.