Triestina 1947-48.
Triestina 1947-48.

Trieste, a city for two leagues

Two championships in the Iron Curtain city from 1946 to 1949

Enrico Cavalieri
Enrico Cavalieri Istituto Comprensivo Porretta Terme. FMH contributor

On 1st November 1946 CS Ponziana debuted in Prva Liga, with a 2-2 draw against Lokomotiva Zagreb. The city of Trieste (Trst in Slovenian) became the first city to have two teams in the first league of two different national championships: US Triestina in Italy’s Serie A and Ponziana in Yugoslavian Prva Liga.

A polycultural port city

Located at the northern end of the Adriatic Sea, the identity of Trieste was strictly connected with its port, which in the late Middle Age brought it to contrast with the Venice Republic and the resulting location of the Julian city in the Austrian orbit. In the 18th century Trieste became the most important port of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and it developed a mitteleuropean character in which German, Slavic and Latin cultures got mixed. After the Great War Trieste was annexed to the Kingdom of Italy. Soon after the Fascist Party took power, and started a policy of annihilation of non-Italian minorities, which lasted until the defeat of Nazi-fascism in 1945. 

Football played a role in a divided city

Post-WW2 Trieste was occupied and ruled in part by the Allied Military Government and in part by Yugoslavian Popular Army. Both Italy and Yugoslavia aimed to annex the entire city, and in the issue also football played a propaganda role.

CS Ponziana, a working class, socialist district team, was playing in Italian Serie C (the third league). The team had already had a story of dissidence during the fascist ventennio, to the point that Mussolini, in 1928, had imposed a fusion with another team, to cool down the animosity of the district’s workers. In 1946, the Belgrade Government decided to go, and started to ask the Ponziana players if they would like to play in a first league, having their salaries raised . Some players accepted, others didn’t, so the team was split up in two and Ponziana (which became Poncijana) could debut in Yugoslavian Prva Liga.

Football coexistence on the Iron Curtain

The Allied Military Government, to lower the tension, decided that the first matches of both teams had not to be played in the city of Trieste, so Triestina played in the Friulian city of Udine and Ponziana in the Slovenian Ljubljana, with the Yugoslavia Government financially helping the team in its long journeys for away matches.

But by the end of 1946 the two teams started to share the city stadium of San Sabba, which was close to the notorious Risiera, the only former Nazi extermination camp in Italian territory. So, the two leagues crossed their roads in the same stadium, and if you lived in Trieste it could happen to you to see in the same month the Great Torino playing, then the Partizan of Belgrade, AC Milan and Dinamo Zagreb.

Breakup in the Cominform, end of the game

At the end of the season, both teams were to be relegated, but both governments intervened for propaganda reasons, readmitting Poncijana and Triestina, which could play another year in the best championships of Yugoslavia and Italy. In the same year the Paris Treaty was signed, and the western part of Trieste was declared “Free territory”, under the Italian, Allied and UN administration.

Despite the political rivalry between the two countries, the relationship between the two clubs was good. Players knew each other and frequently met in the city, even some friendly matches were played between Triestina and Poncijana.

In 1949, after the 1948 Cominform break up between Stalin’s USSR and Tito’s Yugoslavia, this situation ended. The teams of Trieste ceased to be symbols of an international conflict, and Poncijana played his last Prva Liga match on May Day 1949, losing 0-3 against Dinamo Zagreb and sadly ending at the last place of the final classification, for the first time in three years. The Yugoslavian Poncijana reunited with Italian Ponziana, and participated in the Serie C championship 1949-1950, even if the “Yugoslavian” players had to suffer a disqualification of six months. The Cold War was still on.

Thinking points

Two football teams of the same city became symbols of a world division after WWII. Can you tell other examples of teams which play in the same city but were divided for political reasons? Do you think nowadays this kind of division still exists in some cities?

Find out more

Wikipedia page of Prva Liga and Serie A 1946-47. Just for Italian readers, some articles on the issue are available in the sites of Vita Sportiva, Contrasti and Undici reviews.

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