One of the most enigmatic clubs in world football remains largely unfulfilled, but in the 1940's....
The fact that AS Roma have only ever won three scudetti has always been something of an anomaly. Virtuoso players have come and gone, numerous coaches have tried their luck at bringing success to Roma (with varying levels of aptitude), but only Nils Liedholm in 1982/83 and Fabio Capello in 2000/01 have brought the Serie A title to the red and yellow half of Rome since World War Two.
The Italians’ involvement in the war did not stop Serie A from continuing until 1943; one of the wartime championships was won by Roma, their first scudetto, in 1941/42. Hungarian coach Alfréd Schaffer was then at the helm, having previously won the Hungarian league with MTK Budapest after telling the president “no signings [are needed], with the players we have we can win the championship”. There have always been doubts about Roma’s title though, spread by such writers as Gianni Brera and Mario Soldati, and speculation over whether Benito Mussolini helped Roma win the title intensified when coach Helenio Herrera commented in 1971 that “Roma fans are moaning about me; to think that they have only won one scudetto – they should thank Mussolini”. It is safe to say that the comments were not well received by the club hierarchy or its fans, and Herrera was immediately sacked (though was brought back later that same year when Gaetano Anzalone took over as president).
When the season began, no one even gave Roma a chance of winning the title. Bologna started as favourites, while Juventus and Venezia, who had Valentino Mazzola and Ezio Loik (later of Grande Torino fame) among their ranks, were also tipped to do well. Roma, in fact, had just changed presidents; Edgardo Bazzini had taken over from Igino Betti to be met with distrust from the fans, who were wary that a complete newcomer to football had taken the presidency. The anecdote goes that Bazzini asked Schaffer what he could do to the squad “to entertain the fans and not make myself a fool”. Schaffer replied, “Give me a central midfielder and a mezz’ala and I will win the championship”. In came midfielder Edmondo Mornese and mezz’ala Renato Cappellini, as well as defender Sergio Andreoli, to play alongside the likes of Miguel Ángel Pantó, Naim Krieziu and Amadeo Amadei.
The 20-year-old Amadei was at the heart of the Roma team, and remains the youngest ever player to appear in Serie A (15 years, 9 months and 6 days) and scored eight days later to become – and remain – the league’s youngest ever goalscorer. ‘Er Fornaretto’ scored 18 goals for the Giallorossi in the 1941/42 campaign, while Pantó weighed in with 12 as Roma pipped Torino to the title by three points, with Venezia, Genoa and Lazio following close behind the Granata.
So where do the allegations of Fascist involvement come into play? Perhaps the starting point should be Benito Mussolini, and his agenda to evoke the power and symbolism of ancient Rome in his new Italy. “I swear to lead our country once more in the paths of our ancient greatness… The example of ancient Rome stands before the eyes of all of us”, ‘Il Duce’ proclaimed. Simon Martin, in his excellent Sport Italia: The Italian Love Affair With Sport, points out that football was a “perfect metaphor for Fascism’s idealised society”, and the hosting of the World Cup in Italy in 1934 allowed Mussolini to showcase how “Fascist hard work and creativity had transformed Italy, [and] its athletic elite would leave no doubt about the rejuvenation of the race”. With Italy’s victory in the World Cup (unsubstantiated conspiracy theories abound over this as well, but that is a topic for another day), the regeneration of Italian sport on a macro level was complete; on a micro level, was it time for Rome to regain its status as the centre of Italy and wrest the Serie A title from the clutches of the northern clubs? So some have argued.
Roma’s sporting director Eraldo Monzeglio (who in early 1942 volunteered to join the Italian army on the Russian front, along with club masseur Angelo Cerretti) also happened to be a friend of Mussolini and allegedly oversaw some favourable refereeing decisions. One such occasion was on 11 January 1942, when Roma and Lazio were level at 1-1 in the derby after 90 minutes. In the second minute of injury time, Maximiliano Faotto scored an own goal to put Roma 2-1 ahead. Laziali allege there was a blatant push on Faotto that saw player, ball and all sent over the line, but the referee was happy to allow the goal and Roma won the stracittadina. Unfortunately for the Lazio faithful, their team were also indirectly contributing to Roma’s first scudetto as they took four points off eventual runners-up Torino and six points off third-placed Venezia over the course of the season.
It should be said that Roma also felt the other end of refereeing decisions, such as in the clash with Torino on 10 May 1942 when the two teams were tied at the top of the table on 32 points. With Roma leading 2-1, Amadei thought he had scored his hat-trick until referee Giovanni Galeati disallowed the goal for an, at best, dubious offside decision before allowing Walter Petron’s goal to stand, even though it was debatable whether the ball had crossed the line after coming down off the crossbar. Il Littoriale called it “a draw that should have been a Giallorossi win” while Il Giornale d’Italia recorded that “Roma emerged unbeaten from the Granata’s pitch after a scintillating game that they deserved to win”. In the end it was, fortunately for Roma, of no consequence.
There is a theory that surrounds the fact that players at clubs in the north suffered from trauma and were unable to sleep due to the bombing of cities in the north of Italy during 1942, but research has shown that bombings against Italy by the British occurred briefly (and largely ineffectually) in 1940 before a more systematic bombardment began in October 1942, after the 1941/42 season had concluded. Furthermore, regarding the war, there is little to suggest that Serie A’s strongest clubs were deliberately weakened by the government. Some have argued that the best players from the likes of Torino and Juventus were forced to perform their military service (served for 18-24 months by 20 and 21-year-olds), but only one player (Nicolosi Nicolò of Atalanta) is unaccounted for from the top six teams from the 1940/41 season. The likes of Mazzola and Loik from Venezia not only played in the key games towards the end of the season but appeared in both matches against Roma – a full rundown of the statistics can be found here (PDF).
Rather than a scudetto won with the aid of Mussolini, are the theories simply the creation of a media bemused by the title disappearing south for the first time? The league title had never been further south than Emilia-Romagna; perhaps some felt there had to be a reason why the likes of Bologna, Torino and Juventus had been beaten by the Giallorossi. Such rumours were seemingly given credence by Roma’s instant return to mediocrity as they finished 11th out of 16 teams in the 1942/43 championship. Serie A was then postponed until 1946/47, and after a series of poor campaigns Roma were even relegated for the only time in their history in 1950/51.
Mussolini himself was actually far from a fan of the beautiful game. Although he had become paid Lazio 1,000 lire to become a member of the club in October 1929 and attended their match against Napoli the following year, it is rare to see photos of ‘Mussolini the footballer’. Contrast this with his appearances on motorcycles, skiing or fencing (a personal favourite) among other sports, where Mussolini sought to portray himself as the iconic athlete to embody the Fascist ideal of the physically and morally perfect Italian. Mussolini even requested that Tazio Nuvolari should bring his Alfa Romeo P3 to his state residence at Villa Torlonia in 1932 in order to be photographed with the great racing driver and his car.
Roma tifosi have often pointed out in defence of the title that, with Allied forces having already bombed northern Italian towns in 1940 and Italy becoming increasingly involved in the war, Benito Mussolini must have had more important things to concern himself about than the winner of the Serie A title. In fact, they have argued, since Mussolini had come to power in 1925 and Roma had been a professional club since 1927, why had Il Duce waited until 1941/42 to involve himself in calcio?!
So the 1942 scudetto: a unique campaign inspired by Amadei or a gift from Mussolini? It seems that the numerous conspiracy theories surrounding the title win can be rationally explained, but in the years following Roma’s first title there were far more serious problems facing the Italian nation than whether or not their leader had interfered in the destiny of a sporting trophy.
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