Serie A is well known as one of the strongest leagues in the world. Clubs like AC Milan, Inter and Juventus have provoked excitement and wonder to hundreds of million people across the world for the last fifty years. However, Italy’s flagship sports league could quite easily have never existed. The route to “La Serie’s” inception, in 1929, was a long and winding path through controversy and conflict between the Federazione Italiana Giuoco Calcio (FIGC) and their member teams.
The FIGC was founded in 1898, in order to form a structure to try and expand local football played throughout the country. The result of this expansion was the inaugural “Concorsi Federali di Calcio” (Federal Football Competition) which was contested later that year. The tournament, held on May 8th in Turin, was contested by FBC Torinese, Internazionale Torino, Ginnastica Torino and eventual winners Genoa. This sparked something of a winning streak for Genoa, as they went on to win five of the next six championships, as attendance continued to remain very low.
By 1904, there were just five entrants in the competition and it was clear that it was not capturing the imagination of football fans. It not difficult to see why, when in a supposed national competition, teams from only three north-western states of Italy were allowed to enter: Lombardy (AC Milan), Liguria (Genoa and Andrea Doria, later to become Sampdoria) and Piedmont (Juventus and FBC Torinese).
In a desperate act to try and salvage the Concorsi Federali di Calcio, the FIGC introduced a new twist to the 1908 tournament. It was a twist that proved controversial and smacked of fascist overtones. The FIGC wished to ban foreigners from the tournament, a snub to the influence foreigners had on the game in Italy. Englishmen had founded all but one of the founding members of the concorsi and made up a significant proportion of players within the competition.
Unsurprisingly, this angered those participating in the tournament, and so a rather feeble compromise was met. Instead of one concorsi, there were two: the Federal competition, for teams with foreigners, and the Italian competition, for teams without foreigners. This tiered system was snubbed by Torino and Genoa, as Juventus won the Federal concorsi, contested by just two teams, and Pro Vercelli won the far more “important” Italian competition. The two competitions continued to run side-by-side for another season, until the 1909-10 concorsi, in which a single league was played for the first time. Of course, there was still a special honour reserved for the best “pure Italian team” but this was seen as increasingly irrelevant by Italian outfits.
During this season, the both Italian and Federal champions were tied, in the forms of Pro Vercelli and Inter Milan respectively. A play-off was arranged, but clashed with a military tournament. In days before professionalism, many players were tied up in the armed forces. This meant Vercelli would miss several key players. A plea to reschedule was dismissed by the FIGC, and the play-off went ahead. In protest, Vercelli fielded a side composed entirely of primary school children and was beaten 10-3. It was another messy situation caused by the FIGC’s incompetence.
If one thing was clear about the FIGC’s management of the concorsi, it is that it lacked any real long term planning. After just one season of a round robin league, the FIGC replaced this with regional group phases followed by a “national” final (of course, southern sides were still not allowed to enter). By the time southern sides were finally allowed to participate, in 1912, this change of system had grown into a convoluted pyramid consisting of a pre-qualification round into one of five regional group phases; followed by an extra interregional group phase in the North or a knockout in the South and a national play-off to determine the concorsi champion. The tournament had blossomed into a 33 team nightmare, more than double the outfits the season before.
The First World War provided a break in the concorsi, but its return in 1919 was eagerly anticipated by football clubs throughout Italy. A huge 78 teams entered the competition, leaving a logistical nightmare for the FIGC. To put this into perspective, the concorsi had more entries than this season’s Champions League with a meagre 76.
These concerns were voiced by some of the competition’s members, who were concerned by the excessive increase of teams participating. They wanted a structure similar to any modern national league, a simple round robin competition. It was Vittorio Pozzo, the manager of Torino and later double World Cup winner with the Azzurri, who drafted a proposal for just that. This view, however, was not representative of all those in the concorsi, in particular smaller clubs who felt their existence would be threatened by such a system. The FIGC rejected this proposal, and a start of a football civil war ensued.
The larger teams rebelled against this judgement and the Confederazion Calcistica Italiana (CCI) was formed, and a rival league created. However, the CCI’s new league used an identical system to that of the FIGC’s concorsi, with a system of regional and interregional leagues. Pro Vercelli reigned supreme in the CCI, while US Novese triumphed in the FIGC. In an unusually smart move by the FIGC, they accepted the CCI’s demands after just one season and the two leagues reunited again.
With the FIGC agreeing to form an 18 team league, the concorsi contingent would have to be whittled down to less than a quarter of its size. This was done gradually, and the Italian football pyramid went through several changes. First of all, more teams were relegated from entering the concorsi, which continued to use the same regional league system until 1925. Two side-by-side round robin group phases were then put in place, similar to that of the Conference North and South by today’s standards, with differing methods to determine the overall champion; from a championship group to a play-off.
In 1928, the last ever Concorsi Federali di Calcio was contested. It was potentially the most important concorsi, with the top nine of each group gaining qualification to the new Serie A, the rest would be admitted to Serie B. Bologna were victorious, defeating Torino in the play off, the last ever concorsi match. A single round robin league, fairly similar to that of Vittorio Pozzo’s image, had finally been organised.
The years spent trying to launch the new Serie A sparked something of a change among other European countries. La Liga was launched at the same time as Serie A, with Austria starting their Bundesliga in 1929. Switzerland rebranded their first division in 1930, and France’s Ligue 1 started in 1933.
Although the Concorsi Federali di Calcio had mixed success and was filled with management blunders, controversy and scandal; it was a prelude to a far more successful league filled with management blunders, controversy and scandal.