Viareggio is a charming town on the northern shores of Tuscany. This seaside resort is renowned for its elegant esplanade, its massive shipbuilding, its famous Carnival and the once-prestigious Viareggio literary award. Furthermore, this place has gained centrality in football, especially in the 1920s, when the regime of Benito Mussolini attempted to ‘fascistise’ what was becoming the most popular sport in the country.
Italian summers have been particularly turbulent in recent years, due to the break of footballing scandals and the collapse of several clubs in the lower divisions which has led to disruptions in arranging the leagues and organising the fixtures. This was a recurring theme in the past, though.
1926 turned out to be a crucial stage in the timeline of Italian football. In that year, the top-flight division, still split into the Northern League and the Southern one, was upset by the strike of referees who had come under threat. It was in 1925 when Leandro Arpinati, an influential member of the Fascist Party, fostered a pitch invasion by some squadristi during a playoff match between Bologna and Genoa.
The camicie nere (“Blackshirts”), Benito Mussolini’s paramilitary squads, intimidated the referee so that Bologna could equalise. Then, in February 1926, the Casale v Torino match was not ratified, for referee Sanguinetti had disallowed a goal to visitors due to an alleged lack of “perfect serenity of spirit”.
It was in this atmosphere that Lando Ferretti, chairman of the Italian National Olympic Committee (CONI), formed an ad hoc committee in early July. He appointed Roma-born gerarca Italo Foschi, Bologna chairman Paolo Graziani and, above all, Milanese lawyer Giovanni Mauro, who refereed the aforementioned Bologna v Genoa match.
For it was summertime, they decided to meet on 2 August in Viareggio, but far away from the exquisite cafés on the esplanade. They eventually accessed the Regio Casino in piazza Grande, one of the main squares of the town. The building was donated by Carlo Ludovico, Duke of Lucca, in 1827 and was then converted into a gambling casino; it was conceived for ‘those foreigners - that is to say, those who came from other cities - who aimed to have a place to stay outside the hours dedicated to bathing’.
It is not so irrelevant that they appointed Viareggio. The town was at the time a vibrant place which combined nature and modernity. The sandy beaches, the two large pinewoods and the adjacent Apuan Alps were the marvellous scenario of elegant bars where the first samples of Charleston and jazz in Italy were given. Moreover, poets Gabriele D’Annunzio and Thomas Mann and actor Ettore Petrolini were among the celebrities who used to spend their holidays here.
Viareggio had already hit the headlines in sports, though. It was here on 2 May 1920 that the local football team played a dramatic derby against rivals Lucchese. The match was suspended due to a pitch invasion by Viareggio fans and linesman Augusto Morganti was accidentally shot to death by a carabiniere during the tumult. He was the first victim for a football match in Italy. The incident immediately caused a local uprising which resulted in the declaration of the Republic of Viareggio, but the riot was crushed through the intervention of the army three days later.
The place where the chaos in Italian football began coincided with the place where order was restored. It took nine hours for the three men to give calcio a new constitution. Simply, it was called the Carta di Viareggio (“Viareggio Charter”) in honour of the place where it was written down.
A first, fundamental point was the legalisation of professional football in Italy, a step which had already been taken in England 41 years earlier. Previously, football clubs attempted to sign the most outstanding players through money transfers, which were immoral, and more importantly, illegal. For the first time, a marked distinction between “amateurs” and “non-amateurs” was drawn. Furthermore, footballers were now allowed to play for clubs from region different from those where they were born and grown up in.
The Italian football federation was subject to crucial changes as well. The Consiglio Federale (“Federal Council”) was replaced by the Direttorio Federale, hierarchically organised, and Arpinati was chosen as the new president. The Referees Association (AIA) was abolished and substituted by a Technical Committee. The basis of a one-group national championship was set, as the Northern League and the Southern one were merged into a single competition. This was functional to the ideal of national identity supported by Fascism.
Another crucial point was the resolute prohibition of signing foreign players, inspired by the principle of autarchy. Clubs were allowed to field up to two non-Italian footballers until 1928, when this new rule came definitely into force. Then, teams tried to shun the obstacle by signing the so-called oriundi or rimpatriati (“repatriated”), South American players - mainly Argentines and Uruguayans - who were born in Italy or were of Italian descents.
However, as John Foot states in his book Calcio, it is partially incorrect to assume that these footballers were a sort of way out of the rigid rules of the Carta. They were not regarded as entirely Italians, but at the same time it was hard to label them as ordinary foreigners. A limit of two oriundi per team was in fact introduced, but this did not prevent clubs to seek new talents in the Italian communities in Buenos Aires and Montevideo. Luis Monti and Raimundo Orsi were even capped and won the World Cup in 1934, the first lifted by the Azzurri.
The Fascism twenty-year period finished with World War II. The Regio Casino was closed in 1937, due to the practice of gambling. Nowadays, the same square, in the meantime renamed in memory of naval workers Pietro Nieri and Enrico Paolini, hosts the building of the local Comune, the Italian correspondent of the English town halls. Not differently from nearly one century ago, it is still here, in the Viareggio agorà, that crucial decisions are taken.