The Italy of 1921 is far removed from the Italy of the present day. The political system was in turmoil – many argue it still is – as extremes of both kinds battled in the streets and ballot boxes for power. This was a country where the aftermath of World War One was still felt keenly. Italy had fought on the winning side in the war, but in many people’s eyes had been denied the spoils of victory in the Treaty of Versailles by both the British and the French.
These grievances and the perceived slight that Italian men had died in vain on the battlefield would eventually help fascist leader Benito Mussolini in his ascent to power. Mussolini’s power grab would all come in good time, as the March on Rome in October 1922 was still little more than a year away at this point.
Yet another area where the Italy of the time differed so much from its modern counterpart was in the sporting world and in particular the realm of calcio. Like on the political front tensions were brewing.
In the summer of 1921 Italian football was at a crossroads; the powerful northern clubs were becoming upset with the bloated nature of the top flight and pushed for change. The smaller teams, however, liked the status quo.
To alleviate the tensions between the factions, the FIGC (Federazione Italiana Giuco Calcio) brought in the renowned Vittorio Pozzo, a future double World Cup-winning manager, to mediate between the two sides. Pozzo’s solution was to propose a new reduced sized league made up of the top 24 teams in the north.
The Pozzo Project, as it soon became known, quickly found favour with the powerful clubs. The 24 teams suggested to make up the new division met in Milan and signed the Pact of Milan to verify the new league. However, in truth, Pozzo’s mediation was a failure and just drove a further wedge between the two warring clans.
None too happy with being cast aside, a campaign to overturn the new set up was organised and spearheaded by little Novese Calcio. The club had only been promoted to Serie A that very season and now quickly saw their chance of playing top division football eroding before their very eyes. They urged like-minded clubs to join them and sign a counter pact, the Pact of Novi.
Novese Calcio had only been founded two years previously, in March 1919, by three young men, Natale Beretta, Agostino Montessoro and Armando Parodi. In the 1920-21 season they stormed to the regional Piemont title, winning 16 of 16, scoring 55 and conceding only four. Despite being the main architect of the opposition, Novese rather ironically were not strictly against the idea of a 24 team top tier. They just wanted it postponed for one season so that they could establish themselves as a top 24 team.
Nevertheless, the club and its backers continued to protest and on 21 July 1921, a meeting of the federal council was summoned. It couldn’t have come at a worse time. The final match to decide where the title would be going for 1921 was being held later on the same day in Turin, as Pro Vercelli went up against Pisa.
The meeting went ahead anyway. As the clubs gathered around, the Pozzo Project was put to a vote. Amazingly, the project was vetoed by 113 votes to 65. Furious by the decision, the 24 clubs gathered together again. They were not willing to accept the verdict and decided to break away and form their own league “to improve the level of the game”, as they put it.
Along with a new league, an entirely new federation was also set up. The CCI (Confederazione Calcistica Italiana) was now in direct competition with the FIGC. Meanwhile, Novese had gotten there way and were all set for their first ever season in the new-look league.
The Biancoceleste were placed into the Piemont group alongside various clubs long gone the way of the Dodo (US Torinese, Giovani Calciatori di Vercelli and Pastore di Torino). Novese topped the group with relative ease, finishing five points ahead of their nearest rival.
Next on the chopping block was the semi-final group consisting of more colourful names from the past (Petrarca Padova and Pro Livorno). Again Novese led the way, topping the group to set up a showdown against Sampierdarnese to be crowned champions of Italy.
Back in the CCI, Pro Vercelli topped Group A, a group that held some of the most illustrious names in the Italian game (Juventus, Milan, Verona, Bologna). Pro Vercelli were no small fry themselves as they were searching for their seventh scudetto. Pro Vercelli are one of the oldest clubs in Italy, founded way back in 1892 by a local PE teacher by the name of Domenico Luppi. Yet it wasn’t until 11 years later that the football team arrived on the scene, quickly sweeping all before them.
Group B was topped by another giant of the time, Genoa, setting up a mouth-watering semi-final between two goliaths of the day. The first leg between the sides took place on 7 May 1922, and ended 0-0. On that same day in Sampierdarena, Novese took to the pitch in the first leg of the FIGC final that too finished in a scoreless draw. The second leg, a week later back in Novese’s home patch, ended in the same scoreline.
Pro Vercelli, meanwhile, overcame Genoa 2-1 in the return leg to claim the northern CCI championship and set up the title decider against the southern representatives, Fortitudo Roma. The winner takes all match in the FIGC was held on 28 May in neutral Cremona.
Even though they had only just been promoted, Novese had enough in their locker to beat Sampierdarnese 2-1 and create history, alongside none other than Pro Vercelli, in winning the league in the first year after promotion. The champions of Italy had been crowned.
In CCI-land Pro Vercelli convincingly won the first leg 3-0 before another easy win a week later five-two. Less than a month on from Novese being declared champions, Pro Vercelli were bestowed with the same honour.
What is probably more amazing than the rapidness of the breakup of the leagues was the quick reconciliation period. The divide lasted barely a year and in the summer of 1922 the FIGC and the CCI gathered around to discuss reuniting. The reasons behind each side’s eagerness to amalgamate was on the CCI’s behalf and their lack of official recognition. The federation was not recognised by FIFA. The FIGC’s reason for getting around the table was to get the big names back under their umbrella.
Emilio Colombo was the man brought in to strike the deal. His proposal, the Colombo compromise, was passed with ease, 246 votes to 18. The terms of the agreement saw the CCI disband and return to the FIGC, while the league would be restructured to have 36 teams split into three groups.
The 1921/22 Italian championship remains unique to this day. It is the only time in calcio’s history that two teams have been legitimately bestowed with the honour of being champions of Italy. For Novese and Pro Vercelli, little did they know that it would be the last time that either would find themselves on the top pedestal.
By Kevin Nolan. Follow @KevinNolan11