July 28, 1914: the official date that World War One started. It would prove to be the bloodiest conflict the world had ever seen, some 8.5 million Military personnel would die in the battlefields of Ypres, Somme, Gallipoli and countless others over the next four harrowing years. Sixteen days earlier on July 12 in the small northern Italian town of Casale Monferrato, it was all still miles away. In fact there were no worries, only celebrations, as Casale FC won their first and last ever scudetto.
Professor Raffaele Jaffe has just spotted a number of his students – it’s October 1909. The boys greet Jaffe and explain that they are off to the nearby village of Caresana to watch a soccer match. Intrigued, he is convinced to join them. Mesmerised by what he sees Jaffe is convinced there and then to re-establish Robur fb. Robur had been founded in 1904 and represented the town of Casale Monferrato before going out of business.
Skipping two months to December, a meeting was been called to establish what would be now known as Casale FC. Casale’s first two years of existence saw them play in the lower regional leagues. By 1911, however, the club was accepted into the top tier; affectionately known as the Nerostellati (Black Stars), they had joined the big boys. They were not content just to be there and soon they would be causing an almighty ruckus.
In May 1913, Casale became the first ever Italian team to beat English opposition as they overcame a touring Reading side 2-1. It was a magnificent achievement but the best was yet to come. Domestic glory was only a stone’s throw away.
The Serie A of 1914 was totally unrecognisable to the one we know and love today. For Casale to be crowned champions they had to first qualify from their Liguria-Piedmont division, then top the northern group before playing a two-legged final against the southern/central champions. On paper the task looked tough enough but its reality was even worse. In Casale’s Liguria division were the powerhouses Genoa and Pro Vercelli. Vercelli, Casale’s most bitter of rivals, were hunting their fourth straight scudetto, and were clear favourites to do so.
The rivalry between Casale and Vercelli dated back to 1215. For 200 years Casale Monferrato had been the capital of a tiny independent state known as Marquisate del Monferrato on the north-western fringes of what is now Italy. In 1196 the city of Casale rebelled and formed its own independent municipality. Nineteen years later, in 1215, the city was totally destroyed by allied forces of Vercelli, Alessandria and Tommaso of Savoy. The city was soon rebuilt by Frederick the Second, but the devastation had been so total that it was never forgotten and to this day, 800 years later, the rivalry still burns bright.
Lead by Luigi Barbesino a local boy who would spend his playing career at the club and go on to win five caps for Italy, Casale stormed to the top of the group and there they remained. The joy of winning the Liguria division was only enhanced by Pro Vercelli’s failure to qualify, finishing third behind Genoa, with a draw and defeat to Casale being a key attribute in their failure to advance. Barbesino was key to Casale’s success and is perhaps the most famous name of all the players to represent the team.
Sadly his story does not have a happy ending. Post Casale he managed Roma for a short spell before abandoning football altogether at the outbreak of World War Two to join the air force. On April 20, 1941, he was an observer on an aircraft flying a course known as the Sciacca-Kuriate-Kerkenna-Sciacca route. One hour into the flight the aircraft turned for home due to bad weather conditions; it never made it back, and to this day Barbesino and the crew remain missing.
The next stage was the northern group. Only one of the six teams would advance to the two-legged final. Buoyed by their earlier success, Casale went in with little to fear. The group itself was a virtual who’s who of Italian football royalty: Genoa had joined Casale from Liguria but alongside them were the likes of Vicenza, Hellas, Inter and Juventus. While today these might be names to be feared, Casale looked them straight in the eyes and laughed. They won eight of their ten matches, losing the other two to claim the top spot and a shot at footballing immortality.
Their opponents in the final would be Lazio, but that would prove to be of little consequence; Casale had done the hard part qualifying from the treacherous northern maze. The central/southern section was weak in comparison, even to this day the south trails far behind the north at the top table. The late Roma president Franco Sensi is credited with coming up with the magnificent phrase “Vento Del Nord” (wind’s from the north) to explain why the north is so far ahead of the south in terms of footballing success.
It referred to the political pressure the big three northern clubs Juve, Inter and Milan supposedly exerted on Roma and, by extension, the south to lose matches. The first leg was played in Casale on July 5 1914. The Nerostellati ran out 7-1 winners, making the second leg seven days later in Rome no more than a victory procession. Casale, however, remained professional and won again this time by the more modest score line of 2-0.
It was a truly remarkable achievement by the club, one they would never come close to replicating. In the intervening century the club has suffered many hardships, none more so than on July 31, 2013. The club’s finances had deteriorated to such a point that the LND (Lega Nazionale Dilettanti) decreed that they should be expelled from the league. On August 14 of that same year, in accordance with a resolution decreed by the federal council and then FIGC President Giancarlo Abete, the newly re-founded club was placed in the Promozione Piemont. The club quickly won promotion from the Promozione and currently sit the Eccellenza, Italy’s fifth tier.
The club may be a pale shadow of what it was in that glorious season of 1913-14, but when you scroll down the Roll of Honour past the glamourous names of Juventus, Inter, Milan, Genoa and Roma at the bottom, etched forever more, is the name Casale Calcio.
By Kevin Nolan. Follow @KevinNolan11