Perugia and the undefeated season of miracles

Perugia and the undefeated season of miracles

“Only those who attempt the absurd can achieve the impossible.” This neat phrase, coined by Albert Einstein, was never intended to refer to football. With apologies to the eminent physicist, however, let us borrow it for a trice as it chimes tunefully with the achievements of a small – relatively speaking, that is – Umbrian club and their manager during the 1978/79 Serie A season.

The Grifoni, displaying the prowess of the legendary beast their nickname is derived from, produced a feat never before achieved at the highest level of Italian football: going a season undefeated. With the head of a lion and the body of an eagle, there’s a majesty about a Gryphon, and in this particular season, Perugia lived up to its reputation. That they failed to secure the Scudetto shouldn’t detract from their momentous achievement; it should define it.

‘Never loses, but does not win’ is an ill-thought barb often stabbed at this particular Perugia team’s fate, and like so many such disparaging comments, although there is an element of truth in it, there also a substantial amount of bitterness from the tifosi of the more established powers in the game that their team didn’t achieve such a record.

It took AC Milan until the 1991/92 season before they could repeat the feat, and Juventus a further decade before they could also take place amongst the most exclusive of clubs that have gone an entire 30-plus game season undefeated. As Valerio Piccioni writes in the Italian Football Directory, what the Umbrian club achieved was even more remarkable than what was later emulated by sides with more power and prestige. “It’s the story of a provincial who makes a fortune. But it’s not enough to put it this way. There is something different. When you say provincial it is as if the old, the ancient, the tradition, succeeded in defending themselves and resisting against the young, the great, the new. That Perugia was the exact opposite, you had the sensation of dealing with something modern.”

It’s an appropriate distinction. Perugia were a young team with avant-garde ideas whose astute management and modern philosophy of play found the ancien régime wanting. Like all good tales it begins with our heroes down at their heels and in need of a leader.

Franco D’Attoma had made his fortune at sportswear company Ellesse, and in 1974 turned his attention to the Perugia’s football club. At the time, the Rosso e Bianco were struggling in Serie B with financial pressures increasing and relegation to a tier down a genuine threat. Whilst D’Attomi was, in his own words, “ignorant of football”, he was wise enough to select the sort of staff who could turn around the fortunes of the club.

Silvano Ramaccioni’s appointment as sporting director was key and would provide the administrative and technical support to the to the man chosen to take over as coach of the team.

Ilario Castagner was born in Vittorio Veneto in the Trevino province of Italy late in 1940. He enjoyed a fairly unspectacular career as a striker, beginning with Reggiana in the 1959/60 Serie B season. It was a level he would never surpass. In fact, most of his playing career was spent in Serie C where, after passing through Legnano and Parma, he ended up at Perugia in 1963. He stayed with the Umbrian club for three seasons, and in his final term there, topped the Serie C Group B scoring charts with 17. A further three years with Prato was followed by a brief spell in Rimini before hanging up his boots at the early age of 28.

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Unlike many footballers of the time, though, Castagner had an eye on the future and during the latter days of his playing career attended coaching courses to set himself up for the day when playing would not be a viable option anymore. His foresight was rewarded when, shortly after retiring, he was invited to become deputy to Corrado Viciano in Atalanta’s Primavera. Learning his trade, he progressed as the team flourished and, in 1974, under the guidance of Ramaccioni, Franco D’Atomma invited the young coach to cut his first team teeth with Perugia. It proved to be an inspired choice.

After years of unremarkable fare in Serie B, Perugia, under their new manager, emerged from the pack of mediocrity to take the title and reach the top tier of calcio for the first time in their history. It’s easy to think that this achievement was completed on the back of the finance added by D’Atomma, but that wasn’t the case. Here was a classic minnow made up of the promising and the previously overlooked who responded to their coach’s vision of the game. Young players such as Renato Curi and Paolo Sollier were given their heads, and hungry to succeed, they bought into their manager’s plans.

Castagner was an advocate of Rinus Michels’ Dutch method of Total Football, which would see it’s full flowering in the philosophy that took the club to three successive European Cups in the early part of the decade. Coordinated pressing when the opponents had the ball was coupled with a dogged belief in the value of maintaining possession through passing and moving.

Perugia’s success in Serie B was a microcosm of the bigger picture being painted in vivid Oranje colours by the Dutch. The Grifoni took their place in Serie A with an assurance that, looking back, should have been noted as the herald to potential success down the road.

Their initial seasons among the top clubs of Italy were very much ones of consolidation and steady growth. With Ramaccioni as his steadfast support, Castagner continued to build the squad in his own image, adding layers that would support the established template. Players such as Aldo Agroppi, Walter Novellino and Salvatore Bagni were added to the roster, but perhaps the biggest investment was the commitment by D’Attoma to build a new stadium for the club; reflective of its senior, and now established, status.

Perugia’s previous home, the Santa Giuliana not only had limited capacity but also no potential for expansion, so, with the old stadium given over to local athletics, the Grifoni were given a new home at the Pian de Massiano, with a capacity of 28,000.

Back in the big time, Perugia showed few signs of wilting. Credible end of season placings of eighth, seventh and sixth suggested Castagner was building something of real worth, but in the height of expectation, there was a moment of tragedy. On 30 October 1977, Perugia were playing Juventus in a league game. At the time, Italian broadcaster Enrico Ameri was giving his audience minute-by-minute account of games on television when he was interrupted by colleague Sandro Ciotti. “Perugia’s midfielder Curi is dead,” he revealed sadly.

Aged just 24, with rumours growing of an international call-up for the mainstay of the new Perugia, a heart-attack five minutes into the second half of the match claimed his life. As the rain fell on a cold and grey Umbrian afternoon, Curi fell to the floor, never to rise again. He passed away in front of the fans gathered that afternoon.

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To lose anyone of such tender years would be a blow to any organisation, but for it to happen to one who symbolised the renaissance that Perugia had enjoyed under Castagner was all the worse. At such times, responses can range from a deflation of hopes to a renewed determination to deliver on a dream for a lost comrade. In the following season, Perugia would honour Curi in the way he would surely have appreciated most, and their new stadium was later renamed in his honour.

The 1978/79 season would make Perugia the only club in the history of Serie A to complete a league programme undefeated, and although Curi was not part of the team on the field, it was surely having his spirit to guide them that helped this unheralded provincial Umbrian side to achieve such a distinction. 

By now, Castagner had a well-established pattern of play, with key elements of his squad in place. The goalkeeper, Nello Malizia, had been with the club since 1974, after joining from Maceratese, and was a reliable stopper. In front of him and patrolling behind the back three was Pierluigi Frosio, confident on the ball, quick and with an ability to read the game that meshed with Castagner’s format of play. In front of him was the established back line that often featured the moustachioed hard man of the team, Michele Nappi, alongside Mauro Della Martira and Antonio Ceccarini. Well-drilled by Castagner, it was the defence upon which Perugia’s season of miracles would be built.

Before reaching the fortress of the Grifoni defence, though, any would-be attackers would at first need to negotiate their way past the dogs of war midfield pairing of the reliable Cesare Butti and the favourite of the fans, Paolo Dal Fiume. As with so many players lauded by fans, Dal Fiume was hardly the most gifted of footballers, but he gave everything for the cause, and fans everywhere take such players to their hearts. Perugia was no exception.

The defence would concede a miserly 15 goals in the league in their majestic season. Indeed, had they possessed an attack of equal quality, the title would surely have fallen into Umbrian hands. Sadly, this wasn’t the case.

If the defence was stingy, the forwards were recalcitrant in the extreme. Castagner’s system left a lot of pressure on a lone striker to deliver the bulk of the team’s goals. With three midfield players in nominal support, Walter Speggiorin, as the spearhead of the attack, struggled to deliver. Across the league season to come, he would net a mere nine goals and the team as a whole would only score 34 across the entire campaign. Without the lockdown defence at other the end of the pitch, Perugia would surely have ended up in mid-table at best.

Going to watch the Grifoni was not to expect goals galore entertainment. For one of the provincial teams, however, big money signings were not feasible and Castagner had a formula for his team that would produce an output greater than the sum of its parts. 

The season began encouragingly thanks to a fairly comfortable 2-0 win over Verona, but their next encounter – a visit to the Giuseppe Meazza to face Internazionale – would be a much sterner test. Indeed, with time draining away, it seemed that Perugia’s undefeated run would be halted at one. Two minutes from time, however, Cacciatori equalised to give Castagner’s team a share of the spoils and demonstrate a resilience against the odds that would serve them well in the coming campaign.

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A draw was also a result that Perugia’s fans would become accustomed to. The remainder of the season would bring no less than 18 further occasions where they shared the points with their opponents across the remaining 28 games. Almost two-thirds of their league fixtures would end with honours even, with seven of them goalless.

Nevertheless, at that stage, dragging a point from a seemingly inevitable defeat in Milan looked an outstanding result, and across the next two games, Perugia stamped their form with successive victories, away to both Fiorentina and remarkably in Turin against Juventus. With three of Serie A’s big clubs already faced and two wins and a draw garnered, Castagner’s team were making a statement. The question was, could they keep up the pace?

For a while, Perugia stood atop the Serie A standings. While the behemoths of Italy foundered in their wake, Castagner had ignited a dream for the unheralded, unexpected and under-appreciated club. 

Inevitably there was a trough to their form, and as winter approached, their march seemed to stumble. A run of six draws in seven games, with only four goals scored, exposed the frailty in Perugia’s title challenge. In fairness to Castagner, he knew these issues could plague his side as well as anyone, but without the funds or the lustre to bring in a striker of renown, he stayed loyal to Speggiorin. 

Although a stumble, it was certainly not a fall, and as the games clicked by, still without Perugia having to bow the knee to any of their opponents, an aura of invulnerability began to grow, and with it a fresh belief in the squad and, perhaps just as importantly, across the other teams of Serie A.

Despite their many draws, key victories kept the Grifoni in contention into the new year, sticking around like that troublesome piece of cotton attached to your coat. No matter how much the bigger teams tried to shake themselves free from the clawing attention of Castagner’s side, they couldn’t break free. 

As February rolled around, the defining game of the season occurred as Inter visited Umbria. Local newspapers had now heralded the team as ‘invincible’ and spoke of dreams that, still against all odds, Perugia could go on and lift the title. Talk was of a ‘season of miracles.’

For Castagner, though, such speculation was fanciful at best. He insisted that a UEFA Cup spot for his team would be a magnificent achievement and anything above that merely a bonus. It’s probably true to say that the coach’s assessment was much more in line with the ability of his squad, but by now, cold logic was being washed away by the fevered excitement of regularly putting bigger clubs to the sword and pursuing what was now becoming a genuine challenge for the title.

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Victory against Eugenio Bersellini’s Nerazzurri would fan the flames of expectation, but after 45 minutes, when Castagner’s renowned defence was pierced on a number of occasions, the teams retired to the changing room with Inter two goals clear. Here was the acid test of both the club’s title aspirations and their unbeaten record. The defence had proved incapable of keeping the accomplished forwards at bay, and now it would be up to Perugia’s attackers to turn the tide of the game. Defensive resilience wouldn’t do; they needed attacking persistence.      

Early on after the break, it seemed that the great escape was on when Franco Vannini halved the deficit, but Bersellini’s players knew more than a little about defending themselves and, after the wide man’s strike, the Nerazzurri seemed comfortable and kept the eager but limited Perugia forward line at bay.

Castagner’s team had by now not only brought into their coach’s playbook, they also seemed to have taken on board their role as invincibles. In the dying seconds of the game, defender Ceccarini found himself inside the Inter box with the ball at his feet. Showing hitherto unknown striking acumen, he coolly converted to save the day and keep the legend alive.

It was a bittersweet victory. After scoring the goal that set the comeback on track, Vannini was injured in a bad tackle by Adriano Fedele and had to leave the field. As it transpired, the injury would not only deprive Perugia of his services for the remainder of the season, it would also bring his career as a professional footballer to a premature end. Fellow defender, Frosio, was injured in a later game against Torino and would miss the majority of the remaining games.

If, on initial viewing, the game against Internazionale could be seen as the one where Perugia kept their dreams alive, later it would reveal itself as the game when their doom was cast. This was no superstar squad with ready replacements to slot into gaps that injuries created. Star quality was at a premium and, despite heroic displays from here on in, Perugia’s attempt at the title was probably cast into the winds on that blustery February afternoon.

Still, they wouldn’t yield on the field, and with six games to go, they were a mere two points behind Inter’s city rivals with a game to come against the Rossoneri. Victory over Milan would put Castagner’s upstarts into pole position for the title.

On the day of the game, their compact stadium was packed to the rafters with fans fully convinced that miracles would happen. And so it seemed when Gianfranco Casarsa netted from 12 yards to send Perugia in the lead, and their fans into dreamland. A disputed penalty at the other end just minutes later, converted by Stefano Chiodi, drew the scores level. Despite late pressure, the home team couldn’t break through again, and that most regular of results, a draw, concluded the game.

Draws away to Catanzaro and Verona were hardly helpful to the cause, but Milan dropped points unexpectedly and, on the last day of the season, amazingly, Perugia’s dream was still alive – if hanging by the slenderest of threads. Milan would need to lose while Perugia would need to visit Bologna and win.

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With typical disregard for the odds, a double strike by Salvatore Bagni had Perugia two goals clear to complete their part of the equation, but with the team eventually running out of steam, the home side rallied and removed the deficit. Neither team could notch a winner; it was fitting that Perugia’s season ended with a draw.

The title went to Lombardy’s Milan. Down in Umbria, though, little Perugia would celebrate a runners-up spot like no other club had before. Castagner and his team completed the season undefeated. Other teams had won the title before, but their achievement was unique. To Milan went the Scudetto; to Perugia, immortality. 

With sad inevitability, after the dream comes the reality of a new day. Perugia would carry their unbeaten run into the following season, tagging a further seven games to the total before eventually falling to defeat against Torino. With the spell broken, the Grifoni stumbled and a further eight defeats followed before the end of the campaign. The balloon had burst and the fans no longer spoke of miracles, rather of days of when a provincial club was allowed to ponder upon thoughts of great acts and legends were created before their eyes.

Castagner’s team slowly disintegrated and, in 1980, the club found itself embroiled in the Totonero scandal. They were given a five-point penalty and demoted to Serie B for their alleged part in the plot to fix matches. Whilst for other, bigger clubs involved, the drop to Serie B would only be a brief hiatus, for Perugia, the punishment would have a much longer effect.

Castagner left the club, seduced by opportunities elsewhere, a decision it’s surely difficult to criticise the former striker for making. He had attempted the absurd, and so nearly achieved the impossible, bearing out Einstein’s assertion. To attempt to do so again would surely be beyond the wit and wisdom of any coach.

Leaving Perugia, he journeyed to Lazio before short spells in Genoa with Sampdoria, Milan with Internazionale, and then to Ascoli, Pescara and Pisa. Castagner’s odyssey of half-a-dozen clubs would be completed in less than a dozen years, with the Italian unable to recreate the magic he had conjured up in Umbria. He would return to his spiritual home for a couple of periods between 1993 and 1999 but without much joy other than returning them once again to Serie A in his final year at the Stadio Renato Curi.

There’s often a moment in time when a club’s management, coach and players mesh and become a force greater than would normally be the case. That may well have been so with Perugia’s 1978/79 season. Once that moment has passed, though, there’s little chance of ever recapturing the magic.

The achievement of Perugia in their season of miracles, given their status at the time, will probably never be repeated by a provincial club in Italy, though it won’t stop owners, managers and fans from dreaming that the absurd can indeed become a reality. It would be to the benefit of calcio if it did.

By Gary Thacker @All_Blue_Daze

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