When Alberto Gilardino was appointed manager of Pro Vercelli in July of 2019, there was no mention of winning titles. It was a relative coup; a big name for the club based in the picturesque Piedmont region of Italy, but an appointment that largely passed the world by.
Despite the history of Pro Vercelli – and, boy, is there history – there was no talk about chasing trophies, hunting for Europe, or even the size of the supporter base. Gilardino merely expressed an impassioned desire to progress; to build and to help the young squad improve. Yet, Pro Vercelli are a fascinating club, one that raises the question of what exactly is needed to be deemed a ‘big club’.
If you were to ask clubs like Sunderland, Nottingham Forest or Aston Villa if they consider themselves to be big clubs then the answer would, of course, be a resounding yes. After all, consider the titles they’ve won, think of their passionate fans and significant successes down the years.
But football is a dynamic, impossibly fast-paced industry, within which it is all too easy to slide out of view, leaving little more than claw marks on those at the top of the pile. All three aforementioned English clubs are living examples of how quickly it can all change. One minute you’re winning the European Cup then you blink and it’s gone.
Which brings us back to Pro Vercelli. They are the fallen giants of Italian football. The first side to dominate calcio, with more titles to their name than the likes of Roma, Lazio and Napoli, their decline is one more tragic, more dramatic than any English club can truly comprehend.
Northern Italy has long been home to the powerhouses of the nation, with over 100 titles belonging to various sides on the northern side of the divide. But the fact that seven of them lay in the quiet town of Vercelli is nevertheless a surprise. Located between the metropoles of Turin and Milan, it’s known today for its cultivation of rice, not football.
Between 1908 and 1913, however, it was home to the most the irrepressible Il Leoni (Lions) who were by far and away the most supreme side in the country. So dominant were Pro Vercelli that they only lost one game in that particular five-year time span, and even that came with a fair helping of controversy.
Also known as Le Bianche Casacche (The White Shirts), Pro Vercelli had one of the youngest sides of their time and relied on more techniques and training methods than their rivals to develop their players. The club was born out of a gym and this inherent emphasis on physicality and stamina is something that was clear in matches, with Vercelli often dominating the last 15 minutes of games thanks to their superior fitness; although when many of their opposition were often 20 years older, perhaps this doesn’t come as such a surprise.
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Il Leoni’s first title, in 1908, was reflective of a changing Italy, arriving just a few years before Mussolini and fascism was ushered in. The format was then separated into two tournaments; the divisive Italian championship, where only Italians were allowed to play, and the federal championships, where only foreigners could compete.
Many teams withdrew from competing due to the split, leaving an opportunity that Pro Vercelli would capitalise upon emphatically, going unbeaten against US Milanese and Andrea Doria, the early incarnations of Inter and Sampdoria respectively.
Not only were all the players in Vercelli’s championship-winning team Italian, but all were almost exclusively from the town itself. Reflecting upon their successes in his book Winning At All Costs: A Scandalous History of Italian Soccer, Italian football expert John Foot wrote: “Early football success was not so much about talent, but also about determination, preparation and teamwork.”
This neatly summarised Pro Vercelli’s achievements. So influential was this early iteration of the club they provided much of the national team’s ranks for a number of years and were also the inspiration behind the white shirts that Italy wore against Belgium in 1913.
The nature of their influence is no coincidence. By 1913, Pro Vercelli had won five straight titles, and the whole nation had seen a small-town team of homegrown talent dominating football so convincingly. This tied in nicely with the growing nationalism in the country. Here was proof that the newer, expensive, foreign-heavy city clubs weren’t needed: Italy could make champions of their own and in the smallest of places.
Even when football in the country was expanded to a more traditional league format, their glory continued. Their final title of this period, in 1913, was the most convincing of all. They conceded just three goals in the entire campaign and crushed their opposition, Lazio, 6-0 in the national final.
This pre-war period was Pro Vercelli’s most successful, with the only sour note, in 1910, coming in bizarre fashion. Many of the team’s first-teamers were committed to a military tournament on the same day that their final against Inter was scheduled to be played. After their request to change the date was denied by both Inter and the Italian federation, Pro Vercelli fielded a team made up of youths – boys aged between 10 and 15 – out of protest. Unsurprisingly, they were crushed 10-3 by a full strength and markedly unsympathetic Inter.
The star of the team at the time was Guido Ara, a one-club man who played 163 times for Pro Vercelli. As with most Il Leoni players, he progressed through the youth system, making his debut in the triumphant 1908 campaign. The local lad was important for Italy, too, making his international debut in 1911. Partnering him in midfield throughout that pre-war period was Giuseppe Milano, who also doubled as the Azzurri’s captain under Vittorio Pozzo, in the early days of the national team.
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In front of them was Carlo Rampini, scorer of an extraordinary 106 goals in 99 appearances for the club. Considering his record, it’s no surprise to learn that it was he who bagged a brace in helping his team to down Juventus in that 1908 final. His reward for those goals? Two cigars from the chairman. Encapsulating the team spirit that young team possessed, Rampini would actually sell a number of his cigars to fund treatment for his strike partner’s brother, who had fallen ill at the time.
Pro Vercelli would add another two titles to their trophy haul in the 1921 and 1922 campaigns under the management of Guido Ara, making him the only individual to be present for every one of their league successes, before their strength would ultimately become their weakness.
The crown prince of the academy was one Silvio Piola. His 51 goals across five seasons for the Lions of Piedmont would lead the president of Vercelli to announce, “We will never sell Piola, not even for all the gold in the world. Once we sell him, the decline of Pro Vercelli will begin.” As the game became increasingly professional, and the bigger city teams became richer, it proved harder and harder to keep hold of the gems that would emerge from their youth system.
Their greatest player, Piola – whom the club’s 5,500-capacity stadium is named after – would eventually be seduced by Lazio and cement himself as a legend for the national side, also recording the highest number of Serie A goals ever scored, though he would never lift the Scudetto again. And neither would Pro Vercelli. The same season their president made that Piola promise, they finished bottom of Serie A, never to return.
Their alarming decline would see them plummet to dramatic lows. Their relegation from the top-flight was eventually followed by relegation from Serie B in 1948, and would see them begin a protracted period away from the top two divisions, even dallying around in the fourth division of Italian football.
For those uninitiated, the league system is a uniquely difficult one in which to progress. Nine teams are relegated from Serie C, with nine from Serie D replacing them. To make matters all the more daunting, there are also various levels of playoffs; subsequently, it took 64 years of yoyo-ing between divisions, and even flirtations with bankruptcy, for Pro Vercelli to return to Serie B, where they sadly only lasted a solitary season.
Today, still plying their trade in Serie C after another relegation in 2015/16, the club remains an emblem of old Italy, struggling to regain their place at the top table. Theirs is a grand history that reaches back into the game’s annals further than most clubs; all the way back to the first iteration of Società Ginnastica Pro Vercelli (Pro Vercelli Gymnastics Society), which laid the foundations for their success.
The nature of modern football means that returning to their former glory isn’t impossible, but incredibly unlikely. But nobody in that area of north-west Italy will ever forget what they achieved. Rampini and his cigars, Piola and his goals, Ara and his seven trophies, the minnows that ruled over Italy for 15 years: Pro Vercelli have achieved more success than many with whom they share a continent and nigh on every one of their legends hail from the same sleepy town in the fields of Piedmont.
By Matthew Gibbs @matthewleuan