The story of Julio Libonatti, the first of Italian football’s oriundi

The story of Julio Libonatti, the first of Italian football’s oriundi

Nobody ever fully understood how Enrico Marone Cinzano managed to return from Argentina in the summer of 1925 with one of the game’s greatest finishers by his side.

The new Torino president was not really a football man. Commissioner Marone, as he was referred to in the press at the time, was a retired army lieutenant, heir to the Cinzano spirits empire and a complete novice in the game in which he had taken up a huge stake at the end of 1924. Yet, the soon-to-be Count Cinzano quickly set about his quest to transform Il Toro into a club that would lead the rest of Italy’s footballing powers into the modern, professional age.

Few denied that he meant business, however, when the moustachioed president disembarked from a transatlantic steamer following his visit to Buenos Aires with a pair of footballers in tow.

Three years later, one of them had fired Torino to the 1927/28 championship title with a flurry of goals and, in the process, overhauled the team’s style of play entirely. He was Julio Libonatti: Italian-Argentine, Scudetto winner and capocannoniere – the first of the oriundi.

“It was a divine intervention,” surmised Ettore Berra of Lo Sport Fascista, a newspaper title that takes us back to a very precise period in Italian history. 

Libonatti was a goalscoring machine, the most precise finisher that Italian football crowds had seen, a man whose perfect timing and clever movement left defenders chasing his shadow and caused his team-mates to adopt a new game plan geared essentially around supplying him with the opportunities he would inevitably convert. 

Born to Italian parents in the rapidly growing Argentinian port city of Rosario, in Santa Fe province, just a year into the 20th century, Libonatti was one of the earliest talents to emerge from a footballing hotbed that has subsequently produced the likes of Cesar Luis Menotti, Angel Di Maria and Lionel Messi.

His childhood coincided with the development of football in Argentina’s major urban centres, as floods of poor Europeans – many of them from Italy – made their way across the Atlantic in search of a better life. The game flourished in these immigrant communities and several football clubs emerged in the first decade of the 20th century, including the likes of River Plate, Boca Juniors, Independiente and Racing.

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Two years after Libonatti was born, a group of local football enthusiasts founded one of Rosario’s most famous clubs, Newell’s Old Boys, where he would first reveal his extraordinary talent when he pitched up at their ground in the Independence Park neighbourhood as a 15-year-old prodigy in 1917.

Over the next eight years, Libonatti averaged more than a goal every two games for the
“The Lepers”, a nickname the club’s footballers were given after they willingly accepted an invitation to play in a benefit game to raise funds for leprosy patients in the 1920s, only for their proposed opponents Rosario Central to stall on the same invitation, causing the game to be cancelled.

The young forward, who became known among fans as “matador” in honour of his penchant for a flamboyant finish, struck 78 times in 141 appearances up to 1925, when the visiting President Cinzano saw him in action and decided to invite back to his ancestral home, along with another local lad called Basso, whose first name is not recorded and who failed to impress during his short stay in Torino, eventually returning to Argentina suffering from synovitis.

When recalling Cinzano’s presidency, however, most journalists and historians have chosen to focus their attention on the success of Libonatti rather than the disappointment of his compatriot, and they probably would have done so even if a whole team of Bassos had disembarked alongside him that summer. 

Cinzano, to the apparent surprise of the sporting press, appeared to have an eye for a player. “It is certain,” reflected Berra in a 1928 profile piece on Torino’s first champions, “that not even the most consummate technician could have made a better choice.”

In his first four seasons in Turin, Libonatti scored 106 league times in 109 games for i Granata, including 35 goals as Torino lifted their first national title in 1927/28 (after winning the Scudetto the previous year, their title had been revoked following allegations of bribery against one of their players). 

Although Torino finished as runners-up to Bologna in 1928/29, Libonatti was in relentless form, hitting the net 34 times in just 25 appearances in his fourth season with the club. “With Libonatti,” wrote Berra in 1928, “Torino’s play … underwent a complete upheaval. The wings were almost abandoned and, slowly, a new type of play began to mature, which soon acquired a level of excellence in both style and performance.

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“Torino’s play is now geared essentially to serve Libonatti. We do not say that they deliberately developed their game to do so but the play tends to converge towards the centre, where the striker can shoot almost always infallibly.”

Libonatti was not a big man – one of his nicknames was “The Colt” – but he was strong and tenacious. His forcefulness, allied with an opportunistic streak, made him the main goal threat in a famous front three that became the toast of Turin in the mid-late 1920s. Either side of him were two more superstars of the time, Adolfo Baloncieri and Gino Rossetti, and the triumvirate were known collectively as the “Trio of Wonders”.

Baloncieri, who had also spent time in Argentina as a child, was considered to be the brain of that first great Torino team, who played in the “Danubian style”, which is to say with a slick passing game focused around the inside-forwards rather than playing out to the wings as most Italian teams did at the time.

Supported by the vision and flair of Baloncieri, and with the super-fit Ligurian hitman Rossetti as his equally deadly foil, little “Libo” filled his boots in those glory days, making opposition defences pay for giving him any kind of time or space to unleash one of his famously unerring strikes.

“His shot is sharp and powerful, from any distance,” explained Berra. “The ball doesn’t get any trajectory but hugs the ground or heads towards the target at half-height. The potency of his shooting is derived not so much from muscular strength as from the precision with which he strikes it. So it is a matter of technical characteristics. 

“Positioned on the line of the opposition full-backs, he is always ready to punish even the slightest positional error by an opponent. He does not possess the dribbling skills of Baloncieri, nor the vigour of Rossetti. He often looks estranged and indifferent to the game, constantly waiting for the chance to puncture the opposition net.”

In total, Libonatti scored 150 goals in 239 games over the course of his nine seasons with Torino, before moving to Genoa at the age of 33 and helping them to promotion from Serie B in 1934/35.

Curiously, Libonatti also served two teams well at international level. He had been a regular in the Argentina forward line before leaving Buenos Aires, but that did not stop the Italian footballing powers finding a way to include him in their national team as Fascist sporting officials began plotting Italy’s path to the top of the international sporting hierarchy.

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At the end of the 1925/26 season, just as Libonatti was ending his first campaign in Turin with 16 goals in 22 appearances, several influential journalists and senior figures within Italian football demanded an overhaul of the game’s structure, and they were granted their wish in the form of the Viareggio Charter. 

Named after the Tuscan seaside town in which it was agreed, the all-encompassing legislation completely restructured the national game, from top to bottom, and within two years it would lead to the inauguration of the unified Serie A that we know today. 

Among several other structural changes to the game, a significant decision was made regarding the inclusion of foreign players in the Italian football league. In order to “fascistise” calcio, it was felt, you had to Italianise it and so foreign signings were banned, with a one-year amnesty being agreed as a concession to those clubs that had already agreed deals with players from abroad ahead of the coming campaign.

It was at this point that Libonatti, who had represented the Argentina national team 15 times, scoring eight goals and picking up a Copa America winners’ medal in the process, became very grateful of the dual nationality afforded to foreign-born people of Italian parentage, or rimpatriati.

After the war, footballing returnees became more widely known as oriundi. The likes of Jose Altafini, Omar Sivori and Mauro Camoranesi, among many other famous names, have been afforded this tag, for better or worse, when pulling on the Azzurri shirt, but the trailblazer was Libonatti, who was called up to the Italy squad for the first time in 1926.

If there was a step up in quality from club football to international football at that time, he certainly didn’t notice it, scoring 15 times in his 17 appearances for Vittorio Pozzo’s Italy side. As the first oriundo and a regular goalscorer for club and country, Libonatti became something of a celebrity, and he wasn’t shy in the face of the attention he received.

Alongside Berra’s feature on Torino’s 1927/28 championship-winning side, a photograph of the man himself gives you some idea of the self-confidence he possessed at the peak of his powers. Pictured holding his young daughter Betty, Libonatti is described in the caption as the “King of Calcio”, and he is wearing a neat, patterned shirt, with a high collar and baggy, striped grey trousers worn above the waist and held up by braces.

His jet black hair, withdrawing at the temples, is slicked back severely and combed neatly into place and he wears a wary frown on his forehead as he looks into the camera without smiling. The reader cannot help but imagine that this is what every defender in Italy saw when they looked into Libonatti’s eyes before being ripped apart by Count Cinzano’s greatest import.

By Dominic Bliss @theinsidelefty

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