On 15 May 1910 the Azzurri made their debut at the Arena in Milan. Wearing white shirts they beat France 6-2, giving birth to a national obsession that is still going strong. Let’s take a look at the era of the football pioneers; the Pro Vercelli incident, the story of captain Calì and the hat trick by Pietro Lana, Italy's first striker. But also the newspapers of that era, which used English to write about ‘foot-ballers’ and ‘shots’

MILAN, 15 May 2010 – Italy’s national football team took to the field for the first time in Milan at 3.45 pm on 15 May 1910. The 6-2 win over France marked the start of a romance that still excites and enthrals millions of Italians a century down the line. Of course football wasn’t yet quite so popular a hundred years ago. The match took place at Milan's Arena, where the first Giro d’Italia had finished the year before.

victory and arguments — The league season before Italy’s debut occupies an important place in the history of Italian football. It saw the first version of a single league without regional eliminators, it was the first that straddled two calendar years, and Inter won their first title (the Scudetto didn’t yet exist). The championship was a duel between Pro Vercelli, winners for the last two seasons, and Inter. They finished level on points, so it went to a playoff. The game was due to be played at Vercelli's ground because the whites had a better goal difference. It was scheduled for 24 April 1910, but a friendly between military teams was also set for that day, involving Pro Vercelli’s best players, who were in the army at the time. The club management asked for the match to be postponed, but the Italian Football Federation, created in the summer of 1909 (at first it was called FIF, Italian Football Federation), said no unless Inter agreed to play the following week. However, the Nerazzurri weren’t willing and so in protest Pro Vercelli fielded a team of boys between eleven and fifteen years old, although they did warn the public in advance. Inter won 10-3 and Vercelli fans besieged the dressing rooms. The Federation imposed very tough sanctions: they suspended Pro Vercelli’s players for the whole of 1910, excluded them from the Italy team and imposed a 200 lire fine.

the azzurri are born — The Italy was born into a very tense climate, without their Pro Vercelli players, who would have represented a solid and reliable block. A five-man technical team, which was also the refereeing team, chose the squad. They included, Umberto Meazza, not related to the great Peppino, who went on to become fitness trainer and team coach. The team was a mosaic, with players from six different clubs out of the nine in the championship. The eleven were picked after two selection matches, one on 5 May and the other 8 May. Meazza divided the squad into two teams, Probables in white shirts (six white shorts and six black) and Possibles in sky-blue. The team picked to play France included: De Simoni (US Milanese); Varisco (US Milanese), Calì (Andrea Doria); Trerè (Ausonia), Fossati (Inter), Capello (Torino); Debernardi (Torino), Rizzi (Ausonia), Cevenini I (Milan), Lana (Milan), and Boiocchi (US Milanese).

the first captain — Italy played in white (and did so again in their second game, before changing to blue) and did so purely on financial grounds: white shirts cost seven cents less than coloured ones. The captain was Francesco Calì, a fullback for Andrea Doria, not just because at 28 he was the oldest team member, but also because he understood a number of languages. He had learned them in Switzerland, where his family emigrated when little Francesco was just two years old. The Calì family sold wine but a pirate raid plundered the ships they used to transport the casks. That led to their decision to emigrate. Francesco and his brother Salvatore began to play football in Switzerland, as centre forwards. He was known as Franz hence people wrongly thought he was Swiss. The Calì family returned to Italy in 1900. Franz Calì, together with his brother, signed for Genoa where he played for a year, losing the Scudetto final to Milan. Then he went to Andrea Doria, Genoa’s other team, which made its debut in the Italian championship in 1902. Calì was the team’s star player, who playing against France convinced even the hardened sceptics. He only took part in Italy’s first two matches, both times in the white shirt. Then from 1912 to 1921 he was a member of the Italy team technical commission, managing the team for 13 games.

six goals against france — Four thousand enthusiastic fans attended Italy’s win over France. The star was Milan centre forward, Pietro Lana, who scored three of Italy’s six goals. He had begun his career with the Rossoneri, then in 1908 was among the dissidents who founded Inter, only to then return to Milan . He scored Italy’s first ever goal after thirteen minutes. The second strike came from Inter’s Fossati, who died in 1916 in the First World War. Sellier pulled one back for France in the 4th minute of the second half, but Lana added another after 14 minutes. Ducret scored France’s second after 17 minutes, but then Italy surged ahead with a goal from Rizzi two minutes later, followed by another from Debernardi and a final one from Lana a minute from time. The fans at the Arena were ecstatic. Corriere della Sera wrote: ‘The great crowd didn’t want to leave. They stayed on for half an hour waiting for the foot-ballers’.

newspapers of the time — Gazzetta dello Sport presented the France match with a front page column in its 13 May edition, while the lead was dedicated to the second ever Giro d’Italia due to start on the 18th. The match report on 16 May was on page 5 with a comment in italics, followed by a minute by minute account of the game, which gave the clock time rather than the minute of play. Match results weren’t published. Corriere della Sera reported the game on page 4 below the harness horse racing reports. The articles were full of English terms such as shot, hands, backs, and forwards.

to hungary with sandwiches — Italy played their first away game on 26 May. They travelled to Budapest and lost 6-1 to a very powerful Magyar side. The journey is worth recounting. The Italian party travelled by train from Milan to Venice, from where it should have proceeded to Fiume on a steam boat and thence to Budapest. However the steamer didn’t go that day, so they went by see from Venice to Trieste and then by train first to Vienna and then to Budapest, where there was no one to meet them because the Hungarian officials were expecting them at another station. Attilio Trerè took charge of the food, turning up on the train with large suitcase full of salami sandwiches, made by his mother. There are two accounts of what happened to the sandwiches: either they were devoured during the night by the starving players, or they went bad and were thrown into the sea. Renzo De Vecchi made his debut in that match at 16 years old: he was presented in Milan wearing short trousers and turned up to the gala dinner in Budapest sporting the same outfit.

Giuseppe Bagnati