The story of Pro Vercelli is one of the most amazing and inspiring stories in the history of calcio. Its story pitted the football club of the small, sleepy town of Vercelli in the north of Italy (between the footballing hotbeds of Turin and Milan) against the giants of the top division in Italy and not only did they compete but they succeeded.
Between 1907 and 1922, the side won the equivalent of today’s Serie B title and no less than seven Italian Championship titles, finishing as runners-up on one occasion.
They truly dominated the game in the peninsula during this period which was made all the more remarkable when you consider the fact that they came from such a small town.
The club was founded in 1892 and after languishing in the lower divisions for much of their early years they gained promotion to the Italian Championship (today’s Serie A) by winning the Second Division title easily and rightfully gained their place in the top tier in Italy. They took to the top flight like a duck to water and immediately astounded the nation by winning the Championship in not only their maiden season in the top flight but following it up by retaining the title the following season.
The rest of Italy was shocked by this sudden change to the natural order of things as this little team from Vercelli consistently proved themselves to be the best. Nicknamed Leoni (the Lions) for their often tough tackles and rough tactics during games. This was a fact that was proven by midfielder of the time Guido Ara who said of calcio that “it is not a game for little girls”.
Ara was partnered in the industrious and hard-working midfield of the club by captain Giuseppe Milano and Leone and the players would be three of an astonishing nine players who took to the field for Italy against Belgium in 1913 which says it all about how good this team truly were. This was certainly true in relation to his side. The club were also known as il Cassache Bianche to their supporters due to the white collared shirts they wore at the time.
The team were in formidable form during their debut seasons in the First Division and this was put down to an unbelievable team spirit and work ethic within the side as well as the training methods used by the club which were years ahead of its time. The strong bond between the players in the team at this time was mainly due to the fact that almost their entire squad was a young, hungry group of players and the majority of them were from the town of Vercelli itself which contributed massively to their togetherness as a unit.
The following year the club could, and perhaps should, have become only the second Italian side to three consecutive Italian titles but their quest for this achievement was marred by controversy.
At the end of the 1909-10 season, the Lions and Inter finished level on points which meant that the title would be decided in a playoff. However, many of the Pro Vercelli players were already committed to playing in a military tournament on the same date as the arranged play off and the club asked for the fixture to be put back.
The Italian Football Federation and Inter both refused to postpone the match and ordered that it go ahead. Incensed by this, Vercelli responded by playing their their fourth string team that didn’t feature one player over the age of 15 years old with some being as young as 10. Unsurprisingly, they lost the game 10-3 and relinquished their title but vowed to regain it the following year and they would go on to do so not only for the following year but the two that followed to win their trio of titles that should have been rightfully theirs.
The team were also rarely defeated in the league during these seasons in which they played like a team hell bent on revenge which they gained over both Inter and the Federation with their successive titles. Who knows what else the team would have gone on to win at this time had their progress not been halted by the outbreak of World War I and football across Europe was suspended until the end of the war meaning that il Cassache Bianche had to wait until the 1920-21 season to reclaim their title but it was worth the wait for their legions of hardcore followers who to this day still have the reputation as being the first club with such a fanatic, loyal following.
Il Leoni followed that success up with their seventh, and ultimately final, Scudetto triumph with the Italian Championship win of 1921-22 and also proved their worth at this time on the worldwide stage with a repsectable showing at a prestigious South American tournament in Rio de Janeiro featuring some of the biggest names in football at the time. Unfortunately, this was to be as good as it would get for the club who had dominated Italian football for so long.
They continued to challenge near the top end of the table but couldn’t quite match the wages that other clubs were offering at the time and their best players began to leave the club. The club went into a steady decline and by 1935 had been relegated to Serie B. Today the club can be found playing their football in the Lega Pro First Division although the club will always be remembered for its glory days of this period in which they were one of the greatest clubs in the world for many years.
Follow Padraig Whelan on Twitter: @PWhelan88
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