James Richardson Spensley is perhaps not a legend of calcio, he is arguably the legend of calcio. This is simply because without Spensley, the Italian football that we watch and adore today would not exist.
The London born doctor is, of course, not to be confused with the James Richardson who helped bring calcio to the masses on Channel 4 in the 1990s.
Spensley was a doctor, journalist, scout leader, boxer, player, manager and medic throughout his short life at one time or another and it was his job as a doctor that brought him to the peninsula in 1897 at the age of 30 years old.
He settled in Genoa where he tended to the sailors who arrived in the port city on passing ships and it was there he set up a football club.
That club is today known as Genoa Cricket and Football Club and went on to become one of Italy’s finest sides.
Upon his arrival he organised the first ever game of football as we know it – which had now evolved from the Calcio Fiorentino games played by many in the piazzas of Florence but which often resulted in huge violence – between Genoa and Football Club Torinese.
Spensley managed the side that day and 154 people attended the game which Torinese came out on top in but it marked the Englishman out as a legend forever, particularly with the Grifone fans.
There is a street in the Marassi area of Genoa near the Stadio Luigi Ferraris that is named after him while there is a plaque on the wall of the house where he lived.
That plaque reads: “Here lived the English doctor James R Spensley, sportsman – great friend of Italy – a football pioneer with the Genoa Cricket and Football Club, founder of Genoese scouting.”
In May 1898, Spensley captained his side into the first ever Italian football championship where his team took on the might of Turin as they faced three sides from that city in a four-team league.
The tournament took place in one day as a knockout competition and Spensley starred at the centre of the defence as Genoa reached the final in a team that was a mixture of Italian and British players.
After getting there, he moved back to play as a goalkeeper where he stayed for both that game and the rest of his career (aside from the league final the following year for which he played at left back_ and with Spensley keeping goal, the side swept Internazionale di Torino aside 2-1 after extra time to take home the trophy, a gold medal and the distinction of being the country’s first ever Italian champions.
Spensley’s Genoa went on to win the title for each of the following five years before he retired from the game as a hero and with a considerable medal haul in 1906.
A great lover of football, he was not ready to depart the game completely and after managing Genoa for a season, he became a referee and was also a key figure in the introduction of early football associations.
Sadly, Spensley passed away far too soon after being injured in Germany during the First World War in November 1915 when he enlisted as a military doctor.
He was killed while tending to the injuries of an enemy soldier but to this day remains an icon of the game in Italy, especially in Genoa.