Though not a regular household name in modern Italian football, Pro Vercelli are one of calcio’s fallen giants. However, the club are neither gone, nor forgotten.
The landscape at the peak of Italian football history has been remarkably consistent since the game’s genesis, the same clubs frequently walking away with the silverware. Indeed, it took just 13 years before each of the ‘big three’ had a title to their name, Inter’s crown in 1910 adding to Milan’s in 1901 and Juventus in 1905.
Between them, the three have 68 Italian championships to their name. Thirteen years in football is a long time. While Genoa, who had won six titles by that point, have remained a feature in Serie A history, the team that dominated Italy when Inter nipped in in 1910 have fallen by the wayside. Pro Vercelli’s history fades ever further into the distance, but their glory days were perhaps the first great dynasty of Italian football.
Vercelli is a small town, more famous for rice than anything, but between 1908 and 1922, its football team won seven Italian championships. For all their success, they were no strangers to controversy throughout those years.
The 1908 season was clouded by a decision to ban foreign players from the competition. A number of big clubs withdrew, and Pro Vercelli emerged from the remains to claim their first title, as the team that was to dominate began to take shape.
Pro Vercelli’s success can perhaps be traced back to the foundation of the football club. Growing from an already extant gymnastics club, the focus was always on the physical development of players – meaning that the side was fit, strong and technically adept.
The star of the early years was undoubtedly Guido Ara. As with a number of Leoni players, he progressed through the youth system, making his debut in the 1908 campaign. The local lad was important for Italy, too, making his international debut in 1911.
That defeat to Hungary was the Azzurri’s third ever match, but the first in the now famous blue shirt. The dominant colour of the House of Savoy, the colour suggestion came from Pro Vercelli’s hierarchy; another example of the influence the club has had on the present day.
Ara’s name is no longer bandied about so often, though he enjoyed enough longevity to return to the Italy side after World War I though did not feature in the 1920 Olympics.
At club level, he shared the midfield with Giuseppe Milano, another one club man. Milano was Vittorio Pozzo’s captain in those early Azzurri days and, after taking charge of coaching duties at Pro Vercelli while still playing in 1909, enjoyed a couple of spells in charge of the national side, too.
In front of that formidable midfield was an even more impressive attack. Carlo Rampini’s story is equally heart-warming and poignant. A prolific scorer of goals, he netted 106 in just 99 games for Pro Vercelli, including the two at Juventus in 1908 that brought the Bianche Casacchi their first title. What’s more, each strike brought the striker a cigar as reward from the chairman.
His strike partner Carlo Corna had no such arrangement, though benefited from Rampini’s generosity of spirit. When Corna’s brother fell ill, Rampini sold a number of those cigars to help fund his treatment. Never a rich man, Rampini eventually retired at the age of 24 to run his family’s farm.
The best years of Pro Vercelli were before the outbreak of World War I. The title was taken to the small Piedmont town in 1908, 1909, 1911, 1912 and 1913. Inter’s triumph in 1910 came about in peculiar circumstances; with some of Pro Vercelli’s players committed elsewhere, a re-arragement of the final could not be made and in protest, the Piedmont side fielded a youth side. They were handsomely beaten, with Inter netting nine, 10, or 11 goals depending on whose report one believes.
Perhaps mindful of that form of protest, Inter were to go on to field a youth team themselves in 1961 when another Piedmontese side claimed a controversial title. Juventus won 9-1 that day, with the debutant Sandro Mazzola claiming the Nerazzurri’s consolation.
— FC Pro Vercelli 1892 (@ProVercelli1892) February 20, 2017
The championship was claimed by Pro Vercelli again in 1921 and 1922, the seventh and final crown coming with a comfortable two-legged victory over Fortitudo, one of the three clubs who were to merge to form Roma in a few years’ time.
And that, now 95 years ago, was that, in terms of success for Pro Vercelli. Their Serie A history ended in 1935 and they have never been back since.
The story is not all doom and gloom, though, as the club is beginning to rise again. Financial dissolution in 2010 brought a reformed Pro Vercelli and the new club has set about establishing itself in Serie B. While 16th is their best finish to date since that point, there are signs of progression. Just this week, a Piedmontese legend joined the club, with Rolando Bianchi cutting short a disappointing stint with Perugia to join Pro Vercelli.
He will do well to score 106 goals for the club such as Carlo Rampini, but equally, one would think he will not be rewarded with cigars. Pro Vercelli are neither gone, nor forgotten; they are just ‘away’.