The city of Modena is undoubtedly more famous for food than football. Not only is the city’s balsamic vinegar protected and world-famous, but Michelin’s best restaurant in the world, Osteria Francescana is in the city.
However, though the recent history might be turbulent, Modena’s football team have been a mainstay of Italian football over the years, contributing much to the rich fabric of the game, despite their honours board containing only two relatively minor trophies.
The Stadio Alberto Braglia will host fourth tier football this season for the first time since 1979/80, and the Canarini will be hoping to emulate the immediate promotion they enjoyed back then.
It is a far cry from the early days of Italian football, when Modena were founding members of Serie A and spent many years occupying the top two divisions; they might not have enjoyed any great periods of stability and success, but in the 1942/43 season, securing promotion from Serie B ensured that, when World War II came to an end, Modena would begin amongst the big boys again.
A number of the pre-war squad remained by the time 1946 rolled around; notably defender Renato Braglia, a local boy made good who went on to make nearly 500 appearances for his club. He scored, as was the way with defenders back then, a single goal, on Boxing Day 1948 against Pro Patria.
As such, it was not a surprise that Modena started the season well, a 3-1 win at Alessandria in which Walter Del Medico, a post-war signing from Atalanta, grabbed a brace. The good work was undone a little with a 1-0 home defeat to Bari the following week, but a 6-1 thumping of Napoli set Alfredo Mazzoni’s side on the way, and they hit top gear from there.
Further victories over Lazio, Fiorentina and Venezia took Modena to just a single point behind Bologna ahead of their visit to the Stadio Comunale in early November. Unfortunately, they rather froze in the headlights stopping for an offside decision in the 12th minute that wasn’t given, allowing the Rossoblu to claim a goal, and the points.
The disappointment of defeat in Bologna stung, and it took a couple of matches to get back to winning ways, but winters in Italy are hard – even Il Grande Torino dropped points – and by the time January came around, Modena were back to just a point behind the leaders. By this point Bologna had faded, and those familiar faces of Torino and Juventus led the way.
The Canarini avoided defeat against both Torinese sides in the first half of the season, enjoying a home win against Juventus, while managing to escape with a rare point from the Stadio Filadelfia. Their progress was solid, yet remained surprising; as late as November, Franco Barbosi wrote in the Corrriere dello Sport of their 2-1 victory over Milan in glowing terms, not yet at ease with the star names; Del Medico, Zecca, Brigante and Cassani.
By the time the two sides met again in April, it was clear that this was a historic season for Modena. While Torino went from strength to strength, the Canarini just about held on to their coat-tails, their defensive strength ensuring them draws that may have otherwise been defeats, and the occasional attacking flurry bringing victories.
It tells its own story, in that way, that Renato Brighenti, who played behind the front three, was the leading scorer for the season with ten goals. Centre forward Adriano Zecca managed just six. To score 45 goals in total, less than half of Torino’s 104, might seem paltry, but this came ahead of a defence that conceded just 24, far fewer than one a game, and only more than one twice during the season.
The first of those came in a 2-1 defeat in Venice, a defeat that allowed Torino to stretch their lead from three to five points in the Scudetto race and, in all truth, probably ended the title race as a contest. The second came in the very last match of the season, a 4-2 home defeat to the champions-elect.
In the end, Modena just couldn’t keep it together and a memorable season ended in third position, a finish that was and remains the Gialloblu’s best ever Serie A campaign. The board managed to hold on to a number of their best players, too, at least for another season.
The only two notable departures were centre-back Leandro Remondini, who missed just four matches, moved to Lazio; he would return twice to coach. Forward Renato Brighenti opted for Genoa, while Zecca, who had won a title with Torino the year before, moved on to Venezia.
The other names; Braglia, who went on to become a club legend at Modena, Maino Neri, the midfield orchestrator, even coach Mazzoni; all stuck around in Emilia-Romagna to try to improve upon their performance.
We know now that they were never to do so, and know now that those weeks that Modena were pushing Torino, but not quite getting the better of them, was as good it would get for the club. To be that close to the pinnacle, and to not reach it, that was their fate. Yet even that will seem a world away this season.
Modena may be in the doldrums now, but they very nearly reached the top once upon a time. It can happen.