Pro Vercelli established themselves as a powerhouse of Italian football during the early part of the twentieth century. They emerged from the shadows of Genoa and Milan, whose migrant-led teams had dominated the first decade of organised football on the peninsula. Vercelli were one of the first teams to break the duopoly when they collected their maiden Scudetto in 1908.
From there, Vercelli went from strength to strength. They were unbeaten for two years at the point they lifted the 1909 Scudetto. In all, they recorded five Scudetti in just six years, finishing runners up in the intervening season.
The onset of the Great War led to the suspension of the championship from 1916-19; a period when Vercelli would surely have added to their haul. On return to action, Vercelli were triumphant again in 1921 and recorded their seventh and final Scudetto the following year.
To put these achievements in perspective, Vercelli was a small town sustained by a predominantly agricultural economy. The origins of the club can be traced back to a local gymnastics society that diversified into calcio. The pendulum swang in favour of this team of talented local amateurs when, amidst a rising tide of nationalism, the footballing authorities banned the participation of foreign players in 1908, thereby weakening Vercelli’s rivals.
Geographically, Vercelli sits in the middle of the golden triangle of Milan, Genoa and Turin. On the football pitch, Vercelli had gone toe-to-toe with these industrial powerhouses and dominated them. That Vercelli team were revered not just locally, but nationally for their exploits. In 1913, the Italian national team took on Belgium with a starting XI featuring nine Vercelli players.
The 1922 victory marked the high watermark of football in Vercelli. The dawn of professionalism in Italian football tipped the scales back in favour of those teams from the industrial heartlands. Decline set in and Vercelli faded from the upper echelons of the championship, ultimately dropping out of Serie A for the final time in 1934-35. Yet Vercelli remain perhaps the grandest old name in Italian football. To this day only four teams (Juventus, Milan, Inter, Genoa) have accumulated more titles.
Vercelli is situated in the verdant Po Valley, overlooked by breath-taking Alpine mountains to the north. It’s easy to reach from Milan or Turin and very pleasant upon arrival. The town has a peaceful and prosperous air about it. The majority of the 2km journey from the train station to the stadium is along the Corso Guiseppe Garibaldi – a wide, tree-lined boulevard enclosed by well-maintained buildings.
A visit to Stadio Silvio Piola may be considered a pilgrimage for calcio fanatics. It’s a small, but perfectly formed arena that has played home to Pro Vercelli since 1932. The pinnacle of any visit is undoubtedly that first glimpse of the classical-style grandstand, an original feature of the stadium that has been superbly preserved.
The grandstand is a structure of simplistic beauty – the arched openings at the rear of the stand have an ecclesiastic quality, whilst the numerous wrought-iron handrails bring quaint appeal. The gently-sloping roof of the Tribuna is supported by seven steel arches, each symbolically adorned with a Scudetto shield.
By contrast, the other three sides of the stadium have neat, symmetric terraces, 6 or 7 rows deep, populated with matching white plastic seats. In a style not atypical of the Italian lower leagues, the Gradinata Nord (the long side opposite the Tribuna) has some additional accommodation fashioned from scaffolding, bringing the overall capacity up to 5,500. The stadium gracefully juxtaposes old and new. The heritage Tribuna somehow sits comfortably alongside the modern glass-fronted clubhouse located in the corner of the 3G pitch.
The stadium is located in a gentile residential district, with flats and balconies overlooking the pitch. A nearby supermarket imposes restrictions on alcohol sales before and after the game, whilst ultras sell a modest selection of scarves and badges from a trestle table in the adjoining car park.
Pro Vercelli average crowds of around 1,500 so obtaining tickets is generally not an issue. These can be purchased from the ticket office on the south (Tribuna) side of the stadium ahead of kick-off. A place on Curva Ovest, the home of Pro’s ultras, will set you back just €10, whilst a place in the Tribuna will cost around three times that.
Historically, Pro have a reputation as a club with links to the far right, but nothing of this sort was evident amongst the small band of ultras in attendance on Curva Ovest. Unusually for Italian football, there was a relatively strong police and stewarding presence on the Curva and no alcohol sales within the ground.
The ultras were equipped with the obligatory flags and drum; the former was used sparingly, whilst the latter didn’t see action all afternoon. They valiantly worked against the tide of an uncompetitive match and the complete absence of away support as they sought to generate an atmosphere in the early Spring sunshine.
Pro are currently pushing for promotion from the third tier of Italian football (Serie C, Group A). The game against Sardinian club Arzachena was something of a mismatch with the home side’s superiority evident from the beginning. Pro went ahead on just 2 minutes, before doubling the lead before half time.
Pro’s third goal came courtesy of a calamitous mix up between defender and ‘keeper. The fourth and final goal was a fantastic finish from an acute angle, following a moment of indecision from the Arzachena custodian. As Vercelli incrementally extended their lead, the match increasingly took on the air of a friendly fixture, as both teams sought to make extensive use of their five permitted substitutions. Not that the home crowd minded, of course.
Pro Vercelli are a club steeped in history, an icon of the Italian game. The Stadio Silvio Piola is one of the best preserved examples of early 20th century stadium architecture on the peninsula. A visit here is one in search of calcio past rather than calcio present. Neither the footballing spectacle nor the atmosphere from the curva rivals the best in Italy, but Vercelli remains a key part of the curriculum for calciophiles. And those who do make the trip will be richly rewarded.