Champagne Football: Italy’s Early Vintage

The game of football had initially been regarded as something of a curiosity in Italy.

It was felt to be a frivolous pursuit, the preserve of foreigners and the upper classes. And this wasn’t an unreasonable assessment. Italy’s returning diaspora and the migrant populations of English, French and Swiss had played a pivotal role in first establishing the game in northern Italian ports and cities in the 1890s. Meanwhile, for great swathes of the native population, the luxury of leisure time remained an aspiration rather than a reality.

The popularity of the game grew in the early 20th century, but calcio remained in its nascent form. The style of play was rudimentary, characterised by displays of individualism, with an almost complete absence of the tactical discipline for which the Italians would later become famed. The game was still firmly in the grip of the amateur era and though interest was beginning to transcend societal barriers, there was a sizeable influence, both on and off the field, from the nouveau riche of the industrial classes.

The migrants, for their part, had not fared so well. Despite the fundamental role they had played in educating the indigenous population about the game, these football missionaries had become casualties of the nationalist politics of the day. In 1907, domestic football was divided into an Italian Championship and a Federal Championship, with only the latter, a supposedly inferior competition, allowing the participation of foreign players.

As interest in calcio spread and competitions expanded, the concurrent championships were first amalgamated and then split into two regionalised groups in 1910/11. The Liguria-Piemonte-Lombardia group contained 9 teams, amongst them the most established clubs from Italy’s industrial triangle. The inferior Veneto-Emilia group comprised just 4 teams from the footballing hinterlands of Verona, Vicenza and Bologna. The winners of the respective, and rather imbalanced, groups would meet in a final to determine the overall champions of Italy.

The regular season constituted just 16 matches for clubs in the north-west and even fewer for those in the north-east. This dearth of competitive football was doing little to support the development of the game in Italy. As a consequence, the clubs initiated numerous spin-off competitions to populate gaps in the fixture calendar.

One such competition was the Palla D’Oro Moët et Chandon; a tournament taking its name from the esteemed champagne producers. The prestige French vinters had counted Napoleon, Czar Alexander, the Duke of Wellington and Queen Victoria amongst their clientele during the 19th century and, by 1880, were producing 2.5 million bottles per year. The industrial advancement of the 20th century brought new opportunities for Moët et Chandon to expand their reach into the wealthy industrial classes. In this context, the patronage of a football tournament, to be staged in Italy’s most affluent regions, represented a ripe commercial opportunity.

In perhaps the first example of commercial sponsorship in Italian football, Moët et Chandon offered up a trophy in return for putting their name to the new competition. There is little historical record of the trophy’s form, but the favoured designs of the day (see Palla Dapples below) and the translation of the name Pall D’Oro (meaning “Golden Ball”), more than likely provide some clues.

Palla Henri Dapples

The competition itself imitated the successful “challenge” format of the Palla Dapples, which had run from 1903 to 1909. The holders of the prize would be challenged by another team; the victors of that one-off match would then retain the trophy until the next challenger came along.

Throughout the competition’s two-year history there were sporadic flurries of fixtures corresponding to seasonal lulls in the league calendar. The Palla D’Oro would eventually be contested a total of nine times, involving five different teams, with one club emerging as a dominant force. And not atypically for the period, the competition would be mired in controversy with sagas of unplayable pitches, incompetent refereeing and illegal payments to players.

Torino 0-2 Inter – 23rd January 1910: Inter’s Early Supremacy

The inaugural competition was contested between Torino and Inter in early 1910. Inter proved too strong for the Granata that afternoon, with goals from Carlo Payer and Giovanni Capra sealing victory – and possession of the trophy – for the Nerazzurri. After the match the Directors of the respective clubs retired to Ristorante Voigt – the birthplace of Torino FC – for a celebratory banquet. The local La Sportiva newspaper reported that toasts were raised to the success of the day, no doubt making use of their sponsor’s wares.

The players of Torino and Inter gather for a photo
Ristorante Voigt – the place where it all began for Torino, which can still be visited today (now Bar Norman, via Pietro Micca)

Inter 0-0 Torino – 13th March 1910: In Napoleon’s Honour

Two months later, Torino challenged Inter to a re-match to be held at Milan’s Arena Civica, a venue that had been commissioned by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1806. It was a particularly fitting stage for the contest, given the Emperor’s fondness for Moët et Chandon. Napoleon struck up a long-running friendship with Jean-Rémy Moët, who frequently hosted his leader at their Epernay vineyards. One of Napoleon’s finals acts before his exile to Elba was to award Jean-Rémy Moët the Legion d’honneur in recognition of his services to the country.

Torino took to the field in Milan that afternoon with the aptly named Friedrich Bollinger in their ranks. They valiantly battled to a goalless draw; however, under the rules of the competition a draw was not sufficient to prise the trophy from Inter’s grasp.

“In victory, you deserve Champagne; in defeat, you need it.” — Napoleon Bonaparte

Inter 3-5 Juventus – 20th March 1910: Derby D’Italia Chaos

Just one week later, Juventus arrived in Milan as the latest pretenders to the crown. Things began well for Inter who found themselves two goals to the good within half an hour, courtesy of Swiss forward Ernest Peterly. But Juventus would not surrender easily, bringing themselves back on level terms before half time. Early in the second half, Peterly completed his hat-trick only for Juventus to draw level once again.

The match was tainted by an erratic performance from referee Agostino Recalcati, who at one point sought spectator opinion before making the decision to award a corner. As the game entered its final half hour, Juventus took the lead for the first time and struck again on 85 minutes to make it 3-5. This proved the final straw for Inter players who walked off the field in protest and did not return, handing the trophy to Juventus for the first time.

Inter 3-5 Juventus, Arena Civica

Juventus 2-1 Inter – 8th December 1910: No Revenge For Inter

The wounds of the previous encounter had healed sufficiently by December 1910 for Inter to make the journey to Turin in an attempt to regain the Palla D’Oro. The match was played at Juventus’ Campo do Corso Sebastopoli pitch, just a stone’s throw from the modern-day Stadio Olimpico Grande Torino. Torrential rain that day had turned the playing surface into something resembling a swamp, but the abysmal conditions didn’t prevent the hosts’ successful defence of the trophy.

Juventus 0-1 Torino – 25th December 1910: Torino’s Uno Sul Campo

Next up, Torino were hoping to make it third-time lucky as they stepped forward to challenge Juventus. The original fixture had been scheduled for 18th December, but had to be re-arranged due to Juventus’ quagmire of a pitch. The match was re-scheduled for exactly one week later; Christmas Day.

Juventus demonstrated their ingrained commercial instincts by arranging special trams to take supporters from Porta Nuova station to the ground. A bolstered festive crowd witnessed Juventus’ Chiaffredo Mestrella put through his own goal in the 85th minute to gift Torino victory and possession of the coveted Palla D’Oro (newspaper report).

However, several weeks after Torino’s victory it transpired that their English forward Harold Swift had taken payment for his appearance in the game, a cardinal sin in the amateur era. This resulted in a reversal of the result, the return of the trophy to Juventus and a lifetime ban for the disgraced Swift.

Juventus 0-1 Torino, Christmas Day 1910

7th and 14th May 1911: Juventus assert their dominance

After a hiatus of five months, the competition resumed with Juventus successfully defending their title, first against Piemonte (0-0) and then versus Casale (4-0). Judging these victories by modern standards would not do justice to their significance at the time. The Bianconeri had finished rock bottom of the Prima Categoria that season, three places below Piemonte. And, whilst newcomers Casale had only been formed 12 months earlier, they would quickly make their mark in Italian football by winning the championship in 1914.

Juventus 2-2 Torino – 25th May 1911: Toro’s Torment Continues

Towards the end of May there would be a further, final contest between Juventus and Torino, as the visitors looked to make amends for the travesty of the previous December. It was a closely fought derby; Juventus led twice only to be pegged back by Torino. As the game entered its final minutes, with the scores tied at 2-2, Carlo Capra was given the chance to snatch victory for Torino from the penalty spot.

However, Capra missed, leaving a distinct sense that it was simply not meant to be for Toro. Despite their position as the dominant team in Turin at the time, they would never succeed in winning the Palla D’Oro.

Juventus 1-0 Piemonte – 31st December 1911: A Final Hurra!

The ninth match of the Palla D’Oro series pitched Juventus against Piemonte at the end of 1911. The referee that day was an Englishman by the name of Harry Goodley, who had moved to Turin to work in the textile industry. It was testament to the innocence of the amateur era that Goodley took control, despite being a former Juventus player and coach.  Clearly, this was an age where a firm grasp of the rules was considered more of a concern than impartiality. Juventus’ 1-0 victory allowed them to retain the trophy on what transpired to be a more permanent basis.

Times were changing and the expansion of the league structure was beginning to satiate clubs’ appetite for fixtures. And when it came to plugging the remaining gaps, fashions were shifting away from the one-off “challenge” format towards mini tournaments such as the Coppa Doria and Coppa dei Presidente. What had begun as an enterprising sporting and commercial initiative had ultimately lost some of its sparkle.

So, on New Years Eve 1911, Juventus raised a toast, one last time, to the Palla D’Oro Moët et Chandon.

Thanks for reading, if you enjoyed this take a look at my article on the Arena Civica

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