It is 19 December 1909 and in Hall room 1 of the Instituto Tecnico Leardi in Casale Monferrato, a meeting is taking place. As the time ticks towards 17:15, a decision is agreed upon by those who are present: Italy’s newest football club had just been founded.
This fulfilled the ambition of one Professor Raffaele Jaffe, who, after being invited to watch a match in a neighbouring village by a group of students, was enchanted by what he saw and decided to found a club for his local town, Casale Monferrato.
The club grew at a fantastic pace and by 1911, was accepted into the top flight of Italian football. From there, the club only continued to make history. In 1913, they became the first Italian side to defeat English opposition (Reading) and in 1914, they upset all the odds to win Casale's one and only Scudetto. 102 years after the event, Casale remain the smallest town in Italy to be home to a Serie A (top-flight) winning side. All of which would not have been possible without the vision of Professor Jaffe.
Another who proved key to Casale’s triumph was local boy Luigi Barbesino. He was described by the infamous former Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti as someone with ‘great personality, strong leadership skills, and who inspired awe and sometimes even a bit of dislike.’
Barring a very brief interlude with Legnano, Barbesino spent most his career with his hometown club. It was there that his talent flourished earning him the respect of teammates and opponents alike. At the 1912 Olympics in Sweden, Barbesino would win the first of five caps for the Italian national side and in the process, became the second youngest player behind Renzo De Vecchi to pull on an Azzurri shirt. All these years later, he remains one of Italy’s youngest capped players.
In 1920, Barbesino decided to hang up his boots and was not seen again in a footballing context until 1928, when he returned to Casale and took over as head-coach of the club. He remained with the club for a further two seasons before leaving to take control at Roma. During his first season in the capital, Barbesino led the club to a fifth-place finish. Gradual improvement was seen the following year as the Lupi finish fourth. By his third season in charge, things at the club were all set for a title charge. But then fate intervened. Three key players, fearing that they may be called up by Mussolini to fight in Ethiopia, fled the capital leaving Roma and Barbesino short. Nevertheless, the Giallorossi battled on but in the end came up just short behind Bologna. A few years later in 1939, Barbesino would finish with football forever.
But what happened in those intervening eight years between when he retired from football and took up the post as head-coach at his hometown club. For answers, we must turn to Barbesino’s biographer Giancarlo Ramezzana, ‘I was flipping through the fourth volume of the history of the 1919/1922 Fascist Revolution by Giorgio Alberto Chiurco," Ramezzana noted, "when I recognised the unmistakeable face and in particular a photograph of him in a black shirt.’
It seems that in the aftermath of his footballing career, Barbesino became the leader of the Trento and Bolzano branch of the Italian fascist party. Beyond Ramezzana, two other sources seem to corroborate this. The first is a book called ‘South Tyrol: A minority conflict of the 20th century’, where it mentions: ‘At the end of April Luigi Barbesino a lumber dealer from Piedmont (Where Casale is located) took over the leadership of the group (Fasci di Combattimento of Bozen).
The second source is retrieved from another book called ‘The Italian Military Governorship in South Tyrol and the Rise of Fascism’. Referring once again to the area of Bolzano and Trento, the book states that ‘These first local branches of the local fascist party developed their activity under the direction of Luigi Barbesino, who has been sent to the new province by the central Fascio of Milan and by Mussolini.’
Vaulting forward in time to the end of his coaching days, Barbesino’s life would soon take on a calling far from the dugout. Of course, it is well known that in 1939, Hitler’s Wehrmacht army invaded Poland thus starting World War II. Italy, seeing the early successes of Nazi Germany and having previously signed the Pact of Steel, entered the war on Germany’s side. Despite now being in his late 40s, Barbesino would answer the call like many others and join the Italian armed forces, to be specific the air force.
He would be assigned to the 194 squadron, taking the role of observer on his plane as it flew reconnaissance and convoy escort missions. One fateful day on 20 April 1941, Barbesino and his crew mates would take to the sky for the last time. Flying a familiar route known as Sciacca – Kuriate – Kerkenna – Sciacca, his aircraft would encounter harsh weather conditions and after about an hour of flying, the mission was abandoned and they decided to return to base. Sadly, that was the last that was ever seen of Barbesino and his crew. His plane never made it back to base and indeed remains lost to this day, 75 years later, somewhere off the coast of Sicily.
It proved a tragic end for possibly Casale’s greatest ever footballer and although not as young as many others who lost their lives during the war, at 47, Barbesino still had plenty of life left to live. His memory, however, endures and he is still remembered as the gifted player who delivered his local town its one and only league title.
As for the man who made that all possible by founding the club? Professor Jaffe would also meet an untimely end during the war, although in far different and much more sinister circumstances. For you see Professor Jaffe was born Jewish and despite marrying a Catholic woman and converting to the religion in 1937, he was still arrested by the Black Brigades in a roundup of Jews in early 1944.
An article by Gianni Turino on a Casale focused website tells us of the Professor’s fate after the arrest. He was immediately interned at the Fossoli camp outside Carpi, before being deported to Auschwitz on 22 February 1944. He would arrive at the infamous death camp four days later. Along with 24 other prisoners, he would pass through the gates never to emerge again.
Both of Casale’s most famous sons died in vastly different ways in the most devastating of wars. Two men who had delivered a historic title to this small north-western town, one with his talent on the pitch and the other with his vision in the boardroom.
Luigi Barbesino and Raffaele Jaffe: the men who made Casale the Champions of Italy.
Words by Kevin Nolan: @KevinNolan11.
Kevin is an Irishman who loves to watch calcio no matter how lowly the level, Parma being his team of choice. Besides the @GentlemanUltra, he also writes for @ItalianFD.