The port city of Trieste sits apart from the Italian peninsula; a thin sliver of land buffered by Slovenia to the East, and the ‘boot’ to the West. It is a place coveted by many over time, with its Adriatic coastline and strategically valuable trading port the object of desire of many nations and empires over the centuries.
As the crossroads between German, Latin, Slavic and Austro-Hungarian cultures throughout history, it is a place with a past of fluctuating identities. Its distinctive local dialect is a convergence of Italian, Slovene, German, Greek and Serbian; its ethnic makeup for centuries unlike any other province of Italy.
Trieste is a place that is ‘nowhere’, not part of any one entity, a place set apart from all others around it. In the years after the Second World War it was a place that would have two teams playing in two divisions, in two separate nations – both sides utilised as pawns in an early Cold War stand off- almost as an emodiement of Trieste’s own crisis of identity.
It is, however, a chapter of Italian football history that remains almost entirely uncovered in the English language. Indeed, were it not for John Foot’s research on the topic in his masterful tome, Calcio: A History of Italian Football, there would be no previous work on the topic to speak of.
Trieste is a culturally and economically rich place; a small and picturesque city that was once the most important port in the vast Habsburg empire. As the nineteenth century became the twentieth, Trieste was a thriving cosmopolitan centre and a retreat of writers and intellectuals such as Joyce and Freud.
Following the cessation of the First World War Italy annexed Trieste amid the Italian Irredentist movement, which aimed for the repatriation of the ethnically Italian people living outside of Italian borders. Trieste however, was still home to a significant Slovene population, many of whom longed for a nation of their own.
It was in the aftermath of the Second World War, as both Allied forces and Tito’s Yugoslav army laid claim to the province and city of Trieste, that these ethnic divisions came to the fore; often intentionally by those vying for the right to lay claim to the region.
Nationalist Italians called for unification with Italy, while Tito claimed the land for Yugoslavia, and Slovenes, who made up a significant minority, called for a nation of their own. The animosity between the Allied forces and Yugoslavia grew more intense as Tito’s forces committed the Foibemassacres against the Italian citizens of Trieste, and the Allied forces suppressed protests by Italian nationalists calling for reunification with Italy.
It was almost inevitable, in the tradition of Italian politics and calcio, that football was to become a key element in the Cold War games of propaganda and political posturing. Trieste had become a place first divided along manufactured political borders, and soon after along sporting lines.
The original club of Trieste had been Ponziana, formed in 1912 in the port region of the city and at the time of the Second World War a regional club of amateur players. Unione Spotiva Triestina was formed in 1918 and since 1929 had competed in Serie A, despite their limited resources. In 1946 the Yugoslav government moved to recruit Ponziana to their national league, with the intent of investing heavily in the side to ensure maximum propaganda gains from the venture.
With the wages of footballers in Italy low and life in the post-war world devoid of much financial opportunity, offers of salaries far greater than the average Italian wage were made to the players and staff of Ponziana by the Yugoslav government.
The club also harboured a strongly working class and communist support base known to be sympathetic to Tito and as such seemed a perfect fit. The team was renamed Amatori and they would play in the Yugoslav First Division, with the club’s funding to come from Belgrade. Trieste’s historical case of split identities was now manifesting itself in the world of football.
The initial problem with the experiment was that Amatori were not particularly good, having been a local side made up of amateur players in Italy rather than a Serie A side, as U.S. Triestina were at the time. In a strong Yugoslav First Division they enjoyed little success, finishing tenth in their first season.
Because of this poor showing Belgrade increased funding to the club in the hopes of bringing about success the following year. While results improved, there remained little to cheer about for the club’s stakeholders, as Amatori finished just 2 points above the relegation zone in their second season of Yugoslav football.
The press of the time were divided along predictable lines, with the right wing Italian press offering little coverage (aside from calling the players traitors) to the now Yugoslav side, whereas the Yugoslav and Slovene media reported on the team in depth.
In contrast to their treatment of Amatori, the Italian media hailed Triestina as one of the great symbols of post war strength in Italy, with La Gazzetta Dello Sport describing the side as ‘pilgrims of a sporting ideal who carry our nation’s aspirations.’
The paper even went so far as to publish a special Trieste edition that included coverage of the local sides in the area. The outpouring of goodwill towards the side was not limited to the press, as crowds turned out in huge numbers at away games and the team was often showered with gifts on their travels. The Italian national anthem was played before each Triestina game, despite it not being the custom for Serie A games at the time. In the years following a humiliating defeat of the Fascist ideology, there was much to be invested in, and extracted from, a football team who were to many the embodiment of Italian Nationalism.
However, as with Amatori, there was one notable problem – U.S. Triestina weren’t very good. They finished bottom of Serie A in the 1946-47 season after 25 defeats, including a streak of 11 consecutive losses.
The symbol of Italian nationalism was set for relegation, until intervention from the Italian F.A. decreed that Triestina should take their place in Serie A the following season, “thanks to their sporting merit”. The Italian F.A. expanded Serie A to 21 teams and the other sides relegated that year made no protest.
Funding from Rome was increased to ensure a more acceptable season was enjoyed next time around. Some of the money was even used to purchase one of the ‘traitors’ of Ponziana, who would first have to endure a 6 month ban for his time playing abroad.
The results of the following year were a miraculous turnaround, as Triestina, led by the revolutionary coaching of Nereo Rocco, finished the season in second place- runners up to the great Il Grande Torino side of the time. It would however be the highest point the club would ever reach. Following successive eighth placed finishes over the next two years they would soon find themselves sliding down the Italian football ladder. With the loss of a large section of their traditional catchment area due to the new post-war borders Triestina found it harder to bring through new talent and results soon reflected this new reality.
Amatori would enjoy a similarly brief boon of affection from their compatriots as they attracted up to 50,000 fans to their games in Yugoslavia, while Red Star Belgrade drew a crowd of 12,000 for their visit to Trieste. As with Triestina, they also enjoyed glowing references to their endeavours in their own nation’s press.
The Amatori experiment lasted only 3 years before changes in the political landscape rendered the advantages of a club side in Trieste to be negligible and so Yugoslavia called a halt to the project, following which Amatori resumed life as Ponziana and returned to their local league in Italy.
As the political capital to be extracted from the Trieste situation decreased Triestina’s propaganda value for the Italian government was diminished significantly. As Amatori/Ponziana had found with Tito’s Yugoslav government, once the propaganda value which had been ascribed to them was gone so too was the relatives successes it had afforded them.
Triestina were relegated to Serie B in 1959 and eventually found themselves as low as Serie D in 1970. The one positive for the few fans that remained was that a stint in Serie D afforded them a Trieste derby in 1974. 20,000 fans attended the first Trieste-Ponziana derby since 1927, a remarkable attendance for a game of such low quality. It was particularly telling as it pointed to the continuing divisions amongst the citizens of Trieste.
The scars of the civil war within Trieste were again laid bare as Italy faced Slovenia in a friendly in the city in 2002. Crowd trouble, including firebombs and objects thrown onto the pitch, marred the game while both national anthems were booed. The Slovene fans displayed a banner reading “The XI Corpus is back”- a less than subtle reference to Tito’s troops who had occupied the city for 40 days; killing “fascists” and “oppositionists”.
Even with the passing of decades the wounds suffered in the years following the Second World War remained unhealed and Trieste was reminded of its own schizophrenic past. As John Foot notes; “There is perhaps no nation in Europe which has mixed politics and football to such as degree as Italy” and “nowhere in Italy were politics and sport so closely intertwined as in Trieste.”
By Eoin Brennan
This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona