Viareggio: a soccer town in mourning

Firefighters spray water on a wrecked car of a freight train in Viareggio on June 30, 2009, after it exploded just outside the station of this coastal town in northern Italy. A rail car filled with liquefied natural gas exploded when a freight train derailed in the middle of this small Italian town, setting off an inferno.-AP

Over the course of many years, Viareggio, in the spring, regularly put on one of the most competitive and attractive youth tournaments in Europe. All the leading Italian clubs and many from abroad sent their junior sides to take part, writes Brian Glanville.

It seemed sadly appropriate that, after the appalling disaster in Viareggio in the last week of June, wise and bitter words should have been spoken there by Pierluigi Collina, not long since one of the leading referees in the international game. No fewer than 17 people had been cruelly burned to death, others buried under the rubble of their destroyed houses, when a tanker carrying liquid petroleum by rail through the town suddenly derailed and exploded in a wall of fire, demolishing two houses.

“It can’t be right,” declared Collina, who lives there, “that these bombs are allowed to move through urban centres.” Woken by the explosion, he thought at first it must be a summer storm, “Instead, it was a tragedy.” Collina pursued: “What would have happened if all the tankers had exploded, not just two of them? Viareggio would no longer exist.”

Shockingly, a local prosecutor, Beniamino Deldda, opined, “This accident is not the result of chance but of omissions that will be carefully examined.” He implied that negligence was suspected. Maintenance and checks, it appears, were only self-regulated. Overall, a recipe for potential and horrible disaster.

Another very famous figure in Italian football will also have been distressed: none other than Marcello Lippi, manager of Italy’s World Cup winning team in Germany in 2006 and, less happily, of the azzurri who recently and feebly competed in the Confederations Cup, in South Africa. For Lippi was himself born in that coastal resort, so immensely popular with the citizens of nearby Florence, in 1948. How well I myself, who once lived in Florence and so often went back there, knew its beaches: and its football pedigree.

For over the course of many years, Viareggio, in the spring, regularly put on one of the most competitive and attractive youth tournaments in Europe. All the leading Italian clubs and many from abroad sent their junior sides to take part. But how typical it was that English clubs, for decades so foolishly insular, should for a long time snub the tournament. As indeed they did, to my own disappointment, back in 1953. I’d come to live in Florence some months earlier, and was, as a young journalist from England, asked to find a leading Football League team which would send its juniors to Viareggio. I did try hard, especially with Chelsea, but got nowhere. Insularity ruled out soccer in those far off days and so a splendid chance to combine football with a sea-side holiday went begging. Not for many a season later did English teams come out of their far from splendid isolation, to compete in the Tuscan resort.

But for me, there are also intensely personal memories of Viareggio: in a football context. One centred on the inimitable Mauro Franceschini. A blond, barrel-chested Tuscan but from Pisa rather than Florence, where he then lived and, at first in comparative poverty, assiduously coached his young footballers on a bare little pitch, set in the industrial suburb of Rifredi. Near to which he lived in a small flat, several floors up, with his old father and his self-effacing aunt.

Mauro, as often as not, found his boy footballers in the streets. I remember a sunny afternoon at the elegant Stadio Communale, then as now the city football stadium, when his resourceful team took on the Fiorentina youth side while he paraded, up and down, before a terrace, shouting to the fans, “we’re a year younger than they are!” A prominent youth coach, Domenico Biti, once with Lazio and Roma, told me how, visiting Florence and sitting in a cafe in the broad central Piazza della Repubblica with the famed Fiorentina manager, Fulvio Bernardini, Mauro came striding towards them, jacket slung across the shoulders. “If you could see this colt!” he enthused. “Kicks so hard with his hind legs!” Biti enquired. “Are you a horse trainer?” To which Mauro roared, “Maccho! I’m a football coach!”

In Rifredi, our own room was small, cramped and bare; though things would radically change. He lived, then, on a bicycle. Once, in the city streets, I found him with one, carrying a large clock. Making ends meet, no doubt. As an English football journalist, I enjoyed his automatic esteem; English football then was his passion. When England came to play in Florence, in May, 1952, he grew friendly with the then manager and chief soccer coach, Walter Winterbottom. But when Walter eventually invited him to come to England for a coaching course, he was strangely intimidated. I had to help him write a spurious letter, explaining that he had a military call up. Yet, in his own, odd way, he spoke English well; he’d been taught in the war by a British solider-teacher. “I know English poetry!” he would cry and then recite.

“Who goes there? A Grenadier! “What you want? A glass of beer! “Where is your money? I have forgotten! “Get away, drunken sotten!”

Like his far Left Socialist father, he was anti-clerical and a fervent opponent of Fascism. He poured scorn on Beppe Pegalotti, once an ardent Fascist, then chief football correspondent of ‘La Nazione’, the main Florentine paper, formerly a war correspondent in the Middle East. He writes: “Next week we shall be in Alexandria! Next week they take him prisoner and he goes to India. He don’t come back for seven years!”

Things got better. He made money, selling the players he trained to League clubs ‘in compropriet’, meaning each had a half share in the player, should he be sold again. A white car replaced the bicycle; he’d drive to Viareggio at tumultuous speed, exhorting one of his players, in the back seat, to keep count of the vehicles which he passed!

And to Viareggio, as he prospered, he would send all the youngsters he was coaching and put them in a pensione. Lunch times were a real experience. Mauro at the top of the table, bellowing about a leading manager he despised, “A charlatan! A charlatan! He goes to Rio and what does he find? That there’s a beach 10 kilometres long, where everybody plays; cripples, women, children!” Then a mass siesta under the pine trees.

His star pupil Bicchierai, a gifted young centre-half, would join him in Viareggio at the beach. The son of a Florentine dairy owner, he would sign for Internazionale, Milan. And got Mauro married; to a Pole. The strangest story. He asked the coach of an Italian team visiting Poland, to find him a bride. The man obliged. The girl came to Florence; Mauro married her. In Florentine football and journalistic circles, she was known simply as “La Polacca,” the Pole.

He continued to prosper. So much so that he bought a farm by the sea near his native Pisa, where he kept a boat. But things went wrong. The sports editor of La Nazione told me once that Mauro, big and strong though he was, complained to him that he’d been beaten up by young Poles. And then he disappeared. From his car, by the banks of the River Arno. Its doors open wide, his passport still in the glove compartment. Never a sign of him again. “They (whoever they were) gave him to the pigs!” I was told by his bitter friends.

Ten years after his disappearance, his widow was legally allowed to declare him dead, and come into the whole of his estate as her own. But scarcely had those years elapsed than she was killed in a car crash. Viareggio. A name that evokes so many memories.