Football and memory
This is the English translation of an article I wrote for the Holocaust Memorial Day, 27 January, and published on Tuttocalciatori.net (Original article here).
Current football hasn’t got memory. It runs too fast, it has no time to look back.
Even because if you turn around, you lose the ball and let in a goal. Pace is asphyxiating: running, matches on TV, reports on magazines, polemics made by chairmen and transfers market.
And the tam-tam on the radios, jotters of the journalists, TV showgirls and discotheques, and go on with another with another football match.
Between a scandal, the widespread indignation, yells invoking gallows and the amnesties, the time for a coffee is enough.
There is no time to think and to wonder what sense the whole circus makes. No time to look back to the miles covered: to where we come from and to where we are going. Memory.
Remembering to know ourselves, to find our own identities in order not to repeat the past mistakes. Carlo, Ferdinando and Rino: three common names. Three young Italians who turned up to Nazi concentration camps with the ball between the feet or on their heads.
Carlo Castellani is 35 years old. He’s the owner of a sawmill in Montelupo, after being Empoli striker for nine seasons who scored 62 goals wearing the jersey of the Tuscan team. It’s the night of 8th March 1944: the noise made by the wheels of the fascists truck breaks the silence and the sleep of a working class town; screaming and shouting, tears and raised dust. Four days before, the town of Montelupo had lifted its head and made a strike en masse against the regime: an unbearable insult to the Comrades who decide exemplary punishment. Raids, house by house. Carlo is awakened at dawn, by some knockings at the door. “Don’t worry, stay here with the kids, I’m going down to attend to the matter: they know that we have nothing to do with the strike.”
In front of the door there is Orazio. His friend Orazio Nardini. “We are looking for your father; we must take him to the police station.” “But my father is ill, he can’t come with you! And then, what could ever want the marshal from an old man like him?”
Carlo’s father, David Castellani, is known throughout the area for his anti-fascist attitudes. “Is it okay for you if I come to the police station in the place of my father, in order to speak with the authorities?”
Orazio, the friend, nods. Indeed, what a friend. Fascist truck joins a host of other trucks and buses, directed towards Florence. The train chugs, the steam is pitchy black. Black as the death that Carlo Castellani, until 2011 top scorer in the history of Empoli, will find in the concentration camp of Mauthausen. “Tell everyone how I’m dead! … Tell them how much I suffered, more than Jesus Christ did …”: these were the last words of Carlo collected by his friend Aldo Rovai, with him in the camp.
Ferdinando Valletti was born in 1921. He started playing football with Hellas Verona; after taking a degree as industrial technical expert, in 1938 he moved to Milan with a contract signed for Alfa Romeo, a car factory. While working in the factory, he keeps on cultivating his passion for football, playing with the jersey of Seregno until he was noticed by some observers from AC Milan who made him signing for the team in season 1942-43. With the Rossoneri he plays midfielder alongside Giuseppe Meazza; after some friendly matches played during the following season, Valletti injured to his knee.
Fascist militias come to Alfa Romeo factory. Some coworkers indicate Ferdinando as one of the organizers of the strike that took place in the plant during March 1944.
Valletti was arrested and taken, with other twenty-two workers, to the San Vittore prison; just a short step to the infamous platform 21 of the Central Station. The same smoke seen and smelled by Carlo Castellani, the same direction: Mauthausen. Ferdinando works in the quarry, until he is transferred to Gusen subcamp where he is employed in the excavation of underground tunnels.
One day a kapo arrives at the barracks of the camp and asks if, among the deportees, there is someone who is able to play football, because he needs a player for a game between NCOs. Milan player Ferdinando Valletti doesn’t hang off, though battered and malnourished, and the kapo hires him as a team’s reserve for a tournament. He plays in wretched conditions, wearing the prisoner uniform, often barefoot, as well as his daughter Manuela tells; but with his performances he’s able to deserve a recompense: he is moved to work in the kitchens. And this is his salvation. The Allies liberate him on May 5th, 1945.
Mario Pagotto, called Rino, is the left back of the great Bologna trained by Weisz, that spectacles throughout Italy and Europe, winning three times Serie A and the International Tournament in Paris Universal Expo in 1940, humiliating Chelsea 4-1. Rino is called for Italian national team, before the war’s nightmare begins. The coach Weisz breaks out to Holland in order to escape the fascist persecution of Jews, but is captured and deported to Auschwitz, where he will be killed with all his family. Rino is captured by the Nazis after September 8th, 1943, after fighting in the ranks of the Alpini corps, and deported. First he is brought to Hohenstein, then Bialystok in Poland: forced labor, starvation, inhumane conditions.
Soviet Red Army advances and, consequently, prisoners are moved: Rino arrives to Odessa and, from there, to Cernauti. With a group of Italian former football players he arranges a team that faces similar teams formed by prisoners from other nations. Rino and his teammates always win. From Cernuti they go to Slutsk, but the result is the same: the “Cernuti boys” don’t have opponents able to cope with them. But one day the challenge arrives, the real game of a life. Rino has arranged a tournament between the various national teams in the concentration camp that is very popular amongst the kapos because they have fun watching the games. The most important match for Rino and his team is against the squad of the Red Army. Nazi jailors want so much to see the Soviets losing, that they make Pagotto and his frineds understand that, if they will win, they will have the chance of coming back home early.
Better than in the film “Escape to Victory”. They play for they own lives, to embrace again their wives and children: “Those of Cernuti” win, humiliating their opponents, for 6-2 and in October 18th, 1945, they come back home.
Narrating without ever getting tired of doing it.
The memory of Italian football: in order not to lose it anymore.