The Run of Play is a blog about
the wonder and terror of soccer.
We left the window open during a match in October 2007 and a strange wind blew into the room.
Now we walk the forgotten byways of football with a lonely tread, searching for the beautiful, the bewildering, the haunting, and the absurd.
The first goal ever scored in Serie A was scored in Vercelli, three minutes into Pro Vercelli’s 3-3 draw with Genoa on the first day of the new competition, October 6, 1929. The player who scored it was named Bajardi, and he played for Pro Vercelli, though beyond that, information about him or about the moment is hard to find. Silvio Piola, who went on to become the greatest goalscorer in Serie A history, was a 17-year-old youth player on that team and wouldn’t make his first senior appearance until the following February. It’s not even clear what stadium the game was played in; most sources are in agreement that the club moved to the Stadio Leonida Robbiano (which was later renamed in honor of Silvio Piola) in 1932, but other sources list 1929 as the date. Before that, the club’s matches seem to have been held in a stadium called the “Foro Boario”—named after the cattle market in ancient Rome, presumably because it was the site of the first gladiatorial contest, staged by an ancestor of Brutus in 264 BC.
The roots of things crumble and recede, and it becomes impossible to say what makes a moment or to describe a single act. A moment incorporates so much of what came before it, so much of which is already forgotten or being forgotten, that the significance of any one event eludes all understanding; trying to describe it is like building a tower the upper stories of which are resting on thin air. Even Bajardi’s goal, a discrete strike that opened the record books for the new national organization of Italian football, was the product of the three minutes of play that preceded it, and before that, of the efforts that led to the creation of Serie A, of Pro Vercelli’s performance in the Divisione Nazionale the previous year, of the teams and players whose actions had created the conditions for that performance, of the seven Italian championships won over the previous two decades, of the founding of a football division at the Vercelli sport club in 1903, of the establishment of Vercellae as a municipium under the Roman Republic around the third century BC. Of any number of struggles, passions, endeavors and accidents that had some effect on the world. Most of them now completely lost to us.
In 1922 Pro Vercelli were the best team in Italy, national champions for the seventh time since 1908, one of the most loved and feared teams in Europe, the first Italian side ever to tour a foreign country (Brazil, no less). They had also won their last championship of the twentieth century, though they couldn’t possibly have known it—couldn’t have known it even in 1929, the year of Bajardi’s strike, when they finished ninth in Serie A. Just as they couldn’t have known in the early years, when they once bicycled over 70 km, as a team, to play in a tournament in Casteggio (the team tried skipping the toll on the bridge over the Ticino, but Sessa, the player who rode through last, was caught and had to pay for the whole group), about the phenomenal success that was to come.
Phenomenal success, gradual disintegration. Five years after Bajardi’s strike, Pro Vercelli finished seventh in Serie A, but even by that 1934 season, the rise of professionalism had shifted the balance of power in Italian soccer to wealthy cities like Turin and Milan. Pro Vercelli, which kept to an ideal of amateurism long after most clubs had started paying players, lost many of its top local talents to professional teams. In 1935 the fascist regime forced Silvio Piola to transfer, against his will, to Lazio. Without their favorite son, the best player in Italy, Pro Vercelli finished sixteenth in 1935/36 and were relegated to Serie B.
They were relegated again, to Serie C, in 1941, and stayed there till the end of the war, when they briefly reappeared in the second division. They were relegated to Serie C for the final time in 1948, and soon dropped into the fourth division. Imperceptibly, like the truth behind the history behind the legend, they were starting to disappear.
This is a fact, but it’s also a story. The causes of anything are too complex to comprehend. The narrative that we eventually embrace is a combination of logic and need, a reduction of the uncomprehendable totality of events into a form that lets us grasp the outline of the past while still getting on with our day. And what we hope for, what we need, is the single moment that, like the phoenix rising from the ashes, like the first goal in Serie A, will emerge from the wreckage of time to give meaning to everything around it.
Like a battle. Like a championship. Like the image you remember from a dream.
by Brian Phillips · May 26, 2009