To a generation of fans who first discovered the joys of Italian football during the Football Italia years of the early 1990s, the Ferrara-based club SPAL (an acronym for Società Polisportiva Ars et Labor) is not a name that will generate much recognition. This is a shame: a club with a solid history, SPAL was a part of the fixtures and fitting of Serie A during its 1960s golden years – the era when Milan was the capital of the footballing world and the Italian game exuded a stylish, dolce vita inspired glamour.
So it’s good news that SPAL will make a return to the top flight next season following a lengthy 49-year-absence. This highly-anticipated comeback is as good an opportunity as any to tell their story, as well as the similarly fascinating stories of some of the other lesser lights from the Italian game who shone briefly during those 1960s catenaccio years.
We’ll start logically with the club we came in with. SPAL spent almost the entire period between 1951 and 1968 playing in Serie A, peaking with a fifth placed finish in 1960. This was the club of Armando Picchi, one of Italy’s great sweepers who debuted in Serie A here before going on to glory at Herrera’s Inter. Fabio Capello made his name here too before moving to Roma and the club was also a stopping point for Saul Malatrasi, a European Cup winner with both Milan and Inter.
The modern history of the club where Max Allegri started his managerial career is typical of many fallen Italian names of the past – bankruptcies and general chaos until the current phoenix-like rise that has taken SPAL from Serie D to Serie A in just five years.
We’re unlikely to see a return of Mantova to Serie A anytime soon. Geographically situated in the Lombardy town of Mantua, just west of Ferrara, this club spent seven seasons in Serie A between 1961 and 1972. Mantova prospered through a sharp eye for talent spotting and an ability to extract top dollar when selling on to the giants of Serie A. When their brilliant Brazilian Angelo Sormani transferred to Roma in 1963, the cash-plus-player-exchange deal was the most expensive in history.
Future World Cup winners Karl-Heinz Schnellinger and Dino Zoff played with distinction for Mantova too before also following the inevitable path to bigger and better things at Milan and Napoli. When Mantova ran out of stars to sell, so they fell out of Serie A, never to return – though in 2006 they came close before narrowly losing a Serie B promotion play-off with Torino. Bankruptcy followed and the restructured club currently resides in Serie C.
North of Milan near the Swiss border sits the town of Varese and its modest football club was a Serie A regular between 1964 and 1975 thanks to the financial assistance of mogul Giovanni Borghi. Like Mantova, Varese had the distinction of being involved in a world record transfer when selling their precocious young striker Pietro Anastasi to Juventus in 1968 in a deal worth upwards of £400,000.
Anastasi had made his name with a brilliant performance against his future employers just a few months earlier, a stunning 5-0 win for Varese which stands as the best result in the club’s history. That season brought a seventh placed Serie A finish, also a historical high point.
Claudio Gentile started out at Varese too, as did a young Roberto Bettega on loan from Juventus. The club was relegated from Serie A in 1975, from Serie B in 1985 and took 25 years to return to the second tier amidst financial woes and troublesome supporters.
In common with Mantova, Varese reached a Serie B promotion play-off in 2012 but were unsuccessful in their attempt to make an emotional return to their former level.
Geographically nearby to Varese lies the small town of Lecco (not to be confused with Lecce) whose football club hosted Serie A football for three seasons, firstly between 1960 and 1962 and then again in 1966-67. Lecco’s natural level had historically been in the third or fourth tier, so to reach the top of the Italian game at all was a remarkable achievement. During that final top flight season Lecco paired their long-serving Brazilian striker Sergio Clerici with the newly acquired former Inter star Antonio Angelillo. The cosmopolitan South American pairing sadly failed to spark, Lecco plummeted out of Serie A and has never returned.
Lecco now play at the fourth level of the Italian pyramid and haven’t even reached as high as Serie B since 1973. Future Italian internationals Massimo Oddo and Simone Pepe played there on loan early in their careers, and a cavalcade of disparate names like Mario Bortolazzi, Ronnie O’Brien and Max Vieri (brother of Christian) have turned out for the Lombardy club.
Alessandria is probably most famous for being the club where Gianni Rivera spent his formative years before going on to become a bona fide legend of the Italian game. His former club spent 13 seasons in Serie A between 1929 and 1960 but have not been as high as the second-tier since 1975. Out of nowhere the Piedmontese club enjoyed a great run to the semi-final of the Coppa Italia last season before crashing out heavily to, inevitably, Milan.
We end our round-up with Padova who, uniquely among this selection of clubs, did manage a post-1960s return to Serie A. Padova peaked in the late 1950s with a third-placed Serie A finish thanks to the goals of brilliant Swedish winger Kurt Hamrin and the sage stewardship of coach Nereo Rocco. Another laudable fifth-placed finish was achieved in 1961 only for relegation to follow the following season after Rocco moved to coach Milan – with outstanding success.
Padova finally made their way back to Serie A for a couple of seasons in the mid-1990s with international striker Nicola Amoruso as their best player and USA defender Alexei Lalas as their most iconic.
So SPAL alone will represent the honour of this 1960s sextet of minnows in Serie A next season. An interesting side note to this piece is a geographical one: all six of our featured clubs are based in the north of the country reflecting how economically and culturally dominant the Italian north was a half century ago. There’s still a lingering imbalance to this day of course, but the intervening decades has at least seen a much greater proliferation of southern clubs reaching the upper levels of the Italian game and creating their own stories to be told in the future.