Sunday 07 August 2016, 09:30

The Azzurri captain who only wore white

His story features everything from pirates to postcards, wine, prison, war and, of course, football. This is the tale of Francesco Cali, the first captain of Italy, a defender who also served as a coach and even a referee. And, as if that were not enough, he was known by some as Lo Svizzero (the Swiss).

And although Cali was born in Riposto, Sicily in 1882, his winemaking family opted to emigrate to Switzerland after falling prey to a pirate raid that left them shaken and their business in ruins. So it was that at the age of two, Francesco became Franz in his new surroundings, where he began learning to kick a ball, firstly in Zurich and then in Geneva.

The Cali clan returned to Italy at the turn of the century and both Francesco and his brother Salvatore started playing for Genoa, where the family had settled. However, Francesco soon moved to fierce local rivals Andrea Doria (partial precursors of the future Sampdoria), where he would become the captain and a club icon. Besides playing, he also occasionally performed refereeing duties, including notably overseeing the Coppa Citta di Torino (City of Turin Cup) final between Juventus and AC Milan.

The language factor The crowning moment of Cali's career would come shortly before his 28th birthday. Not only was he called up for Italy's first ever match, but he had the honour of being named the captain. The reasons for him getting the nod? He was the oldest player in the squad and the only one proficient in the language spoken by their opponents, France, thanks to his Swiss upbringing.

Lana, Cevenini I, Cali, Rizzi, Trere, Fossati I, Capello, Debernardi, Varisco, De Simoni and Boiocchi. This was the line-up for the maiden outing of the Squadra Azzurra, who actually wore white shirts that day, with each player free to choose the colour of their shorts and socks (most simply used the ones they sported for their respective clubs). Close to 4,000 fans were in attendance to see Italy defeat the French 6-2 at Milan's Arena Civica stadium.

The match report published by the newspaper La Gazzetta dello Sport was full of praise for the skipper's performance: "With his calmness and poise, and the perfection of his play, Cali confirmed that he is the worthiest candidate to fill the role as the captain of our national team."

A few days later, the squad travelled to Hungary for another friendly, in which they would slump to a 6-1 loss. This proved to be Cali's last international appearance and once again it was made in a white shirt, a cheaper option than the blue strips that Italy are now synonymous with, which were not introduced until the following year.

From prison to postcardsCali then turned his hand to coaching until the outbreak of World War I brought all footballing activity to a standstill. He was conscripted, served in the Regio Esercito (Royal Italian Army) and was wounded in battle. After recovering from his injuries, he was stationed at the jail in Genoa's Forte Sperone fortress.

Following the war, the former footballer became a postcard producer and salesman, wandering the city's streets to take pictures of its monuments and most beautiful spots, which he then incorporated into his wares.

However, he never lost his passion for football, as shown by the fact that he joined the national team set-up and even coached them for 13 matches, including at the 1920 Olympic Games in Antwerp. In addition, he remained a faithful follower of his beloved Andrea Doria, where he was made the President shortly before the club merged with Ginnastica Comunale Sampierdarenese to give rise to Unione Calcio Samp-Doria in 1946.

Cali died three years later, but his presence can still be felt around the club. Indeed, a road by the club's home, the Stadio Luigi Ferraris, is named after him – Via Francesco Cali – and provides the perfect location from which to admire the stadium, the Italian footballing pioneer's favourite place.

** (Pictures courtesy of “Archivio Museo del Calcio/FIGC) Left: Italy’s debut postcard; Top: Italy’s international debut side v France (Francesco Cali third from left); Bottom: France vs Italy (1-2) at Marseille’s Stade Olympique on 20 February 1921 (Cali far right as FICG Technical Commission Member)