Pro Vercelli were a side that dominated Italian football from 1908 until 1922, winning an incredible seven titles across 14 years.
The club was founded in 1892 and for much of their early years dabbled in mediocrity in the lower reaches of Italian football. That all changed in 1907 when they decided that they’d take football seriously. They then went on to win the equivalent of today’s Serie B in 1907 and took to the Italian top flight like a duck to water.
Vercelli stunned the nation in their debut season at the top level by winning the title at the first time of asking, and then even more amazingly, retained their title the following season in 1909.
Their tough tackling and cynical tactics earned Vercelli the nickname, Leoni – or The Lions. Guido Ara, one of the tough tackling midfielders who played for Vercelli at the time, often remarked of Italian Football that “it’s not a game for girls” when asked about Vercelli’s style.
Leoni’s outstanding form during their debut season in the top flight was down to their fantastic team spirit and incredible work ethic. Their training methods were also years ahead of their time thanks to their coaches militaristic enforcement of discipline and hard work. The bond between the squad is often attributed to the fact that the squad was one filled with hungry, young players who all grew up together in the small town.
The 1909-10 season is one that Pro Vercelli fans would rather not speak of. After a hard fought season, Vercelli and Inter finished level on points. The league had to be decided with a playoff. However, most of the Vercelli players were already committed to playing in a tournament for the Italian military on the same day the playoff game was scheduled for.
Leoni’s board asked Inter and the Italian Football Federation to change the date until after the military tournament, both declined. Vercelli were not pleased with this as they felt that this robbed them of their chance to become only the second side ever to win 3 back to back titles and in protest played their fourth string team in the playoff game, none of whom were over 15. Shockingly, the lost the game 10-3, and Inter were crowned champions.
Sadly, the small matter of the First World War interrupted Pro Verceilli’s dominance and they had to wait until the 20-21 season to win their sixth Scudetto. They retained their title in 21-22 winning their 7th and final title. This season, they also showed their class on the world stage. They beat Botafogo, Flamengo and drew against English champions Liverpool during a tournament in Rio De Janeiro.
Unfortunately, this would be as good as it gets for the club from the tiny Italian town. The rise of professional benefitted the clubs from the neighbouring industrial cities of Turin and Milan and deeply hurt Vercelli. They simply couldn’t compete with the rising wage demands in football and they began to lose their key players. The club went into a steady decline and by 1935 had been relegated to Serie B.
Another low point came for Vercelli in 1985 when they were relegated to Serie D, an amateur league, but the lowest point came in 2010 when the FIGC denied them entry to Serie C1 based on their massive debts, so they folded. However, in the same year they were reborn when another side, Club Belevedere, bought Vercelli’s trademarks and naming rights and entered into Serie C1 under the name of Pro Vercelli, saving a legacy and a massive part of Calcio history.
They achieved promotion to Serie B in 2012, the first time Vercelli, in any guise, had been there in 64 years. Since their promotion they have made established themselves as consistent finishers in the bottom half of the second division.
Pro Vercelli will most certainly never emulate the success they enjoyed a century ago, but they will forever be heroes of Calcio.