The midfielder of Mauthausen built a legacy to last forever.
Whilst fascism reared its ugly head throughout the entirety of the interwar period, it was finally defeated come 1945. Those criminal defenders of a violent, discriminatory ideology, those who murdered innocents in concentration camps, those who targeted groups of people based on ethnicity, or race, or sexual orientation, were lost to the corners of history. Displaced and forgotten, hateful and evil, their legacy nothing but a stain on humanity.
If there was any benefit to fascism, it was the reminder that humanity will persevere even in the darkest of times. The stories that emerged from a dark period of human history of those that remained true to their beliefs, and refused to bow down to evil.
The tragedy of Vittorio Staccione, a man of great success and even greater sorrow, is one such story.
Born in Turin, Vittorio Staccione grew up in a proud working-class family, quickly developing strong socialist ideas, with a noticeable proficiency on the football field. His brothers, Eugenio, who also went on to become a professional footballer, and Francesco, shared such ideals.
It was at the age of eleven, as Francesco Veltri discovered in his book dedicated to the life and career of Staccione entitled ‘Il Mediano di Mauthausen’, that Staccione caught the attention of legendary Torino captain Enrico Bachmann on a small field in a working-class district of Turin.
However, the rise of Staccione within Italian football mirrored the rise of Benito Mussolini, and subsequently, Italian fascism. By 1922, Mussolini’s black-shirted fascists had marched on Rome, and by 1925, Italy teetered on the brink of total dictatorship. Throughout the 1920s, fascism entangled itself deeply within the world of football, seeking to institutionalise the sport as a fascist game. This made it difficult, and dangerous, to be a part of a sport controlled by a regime that stood in direct ideological opposition to your beliefs. Regardless, the Staccione family refused to bow down, and continued to attend popular anti-fascist events.
Pushed by Eugenio, who was on the books at Juventus later in his career, Vittorio Staccione emerged from Torino’s youth system in 1923. It was that year that the young midfielder/centre-half played his first competitive game for his hometown club. After spending a season on loan at Cremonese, Staccione returned in 1925. As an anti-fascist, Staccione had already caught the attention of the powers that be. In 1926, upon the opening of Torino’s new stadium, Staccione was not present, having suffered a beating at the hands of blackshirts, in which he had broken his ribs. Despite this, Staccione remained in Turin, and the following year, during the 1926/27 season, he was a part of the Torino squad that delivered a long-awaited scudetto, an Italian championship (Serie A did not form until the 1929-30 season). In recognition of his performances, Staccione was included in a small list of the best Italian footballers of the year in a national newspaper, alongside the likes of World Cup winner-to-be Angelo Schiavio.
Fascism, however, after robbing the Italian people of their freedoms, robbed Staccione and Torino of their title. Following allegations of bribery, in which a Juventus player was allegedly paid to underperform against their city neighbours in a title-deciding Turin derby, Torino were stripped of their title by Leandro Arpinati, a fascist leader in Bologna, who also served as both president of Bologna FC, as well as head of the Italian Football Federation.
The following season, Staccione left Turin, and was on his way to Florence, signing for Fiorentina. Between 1927 and 1931, a period of time that coincided with the formation of Serie A, Staccione played ninety-four games for the Viola. Coincidentally, this period also coincided with Fiorentina’s adoption of the famous purple jersey, making Staccione one of the first to wear the Viola colours. Throughout this period, Staccione remained true to his socialist upbringing, and continued to protest against fascism. Such was his notoriety that the fascists, and the fascist-controlled sporting press, refused to name Staccione. Instead, where his name on the team sheet should have been, read ‘Player X.’
It was during his final season at Fiorentina that the Viola reached the promised land. Having won Serie B on goal difference, finishing the season on the same points as Bari, Florence rejoiced as Fiorentina earned promotion to Serie A, Staccione an integral part of the club’s success. Vittorio, however, was not present for the city-wide celebrations. It was at this point, the height of his professional career, that he experienced heartbreak in his personal life. Losing his wife, and unborn child, during childbirth, it seemed tragedy was set to follow him throughout his whole life.
Personal heartbreak was met with a cruel blow to his professional career. Regardless of personal circumstance, these were not times favourable for political dissenters in the public eye, such as a professional footballer. And certainly not to a footballer playing in Florence, in the Giovanni Berta of all stadiums, named after a fallen fascist martyr, murdered at the hands of left-wing ‘subversives.’ It was due to his anti-fascist status, and unwavering political militancy, that Staccione’s Serie A dreams, after finally reaching the promised land, came to an end. A forced transfer out of Florence took a demoralised Staccione to Cosenza.
Wracked with grief, and disheartened with his professional fall from grace, Staccione arrived at Cosenza in 1931 with little to play for. For Cosenza, however, Staccione was a magnificent coup. His experience at Torino and Fiorentina was to pay dividends. Immediately winning the hearts of the Cosenza supporters, Staccione galvanised a fading career. In 1932-33, he was at the heart of Cosenza’s Serie C title challenge, ultimately finishing in third place. After seventy-seven appearances across three years, however, Staccione was once again on the move, this time to Savoia. Unable to settle in Savoy, and, of course, regularly accosted by fascist personnel, Staccione played out his final season of professional football, hanging up his boots at the young age of thirty-one.
Following his retirement from football, still mourning the catastrophic loss of his wife, Staccione moved back to Turin. There, he began to work as a labourer for FIAT. Already a popular figure due to his footballing career, Staccione’s popularity increased tenfold upon his return, embroiling himself in the deep struggles of the factory workers. A son of a labourer with a strong socialist conscience, who had made it to the heights of Serie A, had returned to the pickets, fighting tooth and nail against fascism.
Retirement from football had allowed Staccione to commit himself entirely to the political cause, and, driven by his anger and grief, he was quickly marked as an influential anti-fascist by the regime. With the outbreak of war in 1939, Vittorio, alongside his brother Francesco, suffered multiple arrests and beatings, the pair considered enemies of fascism. This did not deter either of the brothers from continuing their anti-fascist protests. In 1944, after orchestrating a factory-workers strike in the north of Italy, both Vittorio and Francesco Staccione were arrested, their ties with the Turin Partisans putting them in SS crosshairs. It was time, someone, somewhere, decided, for the Staccione brothers to depart their native Italy.
In the end, it was a mixture of Staccione’s naivety, and his innate goodness, that cost him his life. His trusting, honest, and confident nature did not register with the unfortunate times through which Staccione lived. After his arrest, Staccione was allowed by a policeman, arguably as a reflection of his popularity in Turin, to return home to collect his belongings, warning him to pack warm clothes for his trip. Rather than flee, as the policeman had all but implored the midfielder to do, Staccione packed and returned to the barracks. Of course, at this point, the horrors of fascism had not yet come to light. Nobody knew what we now know. The horrors of Auschwitz, the Nazis, and the systematic annihilation of millions upon millions of people. The inhumanity. The sheer, malicious, unprecedented evil, carried out on an impossible scale.
Vittorio and Francesco were deported to Mauthausen concentration camp in northern Austria. Of the estimated 190,000 people imprisoned in Mauthausen, at least 90,000 died. Overcrowding, lack of food and rampant disease were rife by the time the Staccione brothers arrived at the camp in 1944, so close yet so far from liberation.
And yet, it was in Mauthausen that Staccione adorned the football field for the final time. The SS, in search of players, took Staccione, reduced to skin and bones, to the playing field alongside Mauthausen. The beautiful game, in all of its preeminent glory, played between soldiers of an evil regime and a defiant socialist ready to give his life to honour his beliefs, side-by-side with a camp reflecting the very worst of humanity. A camp of death and anguish and pain.
Beaten constantly by the very guards who took to the field with him for the final time, in a bid to subdue his unwavering charisma, Vittorio Staccione succumbed to gangrene in March 1945. Francesco Staccione met the same fate just days later. The midfielder of Mauthausen, despite the pain and the tragedy surrounding him, built a legacy to last forever. A legacy of a proud working-class man who, despite the unfortunate times through which he lived, remained principled and strong right to the very end. A legacy of a footballer that refused to adhere to the evil fascism espoused. A legacy that must not be forgotten.