Before reading this; you may want to throw out any existing stereotypes of Italian football that you may have buried in the footballing cabinet inside your conscious. As the story of Raffaele Vallone is not only a brilliant one, but it also helps broaden one’s thoughts on Italian football – somewhat similar to an article I wrote on Tommaso Maestrelli, but Vallone wasn’t just a football man, he was much more.
Hollywood and Italians have always been a good mix, I mean how many Italian gangster movies have there been? But when sportsmen and women dabble into the movie world it is often quite disastrous, especially for footballers. I apologise to any Vinnie Jones fans but come on. ‘Raf’ Vallone as he was best known, was not only a capable enough footballer to be part of one of Italy’s greatest ever club sides. He was also a lawyer, a journalist and his most successful profession was as an actor, who conquered not only the Italian cinema but also broke into Hollywood.
Vallone was born in 1916 – in Tropea, Calabria on the western coast of the region, which occupies the toe of the Italian boot. A beautiful, picturesque location, often credited with being one of the countries hidden gems. Hidden, as in this area is often looked down upon by outsiders and more so by Italians in the north as being crime-ridden and corrupt. A very unfair prejudice was and still is cast over the southern part of the country. Vallone grew up under the guidance of his father, a young ambitious lawyer who decided to move the family up north to Turin in 1918 to set up his own legal practice, who made sure he stayed on the right path. Vallone found love in football and Torino Football Club had found a cracking player in the young man. He was aged 14 when the club considered taking him on, as his powerful athletic physique and footballing ability had caught their eye. His dad wasn’t so keen on letting his son throw away a promising career in the family business, so he allowed his son to join the club on the condition that he would concentrate on his studies and his football 50/50. This was not just a case of money either; at the time, compared to the average working man Vallone would have been making considerably more as a professional footballer.
Vallone managed to successfully juggle his football and studying, after graduating from high school he enrolled at Turin University where he studied Philosophy and Law. He made his first-team debut for Torino in 1934. In his inaugural season with the first team, Vallone picked up his first winners medal as Torino won the Coppa Italia. Still only a teenager, Raf was only used a handful of times, which could partly be due to him focusing more on his studying. His lack of appearances was a common feature; looking back at the stats, you’ll find he barely made it into double figures, in terms of appearances for his club in his first 4 years. He wasn’t drifting away from his studies though. He graduated with his degree, much to his father’s delight. Torino still had a place for him, as his bullish type physique suited their midfield whenever they called upon him. Perhaps it was more of a case that Vallone needed a manager who would put faith in him, as I’m sure at the time having a part-time law student just wasn’t understood. Then along came perhaps Torino’s greatest ever coach and a period where Il Toro would climb the footballing ranks and become one of Europes’ most dominant sides.
The great Egri Erbstein, the Jewish-Hungarian coach, not only revolutionised the game but escaped labour camps in the process of doing so. After Nazi-Germany were out to put a stop at all Jews from working with their awful anti-Semitic laws, he was the perfect man to help nurture the intelligent Vallone. A man with a very creditable reputation already in Italy, Erbstein had just taken Lucchese from Lucca to Serie A from Serie C in just 5 seasons and got his big move in 1938 as recognition of his accomplishments. The town of Lucca had also become a fascist stronghold, so it was a good time for Erbstein to leave. He was aided by quite a hefty budget to build his side at Torino, but he instead chose to stay away from signing big named stars, instead opting for younger talent and players from the lower leagues that he had recently conquered. The team he built was packed with quality, with Vallonetaking his place in the midfield a lot more prominently than in his previous seasons – making 15 appearances and scoring three goals in the 1938-39 season. Erbstein would also trigger a soft spot in Vallone as he brought a kind of education to football. Before every game Erbstein would hold a lesson outlining the team’s tactics on a blackboard – the players are said to have called this the ‘Killer Hour’ but to Vallone, it felt like part of his usual routine.
Erbstein’s training on the pitch was also very intense and could also be summed up as a ‘killer’ of some sorts. His methods were based around the theory of learning through fun via various games which would end up being very competitive, which he learned from the Hungarian football of the early 1900s. This was a base that was paved by the Scotsman John Tait Robertson and developed further by Jimmy Hogan. In short, it was a variation of the Scottish style of passing and moving that is effectively the same base that Rinus Michels created Total Football with, and Pep Guardiola helped adapt and create the juego de posicion.
In Dominic Bliss’ book on Erbstein, he includes quotes from Vallone that recall his feelings of playing under Erbstein at Torino, and how watching the Dutch and Ajax teams under Rinus Michels reminded him of the team he played in. “As long ago as that, Erbstein exploited the wide areas, making use of every corner of the pitch – we were playing some sort of Total Football. Every time one of us had the ball, his teammates were on the move in order to give him not one but three different options.” Sadly the relationship didn’t last long – on December 3rd 1938, Erbstein had to leave his position as manager due to Mussolini legalising the anti-semitism laws and following the Nazi’s, leaving Torino joint top of Serie A after winning six, drawing two and losing only one game in the opening nine games of the season. Vallone by this point had fallen fully for football.
Erbstein did of course return to help create the ‘Grande Torino’ side that conquered Italy for 8 years – winning 5 consecutive Scudetto’s, before the tragedy of the Superga air disaster in 1949 that killed all 31 passengers on the plane, including all the players, coaching staff (Erbstein), journalists and crew. However, by this point, Raf Vallone was long gone. Not just from Torino but he had left behind the game he adored. In 1941, Vallone’s dream of being a footballer for the rest of his career was ruined, thanks to the dark side of Italian football and life, after he was called up to represent his country in Vienna
“Do you know why I retired from football? I played in the National Football team … in Vienna, and I discovered that the soccer match was tricked (fixed) for political reasons. I was very disappointed and I decided to give up. The trick in Vienna was one (of) the biggest disappointments of my life.”
This quote from Vallone pretty much sums up what happened to his football career. Finished, in a flash he joined up with his father in their business of law. Perhaps it was this act that also diverted him towards becoming a journalist. As a man who was built on honesty, the injustice of the fixed football match didn’t sit right with him.
During his time in the family law firm, he became increasingly agitated with the worlds current affairs, mostly the dictatorship of Mussolini in Italy and the increasing threat of Nazi-Germany to the world. Vallone then joined the staff at the left-wing newspaper L’Unità – his sharp observations and superbly written articles saw him rise through the ranks at a rapid pace; becoming the papers’ head of culture.
No doubt his education played a massive part in this – but you can’t shy away from the similarities of the theory and characters that played and mentored Total Football. It’s a style that was built on team cohesion, where everyone has to be reading from the same page. Football played as if it’s an art – rather than a bulldozer that’s been manufactured to demolish all that’s in its path. Played by fans for the fans – not necessarily just for trophies and accolades and most certainly not to favour political agendas. Despite his role at the paper he never enrolled in the Italian Communist Party as he didn’t agree with Stalinism, he was very much his own man – the other complex face of total football. Although it relies on team cohesion, at times it can almost seem communist but it is within that team cohesion that the player’s individuality allows for the fluidity of the play that unnerves its opponents.
Alongside his work at L’Unità, Vallone established himself as a drama and film critic for the La Stampa paper – the daily paper in Turin. It was during this work as a critic that opened the final door in his wonderful career path, one that Vallone would go through and not come back out of, that of an internationally recognised actor. The ‘neorealist’ genre was a growing one at the time in Italy, and it would be the base for Vallone’s acting career. With film budgets at the time being relatively low, the lust was for real people to be cast in their movies, rather than established stars. Directors were looking at everyone they met as an actor that could feature in their next movie. Vallone made his first appearances on the big screen in 1942 where he had a minor part as a sailor in Goffredo Alessandrini’s ‘Noi Vivi (We The Living)’.
His big break would come in 1949. The director Giuseppe De Santis, was working on his latest film ‘Bitter Rice’ which was based on a woman working in the rice fields of the Po Valley. De Santis called on Vallone for his knowledge, not only on the anti-fascist resistance but also his depth of knowledge and passion for the working class, in particular his views on the subject of the exploitation of workers. De Santis was also impressed with Vallone’s physical stature and rough chiselled features, feeling he would make the perfect hunk. ‘Bitter Rice’ was released in 1949, and became a box office smash, going down in history as one the best movies to come out of the very successful ‘neorealist’ era.
Vallone then went on to establish himself as one of the big stars of the neorealism era, featuring in many of De Santis’ work, including ‘Non Peace Among Olives’ (1950) and ‘Rome 11 am’ (1952). In the 50s he was a very busy man – featuring in 29 films. Curzio Malaparte, mainly known for his literature, made ‘The Forbidden Christ’ (1951) in what would be his only directorial effort. It starred Vallone as the main character (Bruno) – Curzio described him as “the only Marxist face of Italian cinema”, a compliment that was much appreciated.
In 1950 on the set of The Walk Of Hope, Vallone would meet his future wife for the first time Elena Varzi. They got married in the 50s and went on to have three children together (it’s also believed that Vallone had a relationship with the famous French actress Brigitte Bardot towards the end of the 1950s but he stayed happily married to Varzi for 50 years).
After the war, Italy’s economy took a hammering, a downturn which was in correlation with the decrease in the popularity of the neorealist films. This was mainly because the Italian public no longer wanted to be reminded of the hard times they had hoped to leave behind. In the 60s Vallone turned his attention to the stage. Vallone travelled to Paris and London before landing a gig on ‘A View From The Bridge’ by Peter Brook (an adaptation of Arthur Miller’s play). He played the role of Eddie Carbone for 550 nights in Paris’ Theatre Antoine – frequently receiving a standing ovation. This performance would earn him his chance to hit the big screens again when in 1961 Sidney Lumet made the film version of the play. Vallone played the same part as he did on stage, with the film being shot in both French and English. He had made it to Hollywood, and would make several notable cameo appearances, alongside Micheal Cain in The Italian Job (1969) and much later with Al Pacino in The Godfather Part III (1990).
Current football players are brandished dumb and especially concerning modern footballers: that they are socially disconnected from the ‘real world’. Recently that has been disproven by Marcus Rashford’s efforts on taking on the parliament on kids school meals and in doing so showing he’s much more capable of relating to ‘real life’ than those in power. Just as Vallone did with his work in journalism and in the way he hung up his boots when he saw the dark side of the sport, walking away from the game he loved.
As fans can take on board what he did and remember to stand up for why we love the game of football. Yes, hopefully, many of us will never have to encounter match-fixing, but as the threat of the game becoming a money-making steam-roller, that seems to be increasingly tightening its grip on the heart of our game and taking it away. In doing so, it is replacing it with this product that becomes increasingly more expensive for the fan while becoming a lot less entertaining. We must be prepared to fight and hopefully it doesn’t get to the point that we have to turn our backs on the game completely.
From total football to the box office; Raffaele Vallone is evidence of just how strong the culture behind football is.