asroma.co.uk’s Legends of Rome series continues this week with Roma’s first ever captain, the exuberant and charismatic Attilio Ferraris IV.
Not only was Ferraris Roma’s first captain, he was also the first Roma player to be capped by Italy and a World Cup winner. There were no half measures with Ferraris; he was either the best player on the pitch or he was hardly visible. He could play as a full back, centre back or defensive midfielder, able to both break up and start the play again for his team-mates, and was as combative and determined on the pitch as he was vivacious and anarchic off of it. Ferraris was far from a model professional; he preferred women to training sessions, which he often failed to turn up to, and was an inveterate smoker and gambler.
Ferraris was born on 23rd June, 1904 in the Borgo district of Rome. His playing career began after he was spotted by Fra’ Porfirio Ciprari, president and coach of Fortitudo, who brought him into his team in 1922. In 1926 Fortitudo merged with Pro Roma, and a year later they in turn merged with Alba-Audace and Roman FC to form AS Roma. As Fortitudo’s captain and passionate about the rivalry with Lazio, Ferraris was the natural choice to become Roma’s first ever captain. Known as Ferraris IV (as he was the youngest of four brothers), he made his debut as captain in the club’s first ever game on 17th July, 1927 when Roma beat Ujpest 2-1 in a friendly before captaining the Giallorossi in their first official game, the famous 2-0 win over Livorno at the Motovelodromo Appio on 25th September, 1927.
From the very beginning Ferraris’ presence on the pitch was almost guaranteed, despite his vices. He quickly became a fan favourite with his likable and exuberant personality, and his talent on the pitch was clear. Although he wasn’t particularly tall, he had an extraordinary strength and physique that enabled him to become a fearsome opponent, relentless in his marking which he combined with great anticipation. He complemented this side of his game with a respect for the rules and a sense of loyalty to his club and his team-mates. This was typified when he voluntarily gave up the captaincy to his good friend Fulvio Bernardini, telling him that he was the better player and deserved the captaincy – testament to his behaviour as a true Roman as well as a Romanista. Though, privately, Ferraris had also had enough with his duty as captain of having to behave diplomatically towards referees.
Roma set themselves ambitious targets in their early years as they aimed to break the stranglehold that the northern clubs had over Italian football, and in 1928 they won the Coppa CONI (the antecedent to the Coppa Italia). After the first game finished 0-0, Modena were leading 2-1 with 89 minutes on the clock and the cup virtually in their grasp. But then Giovanni Corbyons struck a powerful free kick against the crossbar and Ferraris was there to blast the ball into the net for a late equaliser. A third game was required on a neutral pitch in Florence, and this time Roma finally won 2-1 after extra time.
With the club’s first trophy secured, they now set their aim for the scudetto. While the likes of Rodolfo Volk, Cesare Fasanelli and Arturo Chini Luduena scored the goals, in midfield Roma had the ideal pairing of Ferraris and Bernardini. The two were completely different players, but each complemented the play of the other perfectly and Ferraris in particular was catching the eye of the established northern clubs. Juventus showed an interest in signing him at one point as they sent a representative to Ferraris’ father (who was of Piemontese origin) with a lucrative contract, which would have doubled Ferraris’ wages, with the offer to join a great team. The story goes that Ferraris’ father simply replied “A great team is being born here too, and my son will be part of it”. Right from the very start, everyone associated with Roma was proud of their club.
Roma’s battle with the northern clubs, and Juventus in particular, was hard fought and Ferraris came close to the title in both 1930/31 and 1931/32, but on both occasions the Giallorossi came up just short as they finished second and third. When the two sides played each other, Ferraris had some legendary battles with Raimundo Orsi and none more famous than the 5-0 thrashing of 15th March, 1931. The Bianconeri not only had Orsi but also the likes of Gianpiero Combi, Umberto Caligaris and Giovanni Ferrari in their team, but were taken apart by a rampant Roma. Ferraris played with the fury and passion of a gladiator that day as he tore through his opponents, and Orsi even complained about the treatment that he received as he and Juventus felt Ferraris was crossing the line between competitive spirit and foul play. It was an extraordinary victory nonetheless, and even inspired a film called Cinque a zero.
However, Ferraris’ lifestyle off the pitch was beginning to cause Roma problems. Although he was a great player and always gave everything of himself on the pitch, he didn’t live the life of an athlete. He was an inveterate womaniser, would smoke constantly and spent his nights playing billiards and poker, often going to clandestine gambling houses and betting huge sums on horse and dog racing. To keep Ferraris’ character in check, Roma president Renato Sacerdoti gave him a bar in via Cola di Rienzo where fans could go and buy tickets or use as a place to meet, but Ferraris paid little attention to it and eventually had to sell it after a few years to pay off some of his debts (the bar is still there though, and is now called Bar Cantiani). Then, on one occasion before a game away at Livorno, Ferraris asked the club if he and Giovanni Bramante could travel to the game separately to the rest of the team as he wanted to try out Bramante’s new Lancia. The club agreed, but the car broke down and the pair had to sleep in the car overnight while their team-mates were in the hotel. Eventually they reached Livorno with minutes to spare before kick off, but Roma lost 1-0. By 1934, Roma had had enough of trying to keep Ferraris on the straight and narrow and decided to sell him.
That year, though, was the year of Ferraris’ greatest triumph. Despite being sidelined by Roma and the visible signs of his decline in the months previous to the World Cup, Italian national team coach Vittorio Pozzo still called Ferraris up to his squad for the finals. Ferraris had actually made his debut for Italy before Roma even existed, playing against Switzerland in May 1926 and winning bronze at the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam, but hadn’t played for the Azzurri for nearly two years before being handed a lifeline by Pozzo. Ferraris played a key part in Italy’s first World Cup success as he played in the quarter finals (1-0 vs. Spain), semi-finals (1-0 vs. Austria) and the final, where the Azzurri beat Czechoslovakia 2-1 after extra time. Later that year, he became known as the ‘Lion of Highbury’ after a memorable performance against England. Italy found themselves 3-0 behind and down to 10 men after just 12 minutes of their friendly, but Ferraris stood out when he redoubled his energies and urged his team-mates on. His masterful performance and exemplary spirit led Italy to within a whisker of a famous comeback, but despite a brace from Giuseppe Meazza and Carlo Ceresoli saving a penalty the Azzurri eventually lost 3-2.
However, the World Cup win hadn’t convinced Roma to change their mind about selling him and, incredibly, Ferraris joined Lazio in the summer of 1934 for 150,000 lire. The Giallorossi management were aware that his time playing at the very top level was coming towards its end, but the decision didn’t stop huge controversy among Roma supporters who felt betrayed by the former captain’s decision. The club did try to avoid future controversy by demanding a clause in Ferraris’ contract that would result in a heavy fine if he played in the derby, but it was triggered straight away when Ferraris lined up for Lazio on 19th November, 1934. As he stepped onto the Campo Testaccio pitch he was welcomed by a barrage of whistles and insults, with supporters shouting “betrayer” at him, but he made sure at the start of the game that he went up to Roma captain Fulvio Bernardini to shake his hand. The game itself eventually finished 1-1. His time with Lazio was only brief and, after suffering a number of injuries and failing to live up to his previous high standards, he was sold to Bari in 1936 where he remained for two years.
Even though his performances were no longer what they had been, Pozzo once again picked up the phone to tell Ferraris that, if he quit smoking and got himself into shape, he would consider him for a place in his squad for the 1938 World Cup finals. Ferraris promised him that he would give up cigarettes, but in reality never truly did and was ultimately left out of the squad. Ferraris did return for a final swansong at Roma as he came back to the club for the 1938/39 campaign, but he was a long way from the player he once was. He played just 12 times before joining Serie B side Catania, where he finished his professional career in 1940. After retiring professionally, he continued playing with lower league side Elettronica until the age of 40. He could have played for even longer if his character and temperament hadn’t betrayed him, as he received a ban for life after punching a referee.
After retiring for good, Ferraris still played the occasional friendly between ex-players, the last of which was tragically on 8th May, 1947 in Montecatini Terme. Before the game, Ferraris is said to have told his team-mates with his usual irony, “Don’t give me the same end as Caligaris, eh!” (Caligaris, formerly of Juventus, had died of heart failure during a training session in 1940). But, after leaping for a header, Ferraris collapsed to the ground after suffering a fatal heart attack. Roma had lost their first, iconic captain at the age of just 43. A few days later, he was buried in Rome, and his great friend Bernardini placed his Italian national team shirt on the coffin at the funeral as no one could find one of Ferraris’.
In the words of Antonio Ghirelli, “Ferraris was a unique individual, maybe the most individual, peculiar and admirable example of a footballer that Italy has ever had”. For all of his off-field vices, on the pitch the Lion of Highbury was the real symbol of the Campo Testaccio-era Roma, and was immortalised when he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2013. Despite his move to Lazio, he remained a great favourite of a fan base who saw him as the embodiment of combative spirit and passion for the Giallorossi colours.
Honours: Coppa CONI (1927/28).
Legends of Rome graphics courtesy of forza27.com