Bruno Neri, the footballer who stood up to fascism
25 April ~ There is an old black-and-white photograph, taken in 1931 before a friendly between Fiorentina and near-neighbours Montevarchi. The game had been arranged to mark the opening of the Viola’s new Stadio Giovanni Berta (named after a local fascist "martyr" and now known as the Stadio Artemio Franchi, after the former UEFA president). The players are lined up in the centre of the pitch, standing in front of the still unfinished stands and all are giving the fascist salute. Except for one: Bruno Neri. Born in 1910, Neri made his debut for hometown club Faenza (near Ravenna) aged 16, before joining Fiorentina in 1929. The full-back enjoyed a decent career, playing three times for Vittorio Pozzo’s Italy.
Reporting on one of his Azzurri appearances in 1936, La Gazzetta dello Sport praised him for his "elevated class", calling him "a serious, conscientious, tenacious player". Neri liked to mix with an arty crowd. His friends included poets, writers and painters. He had left-leaning political sympathies at a time when such beliefs could cost you your liberty, if not your life.
After seven years in Florence, he moved on to Lucchese, where he was coached by Ernest Erbstein, a Hungarian Jew who was deported under Benito Mussolini’s race laws. Erbstein returned to Italy and Torino after the war, only to perish when the entire Torino squad was killed in the Superga plane crash of 1949.
In 1940, after a brief spell at Torino, Neri went back home to Faenza, apparently now coaching as well as playing. Details are fairly sketchy but it is believed that around this time he was in regular contact with leading anti-fascist figures such as Giovanni Gronchi, who would become the third president of the Italian Republic.
Active involvement with the partisans followed shortly afterwards. His cousin, Virgilio Neri, had helped establish a resistance unit in the Faenza region and by 1943 Neri was combining football with membership of the newly formed Battaglione Ravenna. Serving under the battle name of Berni, he was promoted to the rank of vice-commander.
Meanwhile, Faenza were taking part in the Campionato Alta Italia of 1944, played in the regional leagues of northern Italy in the so-called Repubblica Sociale Italiana, set up by Mussolini and the occupying Germans. On May 7, Neri played his last game, a 3-1 defeat at home to Bologna. A few days later the city was bombed and the stadium destroyed.
On July 10, Neri joined fellow partigiano Vittorio Bellenghi on a scouting mission at Eremo di Gamogna, high up on the Apennines mountains dividing Emilia Romagna from Tuscany. They were ambushed by a group of German soldiers and killed in the ensuing exchange of fire. A plaque marks the spot where the two men died and were "subjected to the brutal hatred of Nazi fury".
In recent years, Neri’s life has been the subject of a book and a stage play, both entitled Calciatore Partigiano (Partisan Footballer). Today, on La Festa della Liberazione (Italian Liberation Day), that photo still has the power to inspire. Faenza, now in the regional Eccellenza Emiliano-Romagnola league, celebrate their 100th anniversary this year. Since July 11, 1946, they have played their home games at the Stadio Bruno Neri. Matthew Barker
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