This article was first published by When Saturday Comes [WSC]. We’d like to thank its author Matt Barker for kindly allowing FLAF to republish it.
By Matt Barker
There’s 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 Artemio Franchi).
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) at age 16, before joining Fiorentina in 1929. A full-back, he 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… 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 Mussolini’s race laws (he returned to Italy and Torino after the war, only to perish at Superga).
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’s believed that around this time he was in regular contact with leading anti-fascist figures like Giovanni Gronchi, who would become the third president of the Italian Republic.
Active involvement with the partisans then 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 northern Italy (in the so-called Repubblica Sociale Italiana, set up by Mussolini and the occupying Germans) and split into regional leagues. On 7 May, 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 10 July, Neri joined fellow partigiano Vittorio Bellenghi on a scouting mission at Eremo di Gamogna, high up on the Apennines dividing Emilia Romagna from Tuscany. They were ambushed by a group of German soldiers and both killed in the ensuing exchange of fire. A plaque marks the spot where the two men died, “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). That photo still has the power to inspire.
Faenza, now in the regional Eccellenza Emiliano-Romagnola league, celebrate their 100th anniversary this year. Since 11 July 1946, they’ve played their home games at the Stadio Bruno Neri.