“Only those who attempt the absurd can achieve the impossible!” – Ilario Castagner and the Perugia of Miracles.

The neat phrase coined by Einstein was surely never intended to refer to football. With apologies to the eminent physicist however, let us borrow it for a trice, as it chimes tunefully with the achievements of the small – ‘relatively’ speaking, that is – Umbrian club and their manager during the 1978-79 Serie A season.

The Grifoni, displaying the prowess of that legendary beast produced a feat never before achieved in the highest echelon of Italian football, and completed the season undefeated. With the head of a lion – king of the beasts – and the body of an eagle – king of the birds – there’s a majesty about a Gryphon and in this particular season, Perugia surely lived up to the reputation of their nickname. That they failed to secure the Scudetto, despite their invulnerability should not detract from the achievement; rather it should define it even sharper relief, shouting of it not only being laudable, but also magnificent in the truest sense of the word.

‘Never loses, but does not win,’ is an ill-thought barb oft-stabbed at this particular Perugia team’s fate, and like so many such disparaging comments, although there is an element of truth in it, there is probably also a substantial amount of bitterness and jealous bile potentially from the tifosi of the more established powers in the game that their team did not achieve such an achievement. In fact, it took the Rossoneri until the 1991-92 season before they could repeat the feat, and the Vecchia Signora a further decade before she could also take her place amongst the most exclusive of clubs who could claim to have been undefeated across a thirty-game season.

Whilst, there’s a different level of power, of majesty even, about the achievements of Milan and Juventus that matched Perugia’s though, as Valerio Piccioni writes in the Italian Football Directory, what the Umbrian club achieved was truly special, truly outstanding. “It’s the story of a provincial who makes a fortune. But it’s not enough to put it this way. There is something different. (Because) when you say provincial it is as if the old, the ancient, the tradition succeeded in defending themselves and resisting against the young, the great, the new. That Perugia was the exact opposite: on the contrary, you had the sensation of dealing with something modern”. It’s an appropriate distinction. Perugia were a young team with bright avant garde ideas whose astute management and modern philosophy of play  found the ancien régime wanting. Like all good tales it begins with our heroes down at heel, and in need of a leader.

Franco D’Attoma had made his fortune at sportswear company Ellesse, and in 1974 turned his attention to the Perugia’s football club.  At the time, Rosso e Bianco were struggling in Serie B with financial pressures increasing and relegation to the next level a genuine threat. Whilst D’Attomi was, in his own words, “ignorant of football”, he was wise enough to select the sort of staff that could turn around the fortunes of the club. Silvano Ramaccioni as Sporting Director was key. He would provide the administrative and technical support to the to the man appointed to take over as coach of the team.

Ilario Castagner was born in Vittorio Veneto in the Trevino province of Italy late in 1940. He enjoyed a fairly unspectacular career as a striker beginning with Reggiana in the 1959-60 season playing in Serie B. It was a level he would not surpass. In fact, most of his playing career was spent in Serie C where, after passing through Legnano and Parma, he ended up at Perugia in 1963. He stayed with the Umbrian club for three seasons, and in his final term there, topped the Group B of Serie C scoring charts with 17 goals. A further three years with Prato was followed by a brief spell in Rimini before hanging up his boots at the early age of 28.

Unlike many footballers of the time though, Castagner had an eye to the future and during the latter days of his playing career attended coaching courses to set himself up for the day when playing would not be a viable option anymore. His foresight was rewarded when, shortly after retiring from playing, he was invited to become deputy to Coarrado Viciano in the Primavera dell’Atalanta. Learning his trade, he progressed as the team flourished and, in 1974, under the guidance of Ramaccioni, Franco D’Atomma invited the young apprentice coach to cut his first team teeth with Perugia. It proved to be an inspired choice.

After years of unremarkable fare in Serie B, Perugia, under their new coach, emerged from the pack of mediocrity to take the title, and reach the top rank of Italian football for the first time in its history. It’s easy to think that this achievement was completed on the back of finance added by D’Atomma, but that was not the case. Here was a classic ‘no name’ team made up of the promising and the previously overlooked who responded to their coach’s vision of the game. Young players such as Renato Curi and Paolo Sollier were given their heads, and hungry to succeed, they bought into the young coach’s plans.

Castagner was an advocate of the Dutch method of play that was, at the time, gaining credence in Amsterdam under Rinus Michels at Ajax, and would see it’s full flowering in the Total Voetbal philosophy that took the club to three successive European Cups in the early years of the decade, and The Netherlands national team to successive World Cup Finals. Coordinated pressing when the opponents had the ball was coupled with a dogged belief in the value of maintaining possession, passing and movement, allied to an insistence on all players being able to control and rotate possession. Perugia’s success in Serie B was a microcosm of the bigger picture being painted in vivid Oranje colours by the Dutch, but no less colourful for that. The Grifoni took their place in Serie A with an assurance that, looking back, should have been noted as the herald to potential success to follow.

The initial seasons among the top rank of Italian clubs were very much ones of consolidation and steady growth. With Ramaccioni as his steadfast support, Castagner continued to grow the squad in his own likeness, adding layers that would build on established patterns whilst always fitting with the required template. Players such as Aldo Agroppi, Walter Novellino and Salvatore Bagni were added to the roster, but perhaps the biggest investment was the commitment by D’Attoma to build a new stadium for the club, reflective of its senior, and now established, status. Perugia’s previous home, the Santa Giuliana not only had limited capacity, but also no potential for expansion so, with the old stadium given over to athletics, Perugia were given a new home At the Pian de Massiano, with a capacity of 28,000.

Back in the big time, Perugia showed few signs of wilting. Creditable end of season placing of eighth, seventh and then sixth suggested Castagner was building something of real worth, but in the height of expectation, there was a moment of tragedy. On 30 October 1977, Perugia were playing Juventus in a league game. At the time, Italian broadcaster Enrico Ameri was giving his audience minute-by-minute account of games on television when he was interrupted by colleague Sandro Ciotti. “Perugia’s midfielder Curi is dead,” he revealed sadly. Aged just 24, with rumours growing of an international call-up for the 24-year-old mainstay of the new Perugia and elemental piece of the team, a heart attack five minutes into the second-half of the match claimed his life. As the rain fell on a cold and grey Umbrian afternoon, Curi fell to the floor, never to rise again. He passed away in front of the fans gathered that afternoon.

To lose anyone of such tender years would be a blow to any organisation, but for it to happen to one who symbolised the renaissance that Perugia had enjoyed under Castagner, was a devastating loss to the club. At such times, responses can range from a deflation of hopes doused by the ice-cold bucket of water resignation at the futility of life, or a renewed determination to deliver on a dream for a lost comrade. In the following season Perugia would honour Curi in the way he would surely have appreciated most. Perugia’s new stadium was also later named in his honour. The 1978-79 season would make Perugia the only club in the history of Serie A to complete a league programme undefeated and although Curi was not part of the team on the field, it was surely having his spirit to guide them that helped this unheralded provincial Umbrian team to achieve such a distinction.

By now, despite the loss of Curi, Castagner had a well-established pattern of play with key elements of his squad in place. The goalkeeper Nello Malizia had been with the cub since 1974, after joining from Maceratese and was a reliable stopper. In front of him, patrolling behind the back three was Pierluigi Frosio, confident on the ball, pacey and with an ability to read the game that meshed with Castagner’s format of playing. In front of him was the established backline that often featured the moustachioed hard man of the team, Michele Nappi, alongside Mauro Della Martira and Antonio Ceccarini. Well-drilled by Castagner it was the defence upon which Perugia’s season of miracles would be broadly built.

Before reaching the fortress of the Grifoni defence though, any would-be attackers would at first need to negotiate their way past the ‘dogs of war’ midfield pairing of the reliable Cesare Butti and the favourite of the fans, Paolo Dal Fiume. As with so many players lauded by fans Dal Fiume was hardly the most gifted of midfielders, but he gave everything for the cause, and fans everywhere take such players to their hearts. Perugia was no exception. The defence would concede a miserly 15 goals in the league in their majestic season. Had they possessed an attack of equal endeavour, the title would surely have fell into Umbrian hands.

Sadly, this wasn’t the case. If the backline was stingy, the forwards were recalcitrant in the extreme. Castagner’s system left a lot of pressure on a lone striker to deliver the bulk of the team’s goals. With three midfield players in at least nominally in support, Walter Speggiorin, as the spearhead of the attack struggled to deliver. Across the league season to come, he would net a mere nine goals and the team as a whole would only score 34 times across the entire league programme. Without the ‘lockdown’ defence at other end of the field, Perugia would surely have ended up mid-table at best. Going to watch the Grifoni was certainly not to expect ‘goals galore’ entertainment. For one of the ‘smaller’ provincial teams however, big money signings were not feasible and Castagner had a formula for his team that would produce an output greater than the sum of its parts. The season ahead would write Perugia’s name into the Calcio history books.

The season began encouragingly with a fairly comfortable 2-0 win over Vicente, but their next encounter – a visit to the San Siro to face Internazionale – would be a much sterner test. Indeed, with time draining away, it seemed that Perugia’s undefeated run would be halted at one. Two minutes from time however, Cacciatori equalised to give Castagner’s team a share of the spoils and demonstrate a resilience against the odds that would serve them well in the coming campaign. A draw was also a result that Perugia’s fans would become accustomed to. The remainder of the season would bring no less than another 18 occasions when they shared the points with their opponents across the remaining 28 games. Almost two-thirds of their league fixtures would end with honours even, with seven of them being goalless.

Nevertheless, at that stage, dragging a point from a seemingly inevitable defeat in Milan looked an outstanding result and across the next two games, Perugia stamped the form with successive victories, away to both Fiorentina and remarkably in Turin against Juventus. With three of Serie A’s big clubs already faced and two wins and a draw garnered, Castagner’s team were making a statement. The question was could they keep up the pace.

For a while Perugia, remarkably stood atop the Serie A standings. Whilst the giant clubs of Italy apparently foundered in their wake, Castagner had ignited a dream for the unheralded, unexpected, and widely under-appreciated club. Perugia were setting the pace in Italian club football, and suddenly it was time to take serious note of Castagner and his ‘no name’ team of nobodies.

Inevitably, though, there was a trough to their form and as winter approached, their march seemed to stumble. A ruin of six draws in seven games, with only four goals scored exposed the frailty in Perugia’s run at the title. In fairness however, it was not something that Castagner was unaware of. There are however, no matter how tactically aware you are about setting your team up to exploit their talents and camouflage their deficiencies, only so many things that you can cover, and when the bigger teams hit their stride, it looked like Perugia were beginning to feel the chill wind of reality after their brief day in the sun.

Although certainly a stumble, it was certainly not a fall, and as the games clicked by, still without Perugia having to bow the knee to any of their opponents, an aura of invulnerability began to grow, and with it as fresh belief in the squad and, perhaps just as importantly, across the other teams of Serie A. A preponderance of draws, interspersed with wins kept the Grifoni in contention and into the new year, they were like that troublesome piece of cotton attached to your coat. No matter how much the bigger teams tried to shake themselves free from the clawing attention of Castagner’s team, they could not break free. The feeling was that Perugia had by now had their fun and they should disappear back into the pack and let the big boys sort things out from here on in. Unfortunately, for the glitterati of Italian football, someone had forgotten to tell Perugia what their role should be. Not only was Catagner’s defence defence pathologically disinclined to concede goals, the team was likewise disinclined to concede the title.

As February rolled around, the defining game of the season occurred, when Internazionale visited Umbria. Local newspapers in the area had now heralded the team as ‘invincible’ and spoke of dreams that, still against all odds, Perugia could go on and lift the title. Talk was of a ‘season of miracles.’ For Castagner though, such speculation was fanciful at best. He insisted that a UEFA Cup spot for his team would be a magnificent achievement and anything above that merely fanciful. It’s probably true to say that the coach’s assessment was much more in line with the realities of the abilities of his squad, but by now cold logic was being washed away by the fevered excitement of regularly putting the much more heralded clubs to the sword and pursuing what was now inevitably becoming a genuine challenge for the title.

Victory against Berselini’s Nerazzurri would fan the flames of expectation, but after 45 minutes when Castagner’s renowned defence was pierced on a number of occasions, the teams retired to the dressing-rooms with Inter two goals clear, thanks to strikes by Alessandro Altobelli and Carlo Muraro. Here was the acidl test of both the club’s title aspirations and their unbeaten record. Defence, their strong suit, had proved incapable of keeping the accomplished Nerazzurri forwards at bay, and now it would be up to Perugia’s forwards to turn the tide of the game. Defensive resilience wouldn’t do. They needed attacking persistence.

Early on after the break, it seemed that the great escape was on when Franco Vannini halved the deficit, but Berselini’s players knew more than a little about defending themselves and after the wide man’s strike, the Nerazzurri seemed comfortable and kept the eager but limited Perugia’s forward line at bay without undue concern. Castagner’s team had by now, not only brought into their coach’s play book, they also seemed to have taken on board their role as invincible and in the dying seconds of the game, defender Ceccarini found himself inside the Inter box with the ball at his feet. Showing unknown striking acumen, he coolly converted to save the day, and keep the legend alive.

It was a bittersweet victory however. After scoring the goal that set the comeback on track, Vannini was injured in a bad tackle by Adrian Fedele, and had to leave the field. As it transpired, the injury would not only deprive Perugia of his services for the remainder of the seasons, it would also bring his career as a professional footballer to a premature end. Key man at the back, Frosio, was also injured in the game and would miss the majority of the remaining game of the season. If, on initial viewing, the game against Internazionale could be seen as the one when Perugia kept their dreams alive despite the sternest pressure, later it would reveal itself as, probably, the game when their doom was cast. This was no superstar squad with ready replacements to slot into any gaps that injuries created. Star quality was at a premium and despite heroic displays from here on in, Perugia’s attempt at the league title was probably cast into the winds on that blustery February afternoon.

Still they would not yield on the field, and with six games to go, Perugia were a mere two points behind Inter’s city rivals with a game to come in Umbria against the Rossoneri. Victory over Milan would put Castagner’s upstart team into pole position for the title.

On the day of the game, their compact stadium was packed to the rafters with fans fully convinced that miracles nor only do happen, but would happen. And so it seemed when, Gianfranco Casarsa netted from twelve yards to send Perugia in the lead, and their fans into dreamland. A disputed penalty at the other end just minutes later though, converted by Stefanie Chiodi drew the scores level, and despite late pressure, the home team could not break through again, and that most regular of results, a draw, concluded the game. It was surely now Milan’s title to lose but Perugia, like some terrier with its jaws locked onto its favourite toy, would simply note let go.

Draws away to Catanzaro and Verona were hardly helpful to the cause, but Milan also dropped points unexpectedly and on the last day of the season, amazingly, Perugia’s dream was still alive, if hanging by the slenderest of threads. It would take a bizarre set of circumstances to take the title to Umbria though. Milan would need to lose whilst Perugia would need to visit Bologna and win.

With typical disregard for the odds, a double strike by Salvatore Bagni had Perugia two goals clear to complete their part of the equation, but with the team eventually running out of steam, the home team rallied and removed the deficit. Neither team could notch a winner, and it was somehow fitting that Perugia’s season ended with a drawn game. The title went to Lombardy’s San Siro and Milan, down in Umbria though, little Perugia would celebrate a runners-up spot like no other club ever had before. Castagner and his team had completed the season undefeated. Other teams had won the title before, but their achievement was unique. To Milan the Scudetto, to Perugia immortality.

With sad inevitability, after the dream comes the reality of the new day. Perugia would carry their unbeaten run into the flowing season, tagging a further seven games to the total, before eventually falling to defeat against Torino. With the spell broken, the Grifoni stumbled and a further eight defeats followed before the end of the league programme. The balloon had burst and fans no longer spoke of miracles, but rather of days of when a provincial club was allowed to ponder upon thoughts of great acts and legends were created before their eyes.

Castagner’s team slowly disintegrated and, in 1980, the club found itself embroiled in the Totnero scandal. They were given a five-point penalty and demoted to Serie B for their alleged part in the plot to fix matches. Whilst for other, bigger, clubs involved, the drop to Serie B would only be a brief hiatus, for Perugia, the punishment would have much longer effect. Castagner left the club, seduced by opportunities elsewhere. A decision it’s surely difficult to criticise the former striker for making. He had attempted the absurd, and so nearly achieved the impossible, bearing out Einstein’s assertion. To attempt to do so again would surely be beyond the wit and wisdom of any coach.

Leaving Perugia, he journeyed to Lazio, before short spells in Genoa with Sampdoria, Milan with Internazionale and then to Ascoli, Pescara and Pisa. Castagner’s odyssey of half-a-dozen clubs would be completed in less than a dozen years, without him being able to recreate the magic he had conjured up in Umbria. He would return to his spiritual home for a couple of periods between 1993-95 and 1998-99, but without much joy.

There’s often a moment in time when a club’s management, coach and group of players mesh and become a force much more than would normally be the case. That may well have been the case with Perugia’s 1978-79 season. Once that moment has passed though, be it brief or much longer lasting, there’s little chance of ever recapturing the magic. The siren-song of attraction to attempt to try to do so is very often too compelling to resist, but instead of attempting the absurd to achieve the impossible, that would be merely attempting the impossible. The achievement of Perugia in their ‘season of miracles’ given their status at the time will probably never be repeated by a similarly situated club, that is unless someone else has the audacity to attempt the absurd.

(This All Blue Daze article was originally produced for the ‘These Football Times’ website).

 

 

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