The Day of the Magic Cat

WORDS: DOMINIC BLISS

As Italy prepare to face Norway tonight, we look back at the moment when a fingertip save spared the Azzurri from World Cup humiliation and denied the Norwegians a shot at unlikely glory. This is the story of Aldo Olivieri, who survived emergency surgery on his skull to inspire Italy to glory in 1938…

In later life, Aldo Olivieri would claim it was the moment that gave him his “greatest satisfaction” on the football pitch.

Italy had travelled to the World Cup in France as holders but they were seconds – or inches, depending on how you choose to look at it – away from falling at the first hurdle in their defence of the trophy. With their first round game (there was no group stage in the 1938 tournament) tied at 1-1 in the closing stages, Norway’s centre-forward Knut Brynildsen closed in on the Italian goal and looked set to seal an embarrassing defeat on the champions in front of a hostile, anti-Fascist crowed in Marseille. Olivieri, Italy’s goalkeeper, was the only man capable of sparing his nation’s blushes.

“We were thinking it was going to be a stroll,” he said, recalling the moment many years down the line. “In ’37, we had won a friendly in Oslo 3-1, with 10 against 11.

“Instead it was very tough. One minute from the end, at 1-1, a strike from the Norwegian centre-forward went crashing towards the corner of the net. I barely touched it with my fingers, diverting it for a corner. Before taking the corner, that player went to the referee and asked him to stop play: he came and shook my hand. Then [Silvio] Piola scored a goal: in moments we went from possible defeat to triumph.”

That Olivieri cherished the acclaim of his opponent Brynildsen as much as the memory of the save itself spoke volumes for his character. Known as the ‘Magic Cat’, he was more than just a safe pair of hands, he was also a performer, which was exactly what the Italian public wanted. He felt duty-bound not only to keep the opposition out but to put on a performance for the crowds who gathered behind his goal to see his outlandish goalkeeping displays and his performances during Italy’s successful World Cup defence in France made him a national icon.

Yet, despite being known for his bravery, had Olivieri heeded medical advice earlier in his career, he would not even have been playing in 1938.

Four years previously, the Magic Cat had used up one of his nine lives when playing for Padova in a Serie A match. After rushing out with a characteristically bold dive at the feet of an opposition forward in an away game against Fiumana, he suffered a terrifying blow to the head and was knocked unconscious. Slipping into a coma for several days, Olivieri’s life hung in the balance as surgeons drilled into his skull to relieve the pressure building up from the bruising and swelling caused by the collision. When he eventually recovered sufficiently to leave hospital, he was warned by doctors never to take to the field again and his career appeared to have come to a premature end.

However, after seven months out of the game, a former teammate of Olivieri’s, Piero Andreoli, decided it might be time to test his friend’s resolve. The nimble Lucchese forward suggested to his manager Ernő Erbstein that it might be possible to coax the passionate goalkeeper back to the professional game – and he turned out to be correct.

Erbstein’s invitation to join his squad in Tuscany was all the convincing Olivieri needed to ignore the surgeons’ warnings and return to his vocation. It was the story of his life – he saw a chance and pounced on it.

Stood astride his Lucchese squad

Over the next five years, Olivieri would form a close bond with his manager and Erbstein came up with a novel way to get his out-of-practice keeper back to his agile best. Twice a week, Olivieri was sent to dancing lessons with the boss’s daughter, Susanna, who was then a budding ballerina, in order to develop his balance and body control. The unusual extra-curricular training may have produced a smirk or two from his teammates at first, but it proved to be a successful routine for Olivieri, who went on to become the defining Italian goalkeeper of his generation. He is still mentioned in the same breath as Dino Zoff and Gigi Buffon. Indeed, such was Olivieri’s bond with his young dancing companion that he named his own daughter Susanna (he is pictured above with little Susanna between his legs and Erbstein stood beside them, astride his Lucchese squad during their 1930s heyday).

After four years of consistent brilliance with Lucchese, Olivieri was considered to be the best goalkeeper in the business. He helped the team to promotion into Serie A and, if reports are to be believed, it was his form between the posts that had almost single-handedly kept them in the top flight following the inspirational Erbstein’s enforced departure due to new Fascist racial legislation midway through their second season in the division.

He was therefore in the form of his life when he travelled to France with Vittorio Pozzo’s national team to defend the World Cup. After his heroics against Norway, he became one of the figureheads of the team as they saw off hosts France, then Brazil and finally Hungary. Once the Jules Rimet trophy had been secured, even Benito Mussolini wanted a piece of the Magic Cat, who was now a bona fide national hero.

blizzardbooks-book2-cover-no-cropsWhen il Duce went to salute the triumphant team after two goals each from Gino Colaussi and golden boy Piola had secured a 4-2 win over Hungary in the final in Paris, he made a beeline for Olivieri. Had it not been for his brilliant finger-tip save against Norway in Marseille, the Italians would have suffered the humiliation of failing to progress beyond the first round.

Ironically, considering Italy’s opponents in the final, it had been a Hungarian, in Erbstein, who had revived Olivieri’s career and so the official language used after his club manager’s homeland had been defeated must have left the goalkeeper feeling rather uneasy

“Beyond the athletic victory shines the racial victory,” wrote Bruno Roghi, editor of the Gazzetta dello Sport.

Given that Olivieri held his Jewish-Hungarian club manager in such high esteem, it is little surprise that this kind of political posturing around his greatest sporting achievement unsettled him. Indeed, Olivieri had once been reproached for failing to give the fascist salute ahead of a league game (as captains were often required to do in marquee fixtures) and would later talk about his discomfort at being singled out by Mussolini for praise.

“I’ve never been a fascist,” he said in an interview with Marco Bonetto. “As part of the national team, they appropriated me, but I did not approve…Yes, we were obliged to do the salute, to act, and I acted. But I never got the card. If you love freedom, you cannot be fascist.”

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When the World Cup ended, Olivieri left Lucchese to join his ex-manager Erbstein at Torino. On his debut, he saved two penalty kicks in a 1-0 victory and his team sat top of the league in November 1938, when Erbstein was forced to leave the country due to escalating anti-Semitic legislation.

Olivieri remained at Torino for four seasons, but failed to win any silverware before leaving at the start of the 1942/43 season, just as the side that became known as the Grande Torino came together. He had played his part in the development of the team into genuine title contenders but missed out on the golden years that followed as the Granata won league titles in 1943, 1946, 1947, 1948 and 1949 before perishing in the Superga air disaster.

Dominic Bliss is editor of TheInsideLeft and author of ‘Erbstein: The Triumph and Tragedy of Football’s Forgotten Pioneer’, available from Blizzard Books now. Follow him on twitter @theinsidelefty

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