WORDS: DOMINIC BLISS
Ahead of this weekend’s Derby della Mole, we revisit the career of a Juventus hero who played a key role in the development of Torino’s greatest-ever team. Felice Borel, the man who crossed the city three times, influencing two of the most successful club sides in Italian football history…
When Juventus met Torino in a wartime tournament in April 1945, the atmosphere across northern Italy was tense – divided between the anti-Fascist partisan movement and the last desperate Fascist fanatics, who were facing up to the impending Allied liberation set to be completed a matter of days after the game.
Industrial Turin had been bombed heavily but football had carried on regardless, with local cup competitions taking place right up to the bitter end of the conflict.
The final war-time derby reflected the anxiety in the air and, when Juventus captain Felice Borel flew into a hefty late challenge on his Torino counterpart, Valentino Mazzola, the weary crowd at the city’s Stadio Comunale – some of them armed – reacted angrily.
Mazzola sprung up from the turf with rage in his eyes and fire in his belly. Fuelled by the antagonistic atmosphere, he proceeded to swing a punch with such ferocity that he ended up throwing himself to the grass, where Borel descended to join him and continue the scrap.
Terrifyingly, the fight was broken up by a piercing gunshot, fired into the air by a figure in the crowd and in the ensuing panic several more shots were fired around the stadium. The game was called to a temporary halt while order was restored and the players – who had been excused from military service due to their importance to civilian morale – came to the sobering realisation that their petty squabbles were not appreciated by those men on the terraces who had been to war in their stead.
There may have been more than met the eye to Borel’s unceremonious lunge at Mazzola, however. A few years earlier, the Juve talisman had worn the granata of Toro and done so in the same position as his impressively built adversary that day. In fact, Borel (known as Borel II because his older brother Aldo had also represented both Turin clubs) had crossed the city on no less than three occasions by this point.
Having represented Torino at youth level, winning the 1930 Italian Youth Championship, Borel II actually began his senior career with Juventus, where he played a part in the final three Scudetti of the bianconeri’s historic five-in-a-row between 1931 and 1935. Between 1932 and 1941, he averaged more than a goal every other game for Juve, but at his peak he turned his back on the club.
In 1941, Borel fell out with Juve president Piero Dusio during pre-season and Torino’s ambitious young owner Ferruccio Novo, ever the opportunist, wasted no time in taking advantage of the situation, bringing the 1934 World Cup-winner across town to the Stadio Filadelfia.
Borel was not so prolific in his new surrounding but his intelligent play ensured that he became a key player in the Torino side who finished second to Roma in the 1941/42 championship. And his impact during what would turn out to be a brief spell with the granata was much more significant than the statistics (7 goals in 25 Serie A appearances) might show.
Borel also took a keen interest in the technical side of the game, joining in the tactical discussions of the management staff and, in one historic meeting, he suggested a dynamic new playing style.
The predominant system of play in Italy at the time was known as the metodo and it was the brainchild of the national team manager and former long-term Torino boss, Vittorio Pozzo. It was a slight variation on the original footballing pyramid system or 2-3-5 but in the metodo, the centre-half was asked to form a function somewhere between that of his traditional playmaking task and the central defensive, man-marking brief being assigned to him by the forward-thinking coaches in Britain. If the W-M system was like a 3-2-2-3, then the preferred Italian metodo was a 2-3-2-3, with the centre-half more advanced and the defence therefore more easily breached.
Torino’s top brass were discussing the W-M at that time because Borel had been impressed by its effectiveness while watching England play Italy in 1939 and convinced Roberto Copernico – who was something of a consigliere between the president, the technical director and the manager – to bring together all the key figures at the club for a late-night discussion, where they debated the pros and cons of the formation.
This was exactly the kind of meeting of minds Novo had initiated when he employed the Hungarian coach, Ernő Erbstein to implement a technocratic management structure in 1938: a group of football men sitting together, locked in a discussion about a new playing style, each with their own opinion. They were bringing the atmosphere of the Danubian coffee houses to the club headquarters in Turin, but Erbstein was sadly not there to see Borel offer his impassioned speech in favour of the new system, having been forced to leave Italy in early the winter of 1938, when foreign Jews were banished from the country.
In truth, Borel’s suggested tactic was not far removed from the style Erbstein had pioneered before his enforced departure. With the tactic beginning to catch on again at certain Italian clubs, Torino’s technical team believed they had the right players to unleash its powerful counter-attacking potential. They did so in two stages, following Erbstein’s reassessment of the roles of the wing-halves and inside-forwards, and then Borel’s experience of the English W-M.
These events prompted Torino to discover the playing style that would define their most successful chapter in the mid-late Forties – the era of the Grande Torino, who won five successive Scudetti to match the Juventus of the Thirties.
“The change was little short of revolutionary,” Copernico explained, “and it led to fierce controversy which only subsided, before disappearing permanently, after about ten years. Felice Borel had been an enthusiastic supporter of the new tactic for some time, and it was used successfully by the British. He soon convinced me and his enthusiasm was contagious. An increased risk seemed likely given certain positional issues, though. It was thought, for example, that placing the two full-backs on the sides could create a large ‘hole’ at the centre of the defence, which would leave too much space for the opposition striker and inside-forwards. Eventually, after many hesitations, we decided to try it, convinced that we were on the right track.”
In Italy, this twist on the W-M became known as the sistema, and it relied upon close interplay between the wing-halves and the inside-forwards, effectively forming a four-man midfield behind two wingers and a centre-forward.
After just one season at the club as a player, Borel – still only twenty-eight – was rewarded for his insight with the offer of a remarkable five-year contract as player-manager by a clearly impressed club president in the summer of 1942.
Yet, according to the version of events recorded by journalist Salvatore Lo Presti in his book Profondo Granata, “Borel… did not accept for two reasons: first, because he wanted the same full powers and great faith that the strong personality of Novo had granted Erbstein (who, albeit in the shadows, was always present), and secondly because the increasingly influential Roberto Copernico did not give his consent.”
To exacerbate matters, Borel then accepted an offer of the same role from his former club Juventus, where President Dusio was offering a lucrative olive branch to bring him back to the Stadio Olimpico. He had made an influential cameo appearance in the Grande Torino story, but the club would continue to go from strength to strength without him.
That feisty game at the Stadio Comunale in April 1945 was not only played against the backdrop of the last days of war, it was also a deeply personal moment for the man who had a hand in both clubs’ finest teams to that point.