1934 was a momentous year for Italian football. On the international front, Italy won the second World Cup in Rome on June 10 and on November 14 fought the ‘Battle of Highbury’, one of football’s epic matches – ‘fought’ being the operative word. At club level, Juventus, playing in their new Stadio Mussolini, which after fascism became the Comunale, clinched their fourth consecutive scudetto after an exciting head-to-head with Ambrosiana-Inter. 

Under their manager Carlo ‘Carlin’ Carcano, the team was ageing, arguably past its best. Nonetheless, looking to make it five scudetti on the trot, they began the new season well, stretching their unbeaten run in Serie A to 25 games before a 5-3 away defeat to Lazio in November. Despite losing the Argentinian oriundo Luisito Monti, their formidable centromediano, or centre-half, to injury (he was sidelined for months after breaking a toe for Italy at Highbury), they entered December just two points behind the unexpected leaders Fiorentina. They eventually went on to win the championship but, surprisingly, felt the need to change their manager in the meantime. 

Out of the blue, on the morning of Monday December 10, the Turin daily La Stampa announced that, “Carlo Carcano has left his post as manager of Juventus.” The news ought to have come as a bombshell, but at the time it produced not a bang but a whimper. La Stampa devoted the rest of the short two-column article to extolling the virtues of Carcano’s replacement Carlo Bigatto, a former Juventus captain who had won a scudetto in 1926 and picked up five caps for Italy. “His appearance as a footballer is still alive in all of us,” said the article, “slim and angular, his craggy face adorned by a black moustache [a final memory of an era in which there were more players sporting whiskers than there were clean-shave]), his head covered with a brown hairnet.” In the rhetorical style of fascist Italy, Bigatto is described as a loyal servant of the club: “He never earned money for his valour and, having retired from battle on the field, continued to follow the achievements of the black-and-whites with a watchful eye, his advice heeded by directors and teammates alike. In the present situation, Juventus couldn’t have made a better choice. The authority Bigatto exerts over the players is a guarantee of respect and discipline: his stout-heartedness as a player himself in the past provides ample reassurance of his suitability for the difficult role; the affection with which sports lovers have always regaled him is sure to earn him the favour of the crowd. It’s a great return, Bigatto is close to his old colours once more.”

Not a word about why Carcano, who had renewed his contract for two years in 1933, had left. Juventus didn’t explain and nobody asked.

Four days later, La Stampa printed another short article, hidden away at the bottom of the front page: “This morning, the former Juventus manager Carlo Carcano signed a contract that will tie him to Genova for the rest of the season.” (The real name of the team, founded by a group of British sports enthusiasts in 1893, was and is Genoa, but it was Italianised under the fascist regime to discourage Anglophilia.)

Carcano was born on 26 February 1891 in Masnago, in the province of Varese, in Lombardy, but grew up and established himself as a footballer in Alessandria, in Piedmont. A centromediano renowned for his athleticism and intelligence, he played five times for Italy. He and the other Italy internationals in the Alessandria team – Aldo Baloncieri, Elvio Banchero, Luigi Bertolini and Renato Cattaneo – were pupils of the London-born manager George Smith, one of the first to introduce rigorous training methods to Italy. Smith spent two years with Alessandria and established the so-called scuola alessandrina, based on push-and-run football, despite the notoriously muddy pitch at the local Moccagatta stadium. It was said that while opponents got bogged down, Alessandria, the ‘Greys’, flew. (Smith subsequently returned to the UK to fight in the war and was killed in the Meuse-Argonne offensive in 1917.) 

After hanging up his boots, Carcano stayed on at Alessandria as manager, and in the 1929-30 season, his first in charge, he led them to a respectable sixth place in Serie A. Impressed by the young manager’s accomplishment, the Juventus president Edoardo Agnelli and his right-hand-man, the general manager Barone Giovanni Mazzonis, decided to hire him to replace the Scotsman George Aitken, a pupil of Herbert Chapman’s and a proponent of the W-M system, whose tough training sessions had won him few friends among the players.

Carcano, who immediately imposed himself at Juventus as a capable man-manager and something of a psychologist, won the scudetto at his first attempt, playing a metodo style that was more pragmatic than free-flowing. In an interview with the daily sports newspaper Il Littoriale on 14 June 1932, Carcano candidly admitted that his work was facilitated by the number of great players he had in his team: “You don’t expect me to teach them how to play, do you?” He was being modest: inexperienced as he was, he nonetheless possessed enough charisma to shape a disparate group of talents into a close-knit team. 

The stars were the goalkeeper Gianpiero Combi; the stalwart full-backs Virginio Rosetta and Umberto Caligaris; Monti, famous for his vision, long-range passing and fierce tackling; the inside-forward Giovanni Ferrari, a protégé of Carcano’s from Alessandria (where the manager had lodged in his mother’s boarding house); the tricky left-winger Mumo Orsi and the attacking midfielder Renato Cesarini, both Argentinian oriundi; and the prolific centre-forward Felice Borel, nicknamed Farfallino, ‘Little Butterfly’, for the way he ‘fluttered’ his hands and arms when he ran. 

Bruno Roghi, editor of La Gazzetta dello Sport, believed that, “Juventus don’t have the technical sparkle of Ambrosiana in 1929-30, nor the harmonious fluidity of Torino in 1927-28, nor the balanced and arrogant impetus of Bologna in 1928-29… The team’s superior virtue consists of the solidarity that exists between its players and their virile way of playing … the match itself becomes a pledge of honour, a cold and desperate desire for victory.”

In other words, Carcano’s Juventus were hard to beat without being easy on the eye. They had neither the best defence nor the best attack, but they did have the ability to grind opponents down. They failed to shine on the European stage, which in those days meant the Mitropa Cup and the Europa Cup, but dominated Serie A. It came as no surprise when, with three more scudetti under his belt, Carcano was chosen by Vittorio Pozzo as his assistant manager at the 1934 World Cup (along with nine Juventus players and the club’s trainer Guido Angeli, the man who had bludgeoned Monti back to fitness when he first arrived from Buenos Aires, 10kg overweight). After Pozzo, Carcano was easily the most respected football manager in Italy, the Sport Fascista magazine citing him as “an example of a true Italian for the way he organises the team and teaches the game”.

So why the divorce from Juventus? The truth is that Carcano was sacked – though the official version spoke of “voluntary resignation” – for reasons that, in the words of the journalist Giorgio Gandolfi, “had nothing to do with football”, and which football historian Renato Tavella describes as his “peculiar personal inclinations”. The fact of the matter is that Carcano was said to be gay. In his history of the Italian national team, Un secolo azzurro (2013), the Sicilian journalist Alfio Caruso goes straight to the point: “Carcano’s homosexuality had become a problem. One of his players used to joke that you should never lower your trousers when he was around.” The great journalist Gianni Brera didn’t beat about the bush either. “Carcano diligit pueros,” he pronounced suggestively in the Repubblica newspaper in 1986 – Carcano loves boys.

The story of Carcano’s alleged homosexuality has only come to the surface in the course of time. As the historians Aldo Agosti and Giovanni De Luna write in their 2019 work Juventus. Storia di una passione italiana, “The question of Carlo Carcano’s dismissal has remained cloaked in the veil of reticence and hypocrisy that has always surrounded the subject of homosexuality in football, and still does.” Acknowledging the cover-up, another academic, Paolo Bertinetti, professor of English Literature at Turin University, evokes childhood memories as a Juventus supporter in the 1960s: “When Juventus were struggling in my early years as a fan, I knew nothing about these things.” He adds that what he did know, “(like millions of other fans of the black-and-whites) was that Juve had won five scudetti in a row.” A vision of the good old days from which the awkward bits had been airbrushed. 

The Carcano affair is missing in the seminal histories of Italian football. And there were no explicit references at the time to Carcano’s homosexuality, nor could there have been. While in Germany Heinrich Himmler set up the Reich Central Office for the Combating of Homosexuality, and homosexuals were among the categories destined for the concentration camps, in Italy things were different. Article 528 of the first draft of the Italian Penal Code (1930), commonly referred to as the Rocco Code, had originally envisaged a sentence of one to three years’ imprisonment for homosexuality but a Ministerial Commission eliminated it with the following amendment: “The envisagement of this crime is by no means necessary insofar as, much to the fortune and pride of Italy, the abominable vice that occasions it is not so widespread as to justify the legislator’s intervention… Against habitual and professional perpetrators of the vice, who in truth are very rare and all of exclusively foreign extraction, the police shall take steps as of now through the immediate enforcement of measures of security and imprisonment.” The Code thus effectively established that homosexuality did not and could not exist among Italians in fascist Italy: un compromesso all’italiana, compromise Italian-style. 

The largely unsubstantiated accounts of the Carcano affair that have gradually emerged over the years feed off one another in a muddle of rumour, indiscretion and gossip. One of the most exhaustive is the Roman journalist Mario Pennacchia’s in his Gli Agnelli e la Juventus. “Carcano’s relations with some players had passed the limit and spilled over into unseemly behaviour,” he wrote, explaining that Barone Mazzonis reported the stories about Carcano to president Agnelli, who convened a meeting with Mazzonis himself and four other directors – Enrico Craveri, Piero Monateri, Carletto Levi and Vittorio Tapparone – at his private studio in Turin’s Corso Oporto (now Corso Matteotti). After listening to what the participants had to say, Agnelli pronounced, “I couldn’t be sorrier but Signor Carcano can stay at Juventus no longer.” The club couldn’t have a gay manager. 

Juventus’s social club was housed in an 18th-century palazzo at Via Bogino 12, just off Via Po in the centre of Turin (now the headquarters of the city’s Juventus supporters’ club). Here, players were encouraged to spend their free time and get to know each other over games of table tennis, billiards and cards (at which Carcano is said to have been unbeatable). They were obliged to sign in every day, except Monday, and to go home early at night. According to Pennacchia, Carcano used to pay a team of a dozen or so trustworthy boys to check on the players’ movements after they had left the club. On Tuesday mornings he would present the Juventus board with his weekly report and players who hadn’t gone straight home were subject to hefty fines. 

“This constant life together ensures intimate mutual acquaintance and stimulates sympathies,” wrote La Gazzetta dello Sport on 23 January 1931, “so that the black-and-whites are not so much a powerful outfit of great valour as a compact union of wills and characters that pursue the same aim without discord and conflict.” Agosti and De Luna go one step further, suggesting that, on the one hand, this “somewhat claustrophobic environment may have provided fertile ground for the embarrassing affair that led to Carcano’s dismissal”, and, on the other, that “it made it possible to nip in the bud and hush up any scandal, seemingly without visible external consequences.” But, as Gianni Brera used to say, ‘Scandala eveniant’ – scandals happen.

According to Agosti and De Luna, “‘Uranism’, as it was then called… wasn’t a phenomenon extraneous even to the virile, vigorous football of fascism.” In their version of events, “Nothing official came to light but the rumour gradually spread that the manager was lavishing excessive attentions on at least one of his players. It’s said that the Carcano affair demonstrated that homosexuality touched other circles within the club, among both directors and players.”

The Enciclopedia Treccani, Italy’s equivalent of the Enyclopaedia Britannica, speaks of a relationship between Carcano and a young South American player (who could only have been the Brazilian winger Pedro Sernagiotto) but it’s the only source to do so. It’s generally acknowledged, in fact, that the object of Carcano’s desire was Felice Bore – then underage. In his study of football under fascism, Vincere o morire (2016), the novelist Enrico Brizzi casts further suspicions. “It’s rumoured that the coach wasn’t the only ‘depraved uranist’ in that invincible team,” he wrote, adding that, “According to unconfirmed gossip, Luisito Monti and Friulan midfielder Mario Varglien were also accused by directors, who remained unnamed, of being wooed by the Little Butterfly’s charms too.”

Biographies speak of Monti as a family man: he had a wife, Margherita, a son, Eduardo and two daughters, Delia and Ilde, all born in Turin (Ilde died of polio in childhood). He was reputedly jealous of his privacy off the pitch and a ‘gladiator’ on it. “Fascist men are battlers and fighters,” wrote Corriere della Sera two days after Highbury. Although Argentinian by birth, Luisito Monti was arguably the azzurro who best incarnated these virtues. In the match in question, he stoically tried to play on with a broken toe but eventually had to come off. “Put a hanky in my mouth,” he had to beg Vittorio Pozzo to avoid crying out with pain. In Ai, Mundial, his reportage on the 1982 World Cup in Spain, the Turin novelist Mario Soldati cited Monti as an example of heterosexual potency: “Few, I believe, possess the constitution of the old centre-half of Juventus, the exuberant Luis Monti, of whom legend has it that he made love at least 365 times a year without losing his energy on the pitch, and 366 in leap years.” 

Yet Gianni Brera, no less of a male chauvinist or politically incorrect than Soldati, insinuates that Monti had homosexual tendencies. Responding to a reader’s question in Repubblica, he quipped, “The most amusing thing about that Juventus team was the discovery of Monti’s vices.” Drawing again on hearsay, Brera relates an anecdote from his own days as an amateur footballer in Milan. “My friend Ippolito, the centre-forward for an all-Turin XI (I was the centre-half for a Milan one), told me of an embarrassing tiff between Monti and Varglien, both macho queens, according to him.”

In his Storia critica del calcio italiano, Brera adds that two members of the Juventus board were also implicated in the affair, along with Carcano, Varglien and Monti, but that the anonymous snitches were also jealous of Borel. Brera’s views always have to be taken cum grano salis: sometimes gossip tells us more about the gossiper than the gossiped upon. But, in this case, Caruso agreed with him: “In reality, it seems that these indignant defenders of morality were also keen to ingratiate themselves with Felicino.” In characteristically allusive style, Brera suggested that, “Many football directors yielded more or less consciously to attractions that the International Board of Football has never dreamt of contemplating.” Pennacchia, finally, claimed it was Luisito Monti who brought things to a head in a fit of anger, but doesn’t explain why.

Directors accusing players, players accusing directors, directors accusing directors, all in fascist Italy in which homosexuals couldn’t exist – the story reads like a comedy of errors. And the aftermath, suspended between fact and fiction, between claim and counter-claim, is that of a very Italian scandal. 

Investigation of the affair raises more questions than it answers. Much has been made of the fact that Carcano loved wearing an American suede jacket (said by some to be a present from Varglien), seen at the time as a symbol of over-refined elegance, of effeminacy even. But if that were the case, how did Carcano maintain the respect of the dressing room? Years after the event, the former full-back Pietro Rava revealed that, “Carcano had homosexual tendencies. The fact was well known and Barone Mazzonis, who was very severe, was shocked by it and struggled to accept certain forms of behaviour.” 

But if the fact was common knowledge, why wasn’t Edoardo Agnelli party to it in the first place? Why did Vittorio Pozzo write in Lo Sport Fascista, “That it’s possible to place trust in our own homegrown coaches as far as discipline, teaching and organisation are concerned is demonstrated by one example above all others: that of Carcano”? And what did Felice Borel think about being at the centre of a sex scandal? Did he even realise what was happening around him? We cannot know.

Amid so much rumour and speculation, it’s hard enough to reconstruct an individual’s public life, never mind their private life. But one thing that most accounts seem to agree on is that Carcano was scapegoated to cover the misdemeanours of others. He was, as Giuseppe Pastore, a journalist at La Gazzetta dello Sport, put it, “A fig leaf for a big shot.” The stance of the fascist authorities was ambiguous and so was that of Juventus. Rocco Code or no Rocco Code, many homosexuals were exiled to ‘internal confinement’ on remote islands such as Ustica and the Tremiti, while Carcano was ostracised but suffered no penal consequences. Also suspected of being gay, Eraldo Monzeglio, the Bologna and Roma full-back who played in both Italy’s victorious World Cup campaigns in the 1930s and doubled as personal tennis coach to Mussolini and his sons, was allowed to play out his career. Carcano simply slipped into obscurity.

After a couple of months at Genova, he fell out of football only to return in 1941-42 as manager of Sanremese. After the war, he spent a couple of years at Inter, first as manager then as sporting director, but without great success. Then, after brief spells at Atalanta and back at Alessandria (where he replaced the Englishman Bert Flatley), he returned to Sanremese.

He retired from professional football in 1953 and spent the rest of his life in the resort of Sanremo itself. There he founded, trained and gave his nickname to the youth team Carlin’s Boys, who subsequently instituted an annual international tournament that is still played to this day. In his buen retiro in Sanremo, Carcano liked to go swimming. In the summer of 1965, at the age of 74, he fainted in the sea and was rushed, semi-paralysed, to hospital, where he died a few days later. La Stampa accorded him an anodyne obituary of five lines.

According to the RAI television football show Rabona, which dedicated a five-minute slot to his memory in 2019, Carcano used to tell anyone who recognised him, “Forget about me. It’s better for everyone.” If that’s true, the football world took him at his word for decades, and it was only in 2014 that he was inducted posthumously into Italian football’s Hall of Fame in Coverciano. But that was a rare example of recognition. Today Carcano is forgotten as the man who won four and a half consecutive league titles with Juventus (only Massimiliano Allegri has done better, with five) and the club’s official website still speaks simply of his “resignation”.