This story does not end with dramatic victory from a penalty. It begins that way — in Florence, at a quarter to five on a Sunday afternoon, 5 May 2013. Banks of dark grey clouds jostle over the Apennines along the Arno River. Tourists shuffle along to glimpse Botticelli’s Allegory of Spring at the Uffizi Gallery. And at Stadio Turri, fourteen men crowd in along a torn white arc to watch Dario Pietro Tranchitella place a ball carefully on the ground. This is the last day of the season in Serie D, the highest level of non-professional football in Italy. Tranchitella represents Castel Rigone Calcio.

Castel Rigone Calcio are only 15 years old. They are located in an Umbrian town with a mountaintop view over Lake Trasimene, the battleground where the Carthaginian general Hannibal, on another spring day in 217 BC, stained the waters with the blood of a Roman army. More than seven centuries later, a warband of Ostrogoths set up camp on this ridge to begin a four-year siege of Perugia, and stayed to found a town. Above that town sits the tiny church of Madonna dei Miracoli. 

On this day the Mother is watching over her children. In all-white kit, Tranchitella strides forward, stutters slightly to send the keeper flying to the right and strikes left. The ball is cradled in the back of the net, a few minutes later the final whistle blows, and Castel Rigone become a professional team in the fourth division: Lega Pro Seconda.

The village of Castel Rigone boasts barely 400 inhabitants, but one of them became royalty. As a boy, Brunello Cucinelli watched his family farm the steep stony terraces around the town. At the age of six, he saw his father take work in a cement factory outside Perugia and suffer a degrading form of industrial labour. Young Brunello was inclined to withdraw from the world, but a local friar exhorted him to improve it instead. Still yearning for St Francis, Cucinelli took his opportunities like George Soros and ignored negativity like Forrest Gump. Along the way, he began to shape a philosophy and practice of ‘humanistic capitalism’.

A rustic outsider and university drop-out, but a keen observer and voracious reader, Cucinelli became an entrepreneur, building a luxury clothing brand from scratch. His signature style is elegant but relaxed, like the cracked yet vibrant plaster cloaking a noble Umbrian palazzo. Stubble peeks out behind a firm white collar and a tie dangles below the stretched button of a sharp jacket. His are exquisite clothes worn in a rumpled way, as if to treasure things of beauty while remaining above them. At 60 years of age, he is Italy’s newest billionaire, the so-called King of Cashmere.

As Cucinelli grew his business, he poured profits back into the communities that shaped his youth. His wife’s village, Solomeo, became a company town. Corporate headquarters were installed in the town castle, next to a sturdy stone church, restored houses, perfectly swept streets, and a theatre for world-class drama and music. Castel Rigone got a football club.

It began simply as an opportunity for friends to have a kick-about. The team entered at the very bottom: Terza Categoria, the tenth tier of the Italian football pyramid, where teams blink in and out of existence like unfaithful subatomic particles. For a professional team or player to have come from Terza Categoria is also a badge of honour; it is a rags-to-riches rise, and celebrates the grit, savvy, and fortuna necessary to make a hard climb through the ranks. So the club came to mirror Cucinelli’s own life.

In their first four years, Castel Rigone won four promotions. After seven seasons in the Eccellenza Umbra, they reached the final of the Italian Amateur Cup at Rome’s Stadio Flaminio in May 2009. At this point the team and their patron began to catch the notice of national newspapers. Despite losing the final to Virtus Casarano, Castel Rigone were promoted to Serie D, since their opponents had already won promotion through the league table. Virtus Casarano eventually fell victim to the boom-or-bust cycle in Italian football, while Castel Rigone, four years forward to that May afternoon in Florence, became the smallest town in Italian history to enter the professional game.

To have risen six divisions in fifteen years is accomplishment enough, even with the support of a wealthy businessman, but it was the ‘how’ that got observers scratching their heads. From the start, the club was designed as an antidote to excesses of modern football: corruption, scandals, match-fixing, disdain for opponents and referees, and outright violence. The week after Castel Rigone’s promotion to Lega Pro, the story became a national morality tale, pitting a lone knight of fair play against a deeply rooted culture of success through ruthlessness.

Castel Rigone put character front and centre. From their website: “The founding purpose was to create a pleasant environment, where one could play football in a true amateur spirit, with an emphasis on healthy and authentic fair play, without forsaking the masculine approach, typical of English football, that is synonymous with a healthy, fair comparison among athletes.” At the start of the 2013-14 season, Cucinelli added, “Our soccer is about ethics and style. I hope to bring in healthy innovation and make even the old guard fanatics be polite. This is not a fable, but a piece of my life. ... I insist on respect for the referees, all the teams, and the visiting fans. At home, we play on Saturday because Sunday is meant to be spent with family.”

‘Healthiness’ has been a constant trope. For Cucinelli, that seems to translate into both moral rectitude and physical cleanliness. On 24 November 2013, Castel Rigone narrowly lost an away match against Foggia. Two days later, Foggia posted an open letter on their website: “(There was) cordiality between the management of the two clubs, before, during, and at the end of the Foggia-Castel Rigone match. Not a word out of place, not one disagreement, and then the final surprise. When everyone had gone home. Going into the changing rooms occupied by Castel Rigone we realised immediately that something was strange, but good: the changing rooms were spotlessly clean. And then you realise that they are not just words, that fair play is visible in their deeds. With all our heart: Congratulations, Castel Rigone!” The Umbrian team responded in kind and this outbreak of calcio civility was reported nationwide.

Their stadium, San Bartolomeo, embodies Castel Rigone’s approach to the game. It is a tidy arena of wood, glass and steel, with a field surrounded by flowers and trimmed hedges instead of advertising hoardings. Incredibly, there are no barriers between home and visiting fans. No chain-link fences topped by barbed wire, over which fusillades of projectiles and insults tend to fly. Castel Rigone asks all spectators to arm themselves with an idea: that mutual respect is the best approach to self-preservation and, what’s more, contentment.

Tim Parks, in his Season with Verona, speaks of the arena as a kind of sacred space, where fans feel free to express both adoration and hatred, but it is a broken and battered templum, repeatedly invaded and violated. The genteel atmosphere at San Bartolomeo takes an Olympian approach, simply expecting people to behave. It works, in a way. The stands are often strangely quiet, interrupted now and then by murmurs, advice, or applause, but absent of bare-chested men leading tribal songs. Except, sometimes, among the visitors. An early October 2013 match saw droves of Cosenza supporters pack the south stands as well as a ridge above the stadium. These two groups, one baying over the railing, the other raising banners from afar, engaged in vigorous call-and-response, amplified by the natural cavity of the hill. Against the piety of their polite hosts, however, Cosenza could hurl no insults, scream no curses. At the end, out of ideas, they resorted to songs slagging off their Calabrian rivals, Catanzaro: absent, ancient enemies not even in the same division. Ever the gracious host, Cucinelli simply praised the numbers and enthusiasm of the visiting fans in the post-game press conference.

On 15 March 2014, the islanders of Ischia came to Castel Rigone, with equally boisterous support. At half-time in the south stands, two Ischia tifosi, shirts cast aside, colours tied around their necks and dripping with drink, decided to invade a home crowd stocked with neatly scrubbed youth players. Grinning and chatting, they walked briskly and bravely along the foot of the stands, only to find themselves shaking hands with middle-aged locals in blue and grey, who smiled back in bemusement. After a few minutes, befuddled, the would-be warriors shyly returned to resume their chorales in the sanctuary of fellow fanatics. A foray into opposition territory at any other stadium in Italy would have risked blood and bruises. Here there was an outbreak of the Golden Rule. Repaying their fans’ celebratory antics after prevailing in a hard-fought match, the Ischia players stripped down to their underwear on the field and tossed their sweat-soaked kit into the crowd. Joining in from the Castel Rigone side, the fresh-faced youths asked for jerseys too.

The politeness is not perfect. Dangerous tackles or adverse referee decisions evoke groans, objections, and indignation as they would anywhere. But on one tense October afternoon, as the frustrations of the home spectators grew audible, an elderly man at the front rose slowly to his feet, faced the crowd, and raised his hands as in the simile of the citizen in Book One of Virgil’s Aeneid: “And just as when civil strife arises in a large gathering, and the common crowd rage in their hearts, and now rocks and torches fly — frenzy supplies the weapons — then, if by chance they glimpse a man heavy with duty and merit, they become silent, and stand with ears ready; he guides their passions with words, and soothes their feelings.”

The elderly man ‘shushed’ the crowd. The din faded. It was an old Roman reminder to be ‘educato’— well mannered.

Good manners did not mean that the team did not fight on the field. Castel Rigone played a hard, physical, and relatively direct style in line with Cucinelli’s “masculine English football”. Still, they would finish first in their division for the ‘Coppa Disciplina’ that celebrates fair play. Their league position was less consistent.

Castel Rigone were struggling near the bottom of the table during early autumn, when they won a gritty affair at home against the wonderfully named Tuscan club Tuttocuoio (‘All-Leather’). Within hours, the manager Marco Di Loreto had been dismissed. Not for results. According to the club, Di Loreto, in his first leadership position, had misrepresented the defender Simone Sbaraglia as injured when he wasn’t. “The rules are the same for everyone,” said Cucinelli. Watching in the stands that day was a wizened veteran of Serie A and the Italy national team, Luca Fusi, who was curious about this ‘stadium without barriers’. Fusi’s curiosity turned to opportunity when he was offered the job, apparently as much on the basis of his character as his coaching resume.

In welcoming the new manager, Castel Rigone on October 25 released a statement reaffirming their principles, including:

  • “It is remembered that the primary purpose is to play sport.
  • It is a pleasure to play with respect for the rules and the opponents, not to simulate, and to celebrate gracefully.
  • Great respect for respective roles. Working with maximum collaboration, having the courage to listen.
  • At the end of a pleasant discussion it was agreed, as always, that the end of everything cannot just be victory, but above all there must be loyalty, frankness, respect, and truth. The great philosopher Socrates said: It is the duty of the speaker always to tell the truth.”

Good manners. Respect. Loyalty. Honesty. And perhaps a bit of hypocrisy. Three days prior, an editorial in the Giornale dell’Umbria had challenged the chairman. Instead of taking the opportunity to help a young coach learn a valuable life lesson about working with his boss, it implied, Cucinelli had misused the high moral ground to make an example of Di Loreto.When Brunello Cucinelli tells stories about how he began his clothing business, he is fond of relating a certain tale. When buyers phoned his office, Cucinelli pretended, using various voices, to be different employees (secretary, warehouse manager, etc.), since he knew buyers wouldn’t take him seriously if they thought he had a shoestring operation. Humorously self-deprecating about the misrepresentations of his own youth, Cucinelli seems to have low tolerance for employee errors: “One can mess up a goal, but one cannot make mistakes on an ethical level,” he said in September.

As I learned while touring his Solomeo factory, the average age of his employees is very young — just over 30. Unless they are expert seamstresses who meticulously identify and fix every flaw in a £2500 blazer or a £700 pair of sweatpants, they tend not to become lifetime employees. When they get old, Cucinelli lets them go. Though for as long as they are there, employees are treated well. Low-price, high-quality homemade lunches during mandatory 90-minute breaks. No time cards. Wages 20% higher than the going rate. The cost comes in living up to the lofty standards that Cucinelli sets. Standards not based on euros or on points in a league table, but on comportment.

Reminders are everywhere; Cucinelli is a serial aphorist. Fixed upon the stone and brick of Solomeo are tile plaques with the quotes of Great Men: “Beauty will save us” (Dostoevsky); “The first and last thing asked of genius is love of truth” (Goethe). One example, attributed to the emperor Hadrian — “I feel responsible for the beauty of the world” — encapsulates Cucinelli’s enigma. It highlights his fascination with aesthetics, his deeply felt burden of duty (Roman pietas), and his occasional elision of fiction and reality (the phrase was written by Marguerite Yourcenar).

After Fusi takes the helm as the new manager, Castel Rigone pick up momentum. Confidence and victories accumulate. On January 5, after five victories in a row, they sit fifth in the table. Cucinelli praises his manager: “There’s no need to shout or be rude. Only ill-mannered and insecure people shout. With his quiet but decisive ways, he [Fusi] knows how to convey calmness and determination to the team.” That team would need only 17 points from their last 17 matches to secure survival in a newly restructured Serie C.

They would only earn five.

The last seven games, all losses, doom the squad. They endure injuries, suspensions, fatigue, the frequent surrender of early goals, and baffling formations (Fusi experiments for some time with a 4-2-4, which leads to being utterly overrun in midfield). Even the heavens conspire — a thunderous vernal rainstorm reduces the lovingly manicured grass at San Bartolomeo to a seething mass of mud as Castel Rigone mount a critical comeback. Still Cucinelli, the great optimist, continues his philanthropy, such as a “Clean Sport” summit and friendly match (the first “Derby of Friendship and Obeying the Rules,” featuring that epitome of hard play, Gennaro Gattuso) to imagine “a healthy sport directed toward the future.” He invites local youth clubs and families to watch matches for free; he auctions game shirts to raise money for a hospital in Malawi; and he hosts the second annual ‘Peace Tournament’ between U-18 international youth teams (unfortunately marred by a scuffle between Romania and Turkey in the final). After the season, Lega Pro bestows its ‘Gentleman’ award on Cucinelli.

In his comments after the final match, Cucinelli is generous, and evokes the same touchstones that he celebrated that heady spring afternoon in 2013, agonistic ideals perhaps best suited to Corinthian amateurism: best effort, fair play, and genuine respect:

“Football is a game — a serious one — but ever just a game. That which counts is behaviour. Someone tells us that too much respect and too much politeness do not lead to victory. That is absolutely not true. We have won six championships behaving the same way and in that same way we have been relegated. I have always thought that when one gives respect to a human being — in this case a player — he’ll give back responsibility and creativity.”

It’s easy to be cynical about experiments to change the culture of calcio; others have fizzled out. Cesare Prandelli instituted an “ethical code” for the azzurri, but then stretched it to accommodate Giorgio Chiellini into his World Cup squad. Italy crashed out regardless and Prandelli stepped aside.

In the end, so has Cucinelli. On 1 July, 2014, he announced that Castel Rigone Calcio would not suffer the reality of relegation; they would not play in Serie D the following season; its salvation would come in not playing at all. Even the entire youth program, which had developed to the point of having three squads in national-level competitions, was dissolved. All players were released.

In its place, at both Solomeo and Castel Rigone, will be a new international and multiethnic school of calcio for boys and volleyball for girls, aged 6-12. As a developmental — not competitive — project, it has barely registered with the national press. Cucinelli must have been mulling this plan as the season spun down; he wasn’t upset or anxious about results and relegation; he had already moved on. The experiment had grown old; it was time for something new, something young, something of spring.

Which raises a question. Given that Cucinelli seems to fashion himself as something of a saviour (of work, community, beauty, even human character itself), has he decided that the professional game is beyond redemption? Has he retreated to invest in a children’s age when concepts such as “beauty, respect, dignity, humanity, tolerance” might still find fertile ground? Cucinelli calls his project an “oratorio laico contemporaneo” — a modern, secular ‘youth centre’.

Football took form in Victorian England as part of a “muscular Christianity” that would prepare vigorous young men for the project of Empire. Deep in the green hills of Italy, unreliable mercenaries have been shifted out and unsullied acolytes are being welcomed in. A new monasticism of moral-physical education is being founded. Cucinelli says the mission will welcome children from strife-torn areas around the world, providing them a small stadium (naturally, without barriers), gymnasium, gardens, and a park. And, of course, spotless changing rooms.

This article appeared on Episode One Hundred and Seventeen of the Blizzard Podcast. You can see which other articles we have featured by searching the Podcast tag, but we'd really like you to subscribe which you can do through iTunes, SoundcloudSpotify, our RSS feed or wherever you usually get your podcasts of choice.