It began, and then it was over. For two seasons, 1971-72 and 1972-73, Ternana, under their coach Corrado Viciani, as they said at the time, walked on the moon. They moved the ball rapidly across the pitch, played an extreme passing game for 90 minutes, did everything at great pace, operated with a philosophy so well defined that it was almost obsession and played in a way that seems a precursor to the Barcelona of Pep Guardiola or the AC Milan of Arrigo Sacchi. Viciani’s gioco corto seemed so unreal, so otherworldly, that in his book, Il gioco è bello quando è corto [The Game is Beautiful when it’s Short], Gianluca Diamanti could scarcely believe it had happened at all. “Did Ternana really walk on the moon?” he asked “Or was it a mutual but unrealised dream? Did we actually play in Serie A for a single season?”

Terni, in Umbria, is famous mostly for its steel factories — certainly not for football. Viciani arrived there in 1967 and led Ternana to promotion to Serie B in his first season. He left to manage Atalanta and Taranto, but returned in the summer of 1971 to begin the miracle. In 1972, Ternana won a first-ever promotion to Serie A, an achievement made all the more satisfying by the fact that Perugia, their hated local rivals, had at that stage never played in the top flight. The most important games that season, not merely in terms of points but also self-esteem, were the fixtures against Lazio, which brought a 1-0 win and a 1-1 draw. People from the capital have commonly considered the Ternani to beburini — ‘peasants’— and gave the impression of regarding matches in Terni as holidays in the countryside.

Viciani’s training focused on physical preparation, something unusual in the Italy of the early seventies. Their players ran faster and harder than their opponents, combining their intensity with an intricate passing game. Promotion was secured with a 3-1 win over Novara on 18 June. Giorgio Mastropasqua, who would go on to play for Juventus, Atalanta, Bologna, Lazio and Catania, was 21 in 1972. “That was an incredible team, with an amazing manager,” he said.

“I was very young at time, and I played as alibero, with Fernando Benatti and Mauro Agretti as right and left-back respectively. Angelino Rosa played at the centre of the defensive line, just in front of me, but sometimes I played in front of him, because I was alibero in the ‘Dutch style’. Giancarlo Alessandrelli, my teammate also at Juventus, was in goal, but our secret was probably in midfield, where we had players like Romano Marinai, Antonio Cardillo and Bruno Beatrice who ran up and down the pitch. Salvatore Jacolino was the centre-forward and sometimes Franco Selvaggi and Nicola Traini helped him. As you see, there were no famous players, no one who left Ternana and had an important career elsewhere. So, the key was Viciani: I never had a manager like him for the rest of my career. He was more a philosopher than a coach. Sometimes he cited Camus or Pericles, but with his players he operated like a dictator.”

As one of the other players put it at the time, “It’s not true that he does not let us do what we want, but the important thing is that what we want is what he wants…”

What he wanted was a close passing game. “Kick-and-rush play is dull,” he said. “Somebody invented the sweeper and he plays in that position just to collect all the long balls.” Viciani was fundamentalist in his belief. On the night of the European Cup final between Ajax and Internazionale in 1972, he announced on television that he was supporting the Dutch. “It’s necessary for Inter to lose by three or four goals,” he said. “It will be very important for the Italian football movement. The Dutch are playing real football, but in Italy managers are interested in playing defensively, in playing horrible and unaesthetic football.” As it was, Ajax won 2-0, and Italian football declined the lesson.

Viciani, though, was obsessed with the Dutch model and, as such, he was the precursor of managers such as Nils Liedholm and Arrigo Sacchi. “The most important experiment in collective football in Italy was introduced by Corrado Viciani,” Luigi Cavallara, the author of Interismo-Leninismo, explained. “He had a lot of average players, and he forced them to play with short passes to move together on the pitch.”

“Italians need to learn the verb ‘to run’ in football,” Viciani said. “For now they only know the infinitive form… When you play you get tired both physically and psychologically. If you play ‘automatically’ you can reduce the stress. Everybody should know how to find their teammate, everything should automatically scroll. Look at what happened with the German and Dutch national teams. It seems that the players run a lot, but first of all, they are well-organised.”

Ternana made their Serie A debut on 24 September 1972 against Napoli at the San Paolo. As they had so often in Serie B, Ternana dominated the game, but this time they lost by a single goal, undone by their naivety at that level. The following Sunday, October 1, the Stadio Libero Liberati hosted its first top-flight match, against the AC Milan of Gianni Rivera, Karl-Heinz Schnellinger, Albertino Bigon and Pierino Prati. Ternana controlled the game. Cardillo, Beatrice and Marinai ran from start to finish, crossing the ball again and again into the box. Milan struggled to stem the flow, but the game ended goalless.

Until December, it seemed that Ternana would survive, but their form suddenly collapsed. Viciani’s style of play was simply too exhausting to be sustained at that level and Ternana failed to win a single game in the second half of the season. They totaled just 16 points and, naturally, were relegated.

Viciani departed for Palermo in Serie B and again imposed his gioco corto. Although they failed to win promotion the following season, they did reach the Coppa Italia final, in which they faced Bologna. The rosanero took the lead through Sergio Magistrelli, but in injury-time the referee Sergio Gonella gave the rossoblù a disputed penalty. Beppe Savoldi converted, Bologna won on penalties and the fairy tale of Corrado Viciani came to an end.

Viciani managed until 1990, making a return to Terni in 1988, but hisgioco cortonever had the same impact again. Thanks to Sacchi and his success at Milan in the late eighties, Italian football gradually accepted the usefulness of collective play and zonal marking, and so adopted a model similar to that Viciani had advocated. Forty years on, nobody in Terni has forgotten the man who walked so briefly on the moon.