*I’m going to split this into two separate posts. Udinese’s website has an exceptional (English-language) history section and I don’t want an overlong article. I’ll post the rest sometime tomorrow morning.*
Udinese Calcio were formed in 1896 as Societá Udinese di Ginnastica e Scherma’s (Udinese Society of Gymnastics and Fencing) footballing section. They are the second-oldest club in Serie A (after Genoa, who formed in 1893) and had a brush with championship success in their very first year.
Treviso sides Pg Ferrara and Istituto Turrazza welcomed Udinese to their city as part of a three-team tournament in 1896. Udinese defeated Turrazza on September 6th and Ferrara two days later to win the competition but the FIGC (Italian FA, basically) wasn’t formed until 1898, meaning that the Zebrette’s triumph remains unrecognised.
These fixtures weren’t Udinese’s first, though. A Societá team had competed against Bologna in Rome a year earlier, with King Umberto of Italy among those in attendance. This game coupled with the Societá’s Treviso triumph helped increase calcio’s importance in Udine, but it would take football a few more years to displace gymnastics and fencing as the city’s favoured sports.
Antonio Dal Dan, “the pioneer of bianonero football,” was an influential figure during this period. He captained Udinese to both victories in Treviso, and played a big role in getting the club (now named Associazione Calcio Udinese) enlisted with the FIGC in 1911. Udinese, now captained by Luigi Dal Dan (Antonio’s son), defeated Juventus Palmanova 6-0 in their first game as a FIGC-registered side.
Udinese took part in their first FIGC Championship in 1912-13, playing against two sides from Padova. The Zebrette defeated both, and this was enough to see them promoted to Italy’s top tier. They stayed there until football was suspended for the First World War in 1915, finishing ninth and fifth.
Football returned in 1919, and Udinese emerged from the conflict with a new president, Earl Alessandro of Torso. 1920 marked a future legend’s debut. Gino Bellotto, an all-rounder capable of operating anywhere on the pitch, played 17 consecutive seasons at Udinese: a record that still stands today.
Having peaked with a second-place league finish and Coppa Italia final the previous year, 1922-23 was dismal for Udinese. The Zebertte took just five points from a 22-game season and were predictably relegated to the second-tier. Returning to the Prima Divisione at the second time of asking, Udinese were promptly relegated after finishing 10th and refusing to take part in the relegation playoffs.
Back in the second tier, Udinese endured another torrid season and were relegated for a second consecutive year. In a bizarre twist, however, the FIGC decided to overturn the Bianconeri’s relegation. The federation ruled that Udinese were too big a club to play in the third tier, so they were spared demotion. Can you imagine the uproar such a move would cause today? How times change.
The league’s reconstruction in 1929 had an adverse effect on Udinese, who were put into Serie C (the third tier) despite finishing sixth the year before. The second tier had previously consisted of a series of regional divisions. These divisions were combined to form a single league (Serie B) comprised of teams relegated from the top flight (Serie A) and those who’d finished in the previous season’s promotion places. Thus Udinese wound-up in the league below.
Udinese immediately won Serie B promotion, but struggled with mounting financial problems and were relegated two seasons later. Thus began a lengthy period in the third tier that eventually ended with final stage victories over Brescia, Reggiana and Savona in 1939. The Bianconeri’s decade ended with a comfortable tenth-place Serie B finish.
The 1940s were moderately more successful. Udinese stayed in Serie B until World War II, when football was again suspended and players returned home for fear of being drafted. After a brief sojourn in Serie C, the team returned to Serie A for the 1950-51 season after two consecutive promotions.
This was a period of great change in Udine. Local entrepreneur Giuseppe Bertoli became the club’s president and used his personal funds to erase nine million lira of Udinese’s debt. It took numerous managerial changes for Bertoli to find a balance but the Zebrette were eventually promoted with ex-Azzurri ‘keeper Aldo Olivieri in-charge. Udinese finished second, one point behind champions Napoli.
Udinese were able to maintain the nucleus of their promotion team, which helped maintain stability and team spirit for the next season. They finished a credible 9th in 1950-51 (Serie A) and 11th the following season, despite a morale-sapping 7-2 home loss to Juventus.
Bertoli stepped down as president at the end of the 1951-52 season and handed the reigns to his son-in-law, Dino Bruseschi. Bruseschi brought Olivieri back to Udine but the team struggled and only avoided relegation with a 3-2 defeat of Pro Patria on the last day of the season.
Out went Olivieri, in came new coach Peppino Bigogno and a host of new players. It was another disappointing Serie A campaign, however, and Udinese finished on level points (26) with SPAL and Palermo. In those days Serie A used playoffs to separate teams who finished with the same points total, so the three teams would have to play against each other to determine who’d finish in the second relegation place.
Udinese drew both of their fixtures (0-0 vs. SPAL and 1-1 vs. Palermo), making the clash between SPAL and Palermo pivotal. SPAL, fortunately for the Bianconeri, won 2-1, condemning the Aquile to relegation and saving Udinese’s neck.
1953-54 had been deeply disappointing, but 1954-55 was a real rollercaoster. The Bianconeri finished second after a season full of twists, turns and intrigue. I’ll refrain from going into too much detail at the moment as I want to cover the season in greater detail later this week, but it was an astonishing campaign.
Udinese should’ve been jubilant after such an excellent finish but the season ended in disaster. Suspicions arose over a fixture with Pro Patria two years earlier and Udinese were relegated to Serie B following an FIGC investigation. It was a hugely controversial verdict and protestors flooded Udine immediately after. Bianconeri fans and alumni have protested the club’s innocence ever since.
To be continued.