James Richardson Spensley: the father of Italian football
James Richardson Spensley – a name not known to many – is a legendary footballer who along with William Garbutt was the sole reason for football in Italy.
Spensley worked with Genoa to spread football throughout Italy.
So what is the link between Genoa, Italian football and James Richardson Spensley?
It is a remarkable story of a man born in England and a doctor by profession, who then turned out to be a footballer and a manager for an Italian side. Spensley traveled to Italy for his duties as a doctor to treat English sailors from coal ships.
He joined Genoa’s cricket and athletics club after staying in Italy for three months and personally opened the club’s footballing section in April 1897. A career which extended for a decade, Spensley only made 22 appearances and did not get into the scoring sheet.
So what has made this doctor from England to be called the father of Italian football?
Spensley organised the first ever football match between Genoa and F.B.C. Torinese (a club who is extinct now). Spensley was also the manager of the club and played as a defender.
About 154 fans attended the game that evening, which is still remembered among the Genoa fans. There is also a street in the Marassi area of Genoa near the Stadio Luigi Ferraris that is named after him, while there is a plaque on the wall of the house where he lived.
That plaque reads: “Here lived the English doctor James R Spensley, sportsman – great friend of Italy – a football pioneer with the Genoa Cricket and Football Club, founder of Genoese scouting.”
After the first season he switched from a defender to a goal keeper and played until 1906 before finally retiring at the age of 40. Spensley’s love for the game made him manage the club for one more year and he also became a referee and proved to be a key figure in the introduction of early football associations.
Though the clubs from Turnin and Milan are known as the Italian powerhouses of the modern era, it was Genoa which dominated the Italian football during its embryonic stages. The structure of the competition in those days was similar to those of the Champions League, where clubs from the local region would form groups and compete against each other and the winning team would advance to the knock out stages.
Genoa established an early spell of dominance, winning six out of the seven Italian Football Championships, and none of it would’ve been possible without James Richardson Spensley.
Not only did he pave the way for Genoa’s progression as a footballing club, Spensley made sure that football as a game was developed among Italian youngsters by forcing them to join the club’s academy.
Italian football does not forget its heroes. There is nothing quite like the atmosphere in an Italian bar just before the start of a football game.
With all the bragging, banter and bickering, especially when it is derby day against Sampdoria, the fans just have one man to thank: an English doctor who died over a century ago – James Richardson Spensley.
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