Even by Italian standards, Trieste is a unique city. Located in the far north east of the country, it is a city that has a somewhat chequered history, especially with regards to the rest of Italy and the central power of Rome.
In a country where local pride can at times mean more than national identity, Trieste stands at the forefront. At a time when the separatist party, Lega Nord, rides high in the polls, Trieste’s individuality, owning to its Slavic and Austro-Hungarian origins, means it has its own outspoken independence movement.Perhaps then, in a city as idiosyncratic as Trieste, it should come as no surprise that its football club, Triestina, have also lived a far from normal existence.
Again, as for the city itself, its history has been long and complicated. A people known as the Carni settled there nearly three millennia ago and it would pass through numerous hands until the Romans eventually took control around 177BC.
It remained a Roman colony until the eventual fall of the Western Roman Empire. Once more, the city and its territories would pass between different hands as the centuries slowly whittled away. Then, in 1382, the city signed an agreement with Leopold III Duke of Austria to become a dominion, an arrangement that still has ramifications to this day.
This though, would not bring to an end the city’s tumultuous history, falling on three separate occasions to French troops during the Napoleonic wars, before eventually being returned to the Austrian Empire.
By 1867 and the formation of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Trieste’s influence and its new identity had risen substantially. Its deep water port was of vital strategic importance to the empire and ensured the city became a cultural crossroads, enriched by the constant toing and froing of people.
Despite this, the people of Trieste maintained their unique identity and the city its independence, being as it was, an Imperial free city. This was not to last. With the destruction of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the aftermath of World War One, Trieste was passed to the control of Italy in 1920. This lead to a loss of influence for the city as it found itself swallowed up by the rest of the peninsula.
It remained an Italian territory until the end of the Second World War and the defeat of Mussolini’s Fascist regime. By 1947, the city regained its autonomy, simply known as the Free Territory of Trieste.
This Free Territory found itself placed right on the border between a clash of two cultures, the capitalistic ‘West’ and the so called communist utopia of the ‘East’. As the Cold War soon became a reality, Europe entered an era of bitter division. Winston Churchill put it best by saying: “from Settin in the Baltic, to Trieste in the Adriatic, an Iron curtain has descended across the continent.”
Trieste would only remain autonomous until 1954 however, when after a national referendum, it was annexed by Italy. Yet, that air of independence remains strong and since the Scottish referendum in 2014, separationist sentiment has only strengthened.
According to a BBC article on the ‘Free Territory of Trieste Movement’, the organisation has seen anywhere between 2000 and 8000 people take to the streets in recent years in support of free Trieste.
Speaking in the aftermath of the Scottish referendum, Vito Potenza, a leading light in the independence movement, stated “The Scottish situation is not comparable [To Trieste]. We are not looking for Independence; we are already independent. The rest of the world just has to notice.”
It is in this long and complicated history that a little club called Unione Sportiva Triestina emerged in December 1918. Just over a month after the final guns had fallen silent after the Great War, in the Caffe Battisti on Viale Settembre XX, an agreement was reached to merge two teams Triestina and Ponziana. The arrangement got final ratification on 2 February, 1919, and from there the journey of the Alabardati began.
Like many clubs who came before. and even more who would come after, Triestina’s early existence was spent in the lower reaches of the Italian game. Nevertheless, the club eventually rose through the divisions and earnt their place at the top tier of calcio.
From 1929 to 1957, Triestina became a regular fixture in the Serie A calendar. That said, they rarely managed to truly threaten the elites of the game. That is bar the 1947/48 season, when under the guidance of the city’s most famous sporting son, Nereo Rocco, the Greghi (Greeks) finished second.
This remains the highest the club has ever finished. As for their legendary coach, Rocco, he would go on to bigger and better things, becoming synonymous with the invention of catenaccio. But it his exploits on the pitch and in the dugout that are remembered most fondly by followers of Triestina, and as tribute, his name dons the stadium where the club play.
It was around this time, however, that the club achieved another somewhat unusual claim to fame. As explained above, in the aftermath of World War II, Trieste became an independent territory. Despite this, they continued to compete in the Italian leagues.
This lead to the unique situation where Triestina became the first foreign based side to play in Serie A. Indeed, they are the only such club to lay claim to this unusual accolade. Of course, they were not the only foreign based club in the Italian leagues, with tiny San Marino still represented in Serie D.
The club’s relegation at the end of the 1957/58 season would see the end of its golden era. Its 32-year run in the top flight would be as good as it got, and Triestina are yet to return to the big time. Ever since, they have yo-yoed between Serie B and Serie C. They even fell as far as Serie C2 in the mid-1990s, before staging a comeback and becoming a regular fixture in the second tier from 2002 to 2011.
From there, though, the troubles that have bedevilled so many Italian clubs in recent years began to infect Triestina. After a horrid season in Lega Pro, the club eventually went bankrupt. A new club was promptly re-founded under the name Unione Triestina 2012, but was forced to join the lowly Eccellenza division.
On the field, affairs improved slightly, but their former prestige compared to the other clubs in the division did not equate to an easy ride. Eventually they would be beaten in a play-off against the little known Pro Dronero. Nonetheless, Triestina were cherry picked to join Serie D for the following season to make up the numbers.
In the intervening three seasons, making up the numbers has been the sum total of Triestina’s achievements, often languishing precariously above the relegation places. Last season’s survival was only obtained after a relegation play-out against Liventina.
This pre-season has seen another name change, this time to the rather clumsy title of ‘ASD Unione Sportiva Triestina Calcio 1918’. The club has fallen a long way since the 1940s and 50s, and the sight of its nearest rivals Udinese being a model of consistency only adds to the bitterness.
A return to Serie A seems as unlikely as the ‘Free Trieste Movement’ achieving their goal of independence. Still, the fans who fill the Curva Furlan of the ‘Stadio Nereo Rocco’ continue to hope that Triestina can return to Italy’s footballing forefront. And to those who wish to see Trieste break free? Well, surely even they wouldn’t begrudge seeing Triestina flying high in Serie A once more.