Exodus: Eddie Firmani and the Lure of the Lire

Back from left: Vicini, Arrigoni, Ocwirk, Firmani, Martini and Bardelli. Front from left: Agnoletto, Farina, Agostinelli, Tortul and Bernasconi.

The year is 1956. It is a bright summer’s afternoon in the Italian port city of Genoa and a man is driving his brand new sports car along an immaculate palm-lined avenue. A quick glance to his right reveals a marina packed with expensive-looking speed boats moored alongside rickety, sun-bleached fishing vessels, somehow preserved by decades of exposure to salt. Beyond the marina, the sunlight shimmers soothingly on the Ligurian Sea. The driver of the car takes a deep breath of seaside air through his open car window and dons a satisfied smile. Life is good.

The sight of the fishing boats always reminds him of his grandfather Pietro who once worked as a fisherman in Ortona-Mare down on the Adriatic coast. He takes a moment to reflect that if it wasn’t for his grandad he wouldn’t be where he is today.

The man parks his car outside of the entrance to a block where his plush six-bedroomed, marble-floored apartment is located. As he steps out the car, he draws glances from a few passers-by – after all, he is impeccably dressed: black shoes made from the finest leather; olive chinos with perfect single pleats; crisp-white, sea-island cotton shirt; grey silk tie; dark cashmere sweater; and a hand-cut, double-pocket blazer – with just the top button fastened – to complete the look.

He looks smart and he looks important, but then again, many men do in this neighbourhood, so the attention is short-lived. Before entering his apartment block, he stops to buy three ice-creams; one for him, one for his wife and one for his young son, who is only just big enough to hold the cone. The vendor greats the man like an old friend, kissing and hugging him warmly before preparing the sweets.

Despite looking like a well-to-do Italian gentleman, the man was in fact born in South Africa and he has just returned from a trip to his local bank where he had deposited a cheque for 250,000 lire (about £140). The cheque was a statutory bonus payment from the Italian football club U.C. Sampdoria, made to all players after the team finished sixth in the league. The man’s name is Eddie Firmani and he is one of the most prolific strikers in European football.

Five years earlier, in 1950, 17-year-old Firmani had stepped off a boat in Southampton to begin his professional football career in England with Charlton Athletic. By the age of 22 – and after scoring more than 50 goals for the first team – he was regarded as one of the brightest prospects in the game. His exotic-sounding surname meant little to those on the terraces, but it certainly caught the attention of onlookers in Italy.

After importing many foreign players during the period after the war including Brits Johnny Jordan and Bert Flatley, and Irishman Paddy Sloan, Italian teams were eventually restricted from this activity by new government rules. The new regulations meant that, for a period, only foreign players with traceable Italian origins could be signed from abroad. Once it was discovered that Firmani had an Italian grandfather, the race for his signature began.

The first team to scout the South African were Torino, whose representatives watched the player in several games including an Inter-Cities Fairs Cup appearance for a London XI against Basle, in which he scored twice in a 5-0 win. Negotiations began soon after but were cut short when Giuseppe Ravano, the son of Sampdoria’s President, arrived with a more persuasive deal. In July 1955, Eddie Firmani arrived at Claridges Hotel in London and signed a two-year contract with the team from Genoa.

Firmani had become disillusioned with what he described as the “slavedom” of English football. Players were tied to fixed contracts and bound by prohibitive regulations and wage restrictions. In the meantime, Italian players were treated like royalty and paid huge sums of money,

The basic wage for a player in Italy was about the same as in England, at around £15 per week, but rather than a £2 win bonus, an Italian player could expect to earn up to £36 for an away win or £25 for a home victory. Even a draw on home soil attracted a £12 bonus and all players received an end of season pay-out that varied according to their league position.

However, the biggest temptation of all, was the signing-on fee. In England, players did not receive a single penny of any transfer fee agreed between the clubs, and their contracts had no expiry date, meaning they could not leave until the club chose to sell them.

In contrast, Sampdoria handed Firmani a £5,000 bonus when they finally agreed a deal to buy him from Charlton for £35,000 (a British record). He was given a two-year contract after which he would be free to leave and agree his own terms with another club. Alternatively, he could agree a new deal with Sampdoria should they wish to retain his services.

Firmani had been inspired by former Charlton teammate and Swedish international Hans Jepson, who had left for Italy four years earlier. By the time Firmani and his family arrived in Genoa, the Swede had already accumulated more than £25,000 in signing on fees and become the world’s most expensive player after signing for Napoli for over 100m Lire (£60,000).

Tales of first-class travel, five-star hotels and endless fine-dining were often dismissed as fantasy by cynics in the UK who refused to believe that football players could be treated like royalty or Hollywood film stars. But, the 22-year-old and his wife Pat soon discovered that all the stories were true and in no time, they were embracing this new no-expense-spared lifestyle.

In Italy, everything was aimed at making the players comfortable so they could concentrate on training and playing. If they needed anything, they just had to ask: new car, bigger apartment, restaurant reservation – it was all just a phone call away.

Training began at 10:00am when the players gathered at the plush city-centre training facilities on Via Vente Settembre. After training, the players could relax in expensive armchairs and watch TV or play billiards while being served food or coffee by their own personal waiters. To access the upper-floor lounges or to go down to the changing rooms, the players simply pressed a button and waited for one of the ultra-modern lifts. This was a million miles away from the dingy conditions that most English players had to endure.

After settling in to their new way of life, the family’s future in Italy was put in jeopardy when Eddie’s Italian roots were called into question. The fishing village where his grandfather grew up had suffered from heavy attack during the war and many papers had been destroyed, including his grandad’s birth records. An uncomfortable period of investigation began before his relative’s Italian nationality could finally be confirmed. Firmani was asked to swear his commitment to the city of Genoa after which, he and his family were allowed to stay.

The striker took a while to adjust to the Italian game, and in particular the “gymnastic” training methods which at first he felt were more suited to “ballet”. However, he soon learned to adjust to the tempo of the game and became a prolific striker for Sampdoria. His performances even led to a call-up for the Italian national team in1956.

After eight years in Italy, in which he scored 125 goals in 207 appearances for three different teams (Sampdoria, Inter and Genoa), Firmani eventually returned to Charlton Athletic in 1963. The abolition of the maximum wage for British players in 1961, led by PFA Chairman Jimmy Hill, had finally put a halt to the foreign exodus of British players. In 1969, Gerry Hitchens was the last exile to return from Italy when he left Cagliari to join Worcester City.

For Firmani, it was just the beginning of his foreign adventures. After moving into management in 1967, he went on to coach 12 teams in six different countries including Iraq, Oman, Kuwait and the USA where he coached the likes of Pele, Franz Beckenbauer, Giorgio Chinaglia and Carlos Alberto at the New York Cosmos. He eventually retired from management in 1996 and remained in the USA.

Words by Neil Morris: @nmorris01