By signing a three year deal with Reading yesterday, Vito Mannone became the first Italian to play for the club in the modern era. Of course, fellow goalkeepers Sal Bibbo and Adam Federici have Italian heritage, but Sal was born in Basingstoke whilst Feds has 16 caps for the Australian national team.
I had originally thought that Mannone had claimed the honour of being Reading’s first EVER Italian signing, but a trawl through the history books proved that this was not the case. In fact, the Royals first brought in an Italian way back in 1913, following their historic 10 day tour of the boot.
Highlights of said tour included beating AC Milan 5-0 and Pro Vercelli 6-0 (the best side in the country at the time and reigning league champions) and the newspaper Corriere della Sera writing “Without doubt, Reading FC are the finest foreign team seen in Italy”. The first game of the tour was a 4-2 win over Genoa, with a forward by the name of Attilio Fresia netting both goals for the Italian side. Fresia clearly made quite an impression, as by June of that year Reading were trying to bring him to Elm Park.
An unprecedented transfer
Yet at that time, a footballer transferring between two different countries was incredibly rare. It left the Italian Football Federation a little stuck as to what to do, and they spent a couple of months deciding whether to sanction the deal or not. It was eventually able to go through, but largely thanks to William Garbutt, the Genoa manager at the time and very much a 1913 Brian Tevreden.
Garbutt is largely unknown in England, the country of his birth, but was seen as a pioneer in Italian football in the early 20th century - conducting the country's first ever paid player transfers and restructuring the training regimes to put a heavy emphasis on players physical fitness and tactics. He was even labelled “the most important man in the history of Italian football” by Vittorio Pozzo, who managed Italy’s World Cup winning sides of 1934 and 1938.
Garbutt also played for Reading between 1903 and 1906, so was able to convince the Italian Football Federation that the club would be a good fit for Fresia. Finally, on 27th November 1913, the forward signed for the Biscuitmen and in doing so not only became the first ever Italian to play for the club, but also the first ever Italian to play in England altogether.
The man himself. Cracking moustache, Attilio. pic.twitter.com/nxdDZZL9qv— Olly Allen (@OllyAllen1998) July 19, 2017
Fresia, 22 years old at the time, came to Berkshire with a pretty good reputation. He had earned one cap for the Italian national team against Belgium earlier that year and had been called “one of the most skilful players in Italian football” by Vittorio Pozzo (yes, him and his compliments again). However, he unfortunately did not adapt to life in England well. The language barrier did not prove to be an issue, as he learnt English quickly and also spoke some French, which a couple of club officials also knew. Rather it was his actual ability that was the problem as he struggled with different conditions and different rules. In early 1914, a local newspaper wrote “Fresia is only useful on hard surfaces, and almost useless on soft ones”.
So no sooner had his historic adventure begun, Fresia returned to Italy to sign for Modena in 1914. His career would be interrupted by the war, but Fresia would go on to play for Livorno before managing both Palmeiras in Brazil and Modena. But in 1923 at the age of 32, he sadly died following a long respiratory illness.
Fresia’s time in England with Reading was brief, but it made history regardless as by becoming the first Italian to play in this country, he started the trend that the likes of Gianfranco Zola, Paulo Di Canio and Roberto Di Matteo would follow over 80 years later.
Of course I am no club historian, and this article wouldn’t have been possible without the wonderful word of Wikipedia and these two web pages: