Carlo Ancelotti: the secret ringer who patched up Pasolini and Bertolucci

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Like any Sunday match worthy of the name, played in the park before a crowd that barely reached double figures including the dogs, on that March morning a couple of ringers had been drafted in last minute. But this was different: a special match and some ringer. Although no one knew who he was then and didn’t find out for 46 years, the kid called up that day, standing arms crossed at the edge of a forgotten photograph, now stands 90 rather more followed minutes from joining Paco Gento as the most successful man in European Cup history.

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It was Parma, the spring of 1975, and two films were being shot just a few miles apart: Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò, or the 120 days of Sodom, and Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1900 (Novecento in Italian), starring Robert De Niro and Gérard Depardieu. Bertolucci had been Pasolini’s protege but he took exception to his mentor’s criticism of Last Tango in Paris and their relationship had soured. Which was when the actor Laura Betti suggested that, as they were using the same production company and filming so near, they could organise a match to bring them together: Novecento v Salò.

They met at the Cittadella, cars parked around the pitch; 16 March, kick off 9.30am. Salò played in the blue and red stripes of Pasolini’s beloved Bologna, whose players had been among the protagonists of his documentary Love Meetings. Designed by the film’s wardrobe manager, Novecento played in bright purple shirts with the name of the film splashed across their chest in yellow letters. They wore multicoloured rainbow socks. Some Super 8 footage was shot by Bertolucci’s producer wife, Clare Peploe, but never released and not seen for years. There was a cake and even a silver trophy for the winner. Carlo Ancelotti won it, which he tends to do.

Pasolini was a fanatic who said the greatest poet of all is the season’s top scorer and called football “the last sacred ritual of our time”. Bertolucci didn’t like the game much and didn’t play, making himself coach instead, but happily said yes and was determined to win. Because he knew Pasolini played properly and because he was struggling to get 11 men for his own team – De Niro and Depardieu didn’t play, nor did Burt Lancaster or Donald Sutherland – he asked a friend to help. From Parma, he knew who to ask.

On Saturday afternoon, two 15-year-olds from Parma’s youth team who had just finished playing were invited by the father of the club’s former president, and told he would pick them up the next morning. Presented as toolmakers newly recruited to work on set, they were suspiciously good. Even before the game, the story smelled a bit but Pasolini just wanted to play and his team actually went 2-0 up. Bertolucci’s side, though, came back to win 5-2. Ancelotti scored, which he would. Pasolini was not pleased, or so it goes. But it had worked: football had brought them together again.

That November, Pasolini was brutally murdered in Ostia, near Rome, his beaten, crushed and burned body found on a football pitch. It is a case still not satisfactorily solved: openly gay, there had been theories that it was a hate crime, politically motivated or carried out by the mafia. These were the Years of Lead, or Anni di piombo. The convicted killer retracted his confession after 29 years and new evidence uncovered suggested that rolls of film from Salò had been stolen and that he had been the victim of extortion.

This year is the 100th anniversary of Pasolini’s birth, his legacy and love for football still felt. The Italian Institute of Culture has invited Philosophy Football FC, a London club who have played in shirts bearing his quote “after literature and sex, football is one of the great pleasures”, to launch a book about their story four days after the Champions League final. Held in honour of the director, they will show scenes from a 2019 documentary about the Pasolini-Bertolucci match for the first time in the UK. Briefly mentioned in the press at the time, that game in 1975 has became iconic, a shifting story that was the stuff of legend: a symbol of how what most moved him was football, the poignancy deeper for being Pasolini’s last game and an act of reconciliation. And when it comes to legacy, what could be greater than the lad who played in it?

Except that Ancelotti wasn’t part of that legend and Pasolini never knew. Nor did anyone else really, the connection not definitively made even as late 2019. Some of the witnesses in that documentary, Centoventi contro Novecento, suggested that the teenager might be Ancelotti, and it certainly looked like him, but he only occasionally came into shot, a subplot they could not confirm. He had never said anything, which says something about him. It wasn’t until Gazzetta dello Sport took the photo to him in March last year that he conceded: “Yes, that boy is me.”.

The picture of the two teams had been taken by Deborah Beer, the photographer on the set of Salò. Ancelotti had never seen it before, wanted to know where they had got it from and asked for a copy. He stands at the end, a centre-forward then and, in his own words, a tiny bit tubby. He remembered it all clearly, a game without tactics and with total freedom, a joy. The only thing he didn’t remember well, or said he didn’t, was the goal which he wasn’t planning to mention. He did remember celebrating it, though that was a little awkward: he was, after all, an outsider invited to play a game among mates. “We won and Bertolucci thanked us because our contribution had been decisive,” he said.

Bernardo Bertolucci (right) and Robert De Niro
Bernardo Bertolucci (right) and Robert De Niro on the set of Novecento. Photograph: United Archives GmbH/Alamy

Pasolini was limping, he recalled, victim of a foul and not happy losing. One of the things that made Centoventi contro Novecento so meaningful, though, was that footage showed the reconciliation, the two directors smiling together with the cup when it was all over, arms around each other’s shoulders.

That it had taken more than years to demonstrate that was quite something, but it was a “ghost game”, Ancelotti said, no one there: “These days, with two such famous directors, it would have been live on television, people round the pitch. None of that. We lifted the cup, took a few photos and went to shower by the youth hostel. It was freezing cold.”

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Ancelotti said that on the Saturday when he asked who he was turning out for the next day and was told the match was Bertolucci v Pasolini, it didn’t mean much to him. But it didn’t matter, either: it was a game and he was never going to turn down a game. “Football was my life,” he said. “I dreamed of playing, all the things a kid does – and it came true. Forty-six years ago, I was on that pitch at the Cittadella and from there I went round the world, running after a ball.”

He’s still running. That was Parma, this Paris. He is already a title winner in the continent’s five biggest leagues, a unique record for a coach. Saturday will be Ancelotti’s seventh European Cup final, his fifth as a manager. Three of them will have been against their Champions League final opponents Liverpool.

Win and he will have six European Cups, two as a player, four as a manager. No one in history has more. Turns out that 15-year-old quietly standing to one side, the ringer not wanting to draw attention to himself, really was suspiciously good – and not just when it was Pier Paolo Pasolini he was playing.

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