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America's Lone Medal Winner in Soccer

Olympics fever is everywhere these days. Names like Ryan Lochte and Missy Franklin are the stuff of water cooler talk and elevator conversation. Sports like table tennis and fencing are televised along with more traditional ones like basketball and boxing. I found that amid all these history-making events, there was the chance to try and uncover the life of another American-born Olympian who won a gold medal in soccer some 76 years ago. 

My quest to find out who was Alfonso Negro began with a series of small soccer cards that were released after the 1936 Berlin Olympics. I happen to own one of those cards. On it, there is a black-and-white photograph of Norway goalkeeper Henry Johansen sprawled out on the ground attempting to make a save. In the background is Negro running off in celebration after scoring. This is only one of a few photographs out there of Negro.  

Who was Negro? Details of his life as a child in Brooklyn have been lost to history. Records of his parents coming to America could not be found, no trace of any relatives and no one with first-hand knowledge of Negro’s life appears to be alive. What is known about Negro, however, is that he became an Olympian, competing for Italy at those Summer Games in Berlin, and that he helped his adopted country win gold. 

My curiosity got the better of me. After coming across the card on eBay a few years back, I decided to do some research. A quick Google search gave me a Wikipedia entry that stated Negro was born in Brooklyn, making him the first American-born athlete to play in Italy’s Serie A. Negro, a striker, also played for Italy, the country of his parents' birth, and in doing so became the only American male to ever win an Olympic gold medal in soccer. 

When Alexi Lalas joined Italian club Padova at the start of the 1994-95 season, he was widely regarded as the first American to play in Serie A. He wasn’t. Negro accomplished that feat 60 years earlier in 1934. The son of Italian immigrants, Negro was born in 1915 and moved back to Italy as a child. Italian league records show that Negro had stints in Italy’s top flight with Fiorentina and Napoli. Negro remained with the Florence-based club until the end of the 1938 season, appearing in 51 games and scoring five goals. At the start of the 1938-39 season he moved to Napoli, where he played in 22 games and tallied three goals until he left the team in 1941. Negro died in Florence in 1984 at age 69.  

Aside from those scant facts and figures, Negro is a mysterious figure to most American soccer fans. All that remains today are a few sepia-toned photographs from that era and little else. 

What is known is that Negro enrolled as a student at Florence University in 1936, which allowed him to play for Italy’s Olympic soccer team at the Berlin Games. Since the Olympic soccer tournament was only open to amateurs (regardless of whether a player had previously been a pro), Italy coach Vittorio Pozzo (who had managed the Italians to win the 1934 World Cup) was forced to choose non-professionals for the 16-nation tournament.

The 1932 Summer Games in Los Angeles had excluded soccer as an event after FIFA and the International Olympic Committee failed to come to terms as to which players could compete. Although Negro had played professionally (like his other Italy teammates), he was given an exemption because he was a student. Pozzo named Negro to the 14-man roster, which was put together just two months before the tournament.    

Negro and his Italy teammates trained for a month together ahead of the tournament before traveling north to Germany. The Italians had edged the USA 1-0 in the first round, the start of a 4-0 run that led to the podium. For Negro, it would be his biggest achievement ever on a soccer field.  

“He was one of the few Americans who found a career in our league,” said Marco Sappino, an Italian soccer historian. “His parents must have made some decent money because he could afford to go to college. As a student, he was allowed to participate at the Olympics. He was able to win a gold medal even though he had played in just one game.” 

Negro did play in just one game in what would be his lone appearance for the Azzurri. He got that chance when Pozzo started him on the left wing after Giulio Cappello suffered an injury in Italy's 8-0 rout of Japan in the quarterfinals. Against Norway on Aug. 10, Negro wasted little time showing his value. He opened the scoring after 15 minutes – the goal shown on my card – and Italy won 2-1 in overtime after a goal by the bespectled Annibale Frossi. The Udinese striker would score two goals in the gold-medal match to defeat Austria 2-1 in overtime in front of 85,000 fans at Berlin's Olympic Stadium.  

Those Summer Games were played amid a tense political backdrop. Adolf Hitler and his propaganda machine were in full swing, hell bent on showcasing the perceived superiority of the Aryan race. The Nazi Party saw the Olympics as a golden opportunity to promote their ideology. It did not go according to plan. The hero of those Olympics was sprinter Jesse Owens, an African-American, who won four gold medals.      

As for Negro, he would go on to graduate in 1940 with a medical degree, specializing in obstetrics. In 1941, with the start of World War II, Negro enrolled in the Italian army and was sent to Greece. He worked as a medic, but his passion for the game never left him. He organized soccer games for Italian soldiers and even put together a match that featured the Italian army against German servicemen stationed in Athens. Records show that after the war, Negro continued to play. He signed with amateur side Ercolano, a small team near Naples. The team even allowed him to practice as a doctor on weekdays and play in games on Sundays.  

Negro played for the team until 1952, then moved to Florence, the city where he had started his playing career, in 1958. He lived there until his death. Although Negro is long forgotten by the sports world, his memory will live on forever in the form of an obscure German trading card that I now keep in an old shoebox in the back of my closet.   

Clemente Lisi writes a monthly soccer column for RealClearSports, appearing the first Monday of each month. 

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