There are love affairs that can sustain you through the toughest, most harrowing times. Loves that last a lifetime and never leave you. And there is no better example of this than the story of Pierino Vacca, one of the oldest Bianconeri fans around, who celebrates his 100th birthday today.
Pierino fell in love with Juventus whilst held in the Zonderwater concentration camp in South Africa during the Second World War. He is one of the many Italian prisoners of war in South Africa during WW2 who managed to survive thanks to sport – and in this case, Juventus – locked up in an open-air prison “so remote that it has left only faint traces in the history books”.
Pierino Vacca was held in Zonderwater, a desolate place around 50km from Pretoria, alongside 100,000 other Italian servicemen between 1941 and 1947. All of the soldiers were still in their youth and, under the command of Colonel Henrik Fredrik Prinsloo, they made sport their reason for existence.
It was there that Pierino, who had been deported by the British after being captured in the Libyan city of Tobruk, would fall in love with Juventus.
Born in 1914 in a small village in the province of Salerno just a few months after the outbreak of the First World War, Pierino – the only male of six siblings – started working early on to help provide for the large family. “In those days, there was little time for play. You had to grow up quickly – it was a necessity,” he explains.
A shoemaker by trade, these skills would be useful during his spell in prison, where he became a firm favourite of Italians and Brits alike – always ready to change an insole here or repair a hole there.
But the shoes he took the most care with in Zonderwater, the ones he loved most, were football boots. Amongst the soldiers, there were also some wonderful footballers, such as Torino midfielder Giovanni Taglietti and Juventus left-back Araldo Caprili.
The soldiers organised football tournaments, entering teams named after Juventus, Roma, Torino, Vittoria and Savoia. Those competitions were contested with such passion that the best players became idols in the prison, as recounted by Carlo Annese in his book The Devils of Zonderwater (preface by Gian Antonio Stella).
Pierino explains that the players spoke to him about an Italian football team called Juventus (or “Juventute”, as he pronounces it). To this day, if somebody says “Forza Juve” to him, Pierino shoots back with a quick-fire “sempre fino alla fine”.
Finally released after seven years in prison, Pierino was able to see his family again and rebuild himself a life alongside future wife Velia. After moving to Laviano, Pierino worked in the town mill and quietly went about his business, enjoying a nice drop of local wine with all his meals.
The 1980 Irpinia earthquake caused damage to the mill, but Pierino is not the type to sit around doing nothing. He rolled up his sleeves and helped his neighbours rebuild the place, earning himself a labourer’s job in a local construction firm, where he worked until retirement.
Every Sunday, Pierino makes sure he doesn’t miss a minute’s football. He keeps his ear glued to the radio to celebrate the victories of his beloved Juventus.
Over the years, his support for the Bianconeri has been one of the great constants in Pierino’s life and, as his nearest and dearest confirm, he continues to maintain that Juventus is “what keeps me alive”.
On the day of your 100th birthday, this is our tribute to you, Pierino. Happy birthday from the club and from the entire Bianconeri family, and forza Juve “sempre fino alla fine”.