While Paolo Sollier spent the best part of two decades playing the beautiful game in Italy, there is one defining image of his career. Other footballers might find themselves most associated with a particular goal or celebration, but Sollier is most easily recognised by a photograph taken just before kick off. Wearing a shirt as red as his politics, brow furrowed and face furnished with a rough brown beard, Sollier is raising his left fist in the photo and clenching it in a traditional communist salute. This was a weekly ritual for Sollier, and it made him as popular among his compatriots on the radical left as it did despised by their right-wing adversaries. In the feverish political climate of Italy in the sixties and seventies, making such a statement was not inconsequential, and as such Sollier marked himself out as a footballing radical and a man unafraid.
Though Sollier identified with the left-wing movement as a player, he is perhaps best understood as a non-conformist and contrarian. Even when it comes to the photograph which helped to make him a counterculture icon in his home country, he has his qualms. Speaking in a 2013 interview with Italian journalist Andrea Scanzi, he said of the picture: "I never liked it... and not because of my closed fist, but because of my grumpy face. I am not a grumpy guy, I like to laugh." While this may only have been a semi-serious assessment, it is nonetheless telling that even when it comes to that bold and defiant image, Sollier views himself with a critical eye.
For many, the sight of an unrepentant communist on the football pitch was doubtlessly distasteful, and it should be said that Sollier's politics were not of the moderate kind. Having started out in his early years as a volunteer with Mani Tese, an Italian non-profit organisation working towards equality, social justice and sustainable development, Sollier soon joined the Avanguardia Operaia (or 'Workers' Vanguard') of which he was a member at the height of his career. Made up of workers, trade unionists, students and intellectuals, the Vanguard had a broadly Leninist alignment and was involved in militant protests, as well as sporadic outbursts of extreme violence between its members and their bitter enemies on the right. He was later involved with successor party Democrazia Proletaria ('Proletarian Democracy'), an inclusive communist alliance with an environmentalist, anti-authoritarian and pacifist stance.
Though Sollier's political position was obvious enough to fans from the get go, it came to the attention of the general public with his rise up the leagues to Serie A and the publication of his autobiography, Calci e Sputi e Colpi Di Testa ('Kicking and Spitting and Head Shots') in 1976. On a basic level, the book documented his rise to prominence with Perugia, though it was obviously about far more than just football. Not only did Sollier discuss his affiliation with Avanguardia Operaia and his subscription to their newspaper, the aptly named Daily Worker, he also wrote about Italian society, the ethics of the dressing room and the political implications of the game. Naturally, his criticisms – often searing – made him anything but universally popular, and by all accounts he remains a divisive figure in Italy to this day.
To comprehend the politics of Sollier's playing days, one has to first understand the climate in which he played his football. When he got the first big break of his senior career with a move to Serie D side Cossatese in 1969, Italy was on the brink of huge social upheaval and a polarisation of politics on both left and right. When Sollier joined Cossatese he was employed in the car industry, working in the Fiat Mirafiori factory in the south of Turin. Many of the factories and manufacturing plants of northern Italy were hotbeds of left-wing activity at the time, with the burgeoning trade union movement allied to well supported socialist and communist groups.
While Italy had experienced Il Miracolo Economico in the immediate post-war period, with an industrial and consumer boom raising living standards for many, the country was nonetheless plagued by enormous inequality and the usual social problems which come with rapid industrialisation and urbanisation. When Il Miracolo Economico turned to the Anni di Piombo ('Years of Lead'), a period marked by widespread social unrest and an economic slowdown, cracks in the political status quo widened into a gaping maw. The vicious division between Italy's left and right had its roots in the Second World War, with the communist elements of the Italian resistance movement underpinning the Italian left and the remnants of the Mussolini regime buttressing the Italian right. There was little by way of common ground, mutual magnanimity and conciliation, and so Italians often found themselves having to keep their heads down or pick a side.
Not long after Sollier joined Cossatese, the Autunno Caldo (or 'Hot Autumn') began. This was a series of massive strikes in the industrial heartlands of the north, with workers vehemently calling for better pay and conditions. While this must have made for a febrile environment in which to play football, it was overshadowed by the events of the next decade. Most often perpetrated by the hardline Red Brigades on the left and various neo-fascist terrorist cells on the right, bombings, assassinations and kidnappings became commonplace in seventies Italy, with the Anni di Piombo claiming hundreds of lives.
In that sense, while Sollier may have found himself on what we would now consider to be the far left, his political stance was not as extreme as some of his contemporaries. In Calci e Sputi e Colpi Di Testa, he concedes that the Red Brigades were not a group he could get behind, and he has since harked back to the 1968 movement – a student campaign inspired by socialism, feminism and anti-establishment counterculture which preceded the Autunno Caldo – as a more significant form of left-wing struggle. Speaking about the movement in an interview with Stefano Boldrini, he said: "[To some] it's as if the 1968 movement generated only those thousand idiots who took up arms and fired, and everything else can be forgotten. But 1968 has contributed to the social and civil progress of Italy. I think feminism, ecology, movements for civil rights: everything was born then. The main failure, if 'failure' is the right word for it, was the illusion that we could change the world. The world has not changed, but the 1968 movement made it a better place."
The fact that Sollier refers to those who took up arms in the aftermath of the 1968 movement as "those thousand idiots" suggests he was – while perhaps militant – not sympathetic to left-wing terrorism. That said, his views were still fairly uncompromising, and he made little effort to hide them from the crowds. Having raised his left fist through his career in the lower leagues, first with Cossatese and then with Pro Vercelli (where he moved in 1973) in Serie C, Sollier was faced with something of a dilemma when he was surprisingly snapped up by Perugia. Now playing professional football for a club in Serie B, a gesture which was intended to be appreciated by a handful of comrades suddenly had the potential to be rather more inflammatory. Speaking to Andrea Scanzi about his thought process at the time, Sollier said: "The fist was natural. I did it in the lower leagues, in my early career, turning to my companions in the stands. When I arrived in Perugia I thought: 'Do I do it again, or do I stop?'"
In the end, Sollier continued, and so his reputation began to snowball. Though he was by his own admission a fairly average footballer, he was also a hard working and tenacious midfielder who served Perugia remarkably well. In his first season with the club, they gained promotion to the top tier, Sollier chipping in with a smattering of goals along the way. He then helped them preserve their Serie A status the following season, after which he was unwillingly sold to Rimini where he continued his career in the second tier.
In a time when public figures were regularly being murdered for their political views, Sollier's decision to persevere with his pre-match communist salute was undeniably a brave one. Things did threaten to boil over ahead of one particular match against Lazio, when Sollier mischievously said that he was looking forward to "beating Mussolini's team." Unsurprisingly, this did not go down well among Lazio fans, some of whom brought a banner to the match which read 'Sollier to the Hangman'. Though seemingly unrepentant in his distaste for Lazio and their supporters, Sollier did admit in his interview with Scanzi: "I was sorry about that. It was my fault, and some Perugia fans took a beating."
Sollier also upset the footballing establishment with some of his comments in Calci e Sputi e Colpi Di Testa, in which he suggested that his fellow players were largely vacuous, politically unengaged and only interested in preserving their own privileged position. The book is in many ways a denunciation of conformity and apathy, and includes a disparaging assessment on the outlook of contemporary ultras, who Sollier saw as wasting their energies on matchday while remaining politically disengaged. Elements of the Italian press were scathing of Sollier in turn, with some mocking his more unconventional views, his insubordinate attitude and his unkempt appearance. Much like the 1968 movement itself, there was considerable debate among the public as to whether Sollier had political substance, or whether he had adopted a convincing pose which was really little more than a rebellious aesthetic rooted in a mop of long hair.
In fairness to Sollier, little he has said or done in the interim suggests that his left-wing views were anything but sincerely held. Speaking about the censure he received at the time in a 2015 interview with Fabrizio Salvio in SportWeek, he said: "the main criticism that I got was in relation to [how I could reconcile my left-wing politics with] my salary, but mine was the salary of a good employee. If I felt I was privileged it was for another reason, because I was doing the job of my dreams as a footballer. That is something fortunate that happens to only a few."
It should be remembered that, despite his seventies leftist aesthetic, Sollier was a worker before he was a footballer. While there were no doubt some among the 1968 movement who were intellectual poseurs as opposed to genuine political thinkers, Sollier had shared the experiences of the northern working classes who made up the core support of the Italian left. It is telling that the subtitle to Calci e Sputi e Colpi Di Testa is "riflessioni autobiografiche di un calciatore per caso" (or "autobiographical reflections of an accidental footballer"). Whatever one thinks of Sollier's political alignment, he clearly saw himself as a proletarian first and a footballer second.
Since he retired as a player in 1985, Sollier has written for various newspapers and coached a number of lower-league sides. Calci e Sputi e Colpi Di Testa was republished in 2008, bringing his exploits – now emblematic of a fascinating and turbulent period in Italian history – to the attention of a whole new generation. His continued commitment to left-wing causes, even now that Avanguardia Operaia and Democrazia Proletaria are long gone, has seen him retain much of his countercultural cachet and perhaps even reinforced his reputation as a rebel. Though he is little known outside of Italy, that no doubt suits him. In that 2013 interview with Scanzi, he claimed that – despite his social criticisms – he has never had an interest in converting people to his position. In the end, it all comes back to that closed fist. As Sollier added when further questioned on the definitive image of his career: "It was a gesture turned inward, to myself. It was a reminder of who I was."