by Lars Aabjerg Pedersen
As I was dealing with a near-death experience recently (the doc later, somewhat laconically, described it as a case of tonsillitis, but what does he know about disease?), oddly enough, my life didn’t flash before my eyes as you’d expect it to.
Maybe my life up until now has simply been too dull to be worth a re-run? Maybe I wasn’t really dying – who knows? The fact of the matter is that the feature film in the Last Chance to See (Anything) Cinema had nothing to do with myself but a whole lot to do with a country in an epoch so foreign to us 21st century boys (and girls) that it might as well have been a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…
I was taken on a fever-induced journey to Turin, the pulsating industrial superpower of Italy in the 1950’s. A time and a place (a chronotope, if you will) I would love to have experienced first hand. But heck, who needs to care for the irreversibility of time when you’ve got a fever and an imagination working overtime together to strut their stuff before the eternal shut-down?
So, I went to Italy, as it were. It was beautiful there, even more so than now. The colours seemed somewhat lighter and brighter, the people were cheerful with the joie d’être of the post-fascist, post-war era, and the sun was ever present, caressing the skin with the soft but warm touch so typical of spring in Northern Italy.
Fausto Coppi in his prime waved from his Bianchi bike in his typical cat-like position as he accelerated and left the cool Fiorenzo Magni to compute his loss before the route would flatten again. I had a Campari – which, for some magical reason, didn’t taste like bitter urine in the fifties – as the peloton passed by (fact-check: It must have been Milano-Torino classic of 1951, Magni won).
At another table there were suddenly cheerful Danish voices to be heard. I turned around and beheld a batch of some of the greatest Danes in calcio history: John Hansen and Karl Aage Præst were there, as were Karl Aage Hansen, Johannes Pløger and Helge Bronée (the latter three being quieter and in the background). I immediately struck up a conversation with Hansen and Præst, who – somewhat anachronistically – told me the story of their great careers.
Sadly, the specifics of the conversation (much like Lennon’s independence in ‘Help!’) seem to vanish in the haze. I will, however, here provide you with the basic facts on Hansen’s Juventus adventure. Feel free to add to the atmosphere yourself by casting your mind back to an age of radio-transmitted sporting events, modernist housing and soft pastels…
John Hansen arrived in Turin in a Juventus side that was preparing, though not aware of it at the time, to pick up the mantle left so tragically there for the taking after the annihilation of the ‘Grande Torino’ team in 1949. In fact, Juve could be said to have saved Hansen’s life, as it was only extra money offered in the last minute by Gianni Agnelli (via the Nordic FIAT HQ in Copenhagen) that kept him from signing with Torino Calcio; a signing that would, in all likelihood, have booked him a seat on that plane of horror that crashed into the Superga.
The reason for the massive influx of Danish players in Italy at the time was the performance of the Danish national team at the 1948 Olympics in London. The Danish amateurs beat the fully professional (albeit represented by a youth team of sorts) Italians 5-3 in the quarter-finals of that tournament on the way to their surprising bronze medals. Hansen scored four in that glorious game, a performance which naturally raised quite a few eyebrows around the Peninsula, notably at Juve, who in the early fifties employed not only Hansen, but all of the five aforementioned Danes.
His maiden season was one of adaptation to the professional game, but by his first full season (he was signed in November of 1948) in 1949/50, he, along with Præst and a young Giampiero Boniperti, played a pivotal part in Juve’s Scudetto winning side, netting 28 times in 37 games.
In the following years, he kept banging in the goals, thanks to his brilliant heading skills and a powerful and precise right footed shot. He even won the capocannoniere crown in 1951/52 to top off his great efforts.
That season he also won his second Scudetto with Juve. In all, Hansen scored a whopping 124 goals in 187 appearances, and his stint at Juve brought him two Scudetti and two runners-up finishes. He still sits proudly in eighth place on the list of all time Juventus goal scorers, and he was among the 50 club legends to be awarded a star in the new Juventus stadium this autumn.
Like the more famous Gre-No-Li trio at Milan, also brought in after that tournament in 1948 which was won by Sweden, the Danes (and the genius of Boniperti, of course) were the difference-makers at Juventus in those wonderfully optimistic Marshall Plan years, a time in which Europe flourished anew, with Italy being the prime rose in the garden. Along with the FIAT automobiles and Martini vermouth, Juventus were Turin’s contribution to the raving Italo-mania of those days, as the team played out some remarkable championships in a decade of incredibly talented and rich Serie A football.
Hansen left Juve in 1954, and after a single season at Lazio he returned to Denmark to end his career but first he had to serve a two-year ban for having been a professional player (those were the rules in Denmark at the time). He spent these quarantine-years coaching, before eventually finishing off as a player with two more seasons in the red and blue colours of his beloved hometown club Frem.
When he passed away in 1990, the achievements of John Hansen were celebrated reverently in Denmark and Italy alike, and at Juve he is still held in high esteem, not least due to the praise of Boniperti who, although an even greater legend himself, never failed to appreciate the efforts of his prolific partner.
Thus ends the tale of John Angelo Valdemar Østergaard Hansen, whose career was as impressive as his name. It was a pleasant conversation with Mr. Hansen, as I recall it through the haze; highly civil and good natured, as indeed was the order of the day in the fifties.
If you ask me nicely, I might fill you in on the exploits of Karl Aage Præst some day, but for now, I’d better have a bit of a lie down, I feel the temperature’s rising again and the colour grading is starting to change…
Read more of Lars’ work on his blog, Pondering Calcio.