Until the end, he managed the club in the Mazzini gallery created by his grandfather in ’22. “He invented the first quota systems, to prepare them he also recruited nuns”
Genoa – The man who identified himself with the Totocalcio and prize competitions in Genoa is gone, in the days when the Donelli bar-receptionist of Galleria Mazzini turns one hundred years old.
Virginio Donelli, born in 1938, died in hospital after a brief hospitalization for a heart that could no longer hold up. “With him, an era for the city is coming to an end,” says her granddaughter Gemma at the betting desk. The funeral will be on Friday morning at 11.30 in the church of San Francesco d’Albaro.
The great history and personal events are intertwined in a narrative that begins in 1922, when the patriarch Odilio Donelli begins the activity in the heart of the Piccapietra gallery. It is the year of the march on Rome and, for Italy, of the advent of the Fascist period, Odilio is a young man who gets married and dreams of a future. Instead he will die on April 24, on the eve of the Liberation, with the partisan handkerchief around his neck.
Odilio was young like so many who had fallen on every front of the war, on both sides. He leaves behind a widow, Gemma, and three children: the eldest daughter Rita who is no longer born in 1927, Clara born in 1932 and Virginio, the youngest. All three grew up in the family bar, saw the birth of the most popular game in Italy: the first Sisal ticket (which would later be called Totocalcio) dates back to 1946, in the 1950s it assumes the most classic form with thirteen games.
Virginio, who was already a boy in the bar at the age of nine, becomes the systems specialist: proposes collective bets to its customers who buy shares, inventing forms of prediction that follow mathematical rules.
For years he compiles thousands of coupons by hand, then in 1977 he decides to take a step forward: the PCs that fit in a briefcase do not even exist in the imagination, he buys an Olivetti computer investing 40 million lire: it is a machine with a hard disk that weighs 180 kilos, they unload it from a truck arriving from Florence and to house it Donelli has to buy a room adjacent to the bar. It remained in operation until the 1980s, then it was replaced by more and more modern computers. Helping him is a friend of IBM’s programmer engineer.
The cloistered nuns
To print the coupons, the Donelli family even recruits the nuns of a cloistered convent, paid for their work: in the enclosure of the convent cells, they attach the matrices to the rolls with the perforated edges of the printers of the time. And so the production rate of the betting shop grows. “He took the rolls from the printer to the convent and then went to pick them up” says his son Odilio, baptized with the name of his partisan grandfather. He adds professional details: “He had invented systems of 50 or 60 thousand columns with error correction, compiling them with pen and paper before the IT breakthrough.”
In his restaurant, stories of hopes and failures pass. “He made thousands of people win,” says her niece Gemma. Many others have also gambled and lost large sums over the years.
The game system changes and evolves, the old Totocalcio is losing more and more appeal, replaced by other forms of game in which the uncertainty is even greater. There is no longer the charm of prediction made also of football competence, the charm of the bet remains intact.
A couple of weeks ago, an unexpected illness. Virginio Donelli’s heart is already sick but he has neglected it, it is too late for an operation. He is hospitalized but the other night comes the crisis which turns out to be fatal. Again his son Odilio: «The illness took him while the Totocalcio was changing shape, today it is no longer what he had seen born and had accompanied him throughout his life». With Donelli’s death, a page in the small history of commerce in the city closes, but the business continues with the new generations. Coffee and hopes, in the same room as partisan grandfather Odilio, one hundred years later.