Under the lights in Verona

 

 

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It is often said that a game under the lights adds a certain extra special element to the experience. This is a cliche trotted out at a variety of venues, along with the notion European nights are even better. Whether any such thoughts are even vaguely true would require experience of both at any given stadium to know for sure. I consider myself very lucky to have watched as much football in so many corners of the globe as I have, but the volume of different grounds would have been double the 250+ if it wasn’t for my support attaching to certain clubs away from my principal passion, Inverness Caledonian Thistle. That said, having a morsel of involvement for one of the participants is much better from an entertainment perspective than merely just turning up to tick a box of another ground for me at any rate. If I wasn’t constantly drawn back to certain places, I wouldn’t have experienced four games in the Bentegodi, Verona! The sad and spectacular third demise of my beloved Italian team Ancona in 2017 has allowed me a greater exploration of other favoured teams, but as they continue to recover, now having reverted to Anconitana, they were recently promoted to the 4th tier upon cessation of football because of Covid, having been narrowly top of the Marche region’s Eccellenza at that moment. I would hope to get back on the terraces of Stadio Del Conero’s much missed Curva Nord once it’s safe to do so, but I have become so accustomed now to heading to some of Italy’s characterful undercard to bring them to life for Football Weekends, I won’t be kicking the habit completely.

Verona lures visitors to the city everyday by the thousands. The fabled balcony of Juilet is a major attraction for the young backpacking crowd, but the city holds so much more intrigue and beauty than this overcrowded balustrade. With a population of just short of 260,000 it is a reasonable size, and the centre has UNESCO World Heritage status. It is a wonderful place, with it’s complete Roman Arena, still used to host outdoor concerts and opera productions. The narrow pedestrian shopping thoroughfare heading towards the main Piazza Erbe and that “balcony” is always crowded unless you arrive early. Many of the visitors will turn right at the bottom of this street en route to paying homage to the great Shakespearean tale of love, but turning left at the same junction brings you to my favourite part of Verona, Piazza Erbe. It is a spectacularly well preserved ancient square, bustling with market life, restaurants and cafes, as well as its statues pointing to involvement in the rich tapestry of Venetian history. Once again we are in the realm of the Doge. Piazza Erbe is a place to relax and carb up on sumptuous pasta dishes ahead of a lengthy, but rewarding hike to the Castel San Pietro where you will be blown away by the wonderful panoramic views of the city, the Adige river and the nearby snow capped Southern Dolomite mountains. Alternatively you can just take the funicular train. Up near the top is the most fabulous bar/restaurant with an outside terrace looking out over the rooftops of Verona, it’s a real sunset treat, and a guaranteed place to appease your partner if you’ve headed off to the football like I did, on my birthday too!   

A certain fascination with Hellas started for me in the ‘80’s when they won Serie A just after I started really following the Calcio. It was a rare shot in the arm for the “smaller” team and Veneto football in general. It remains the region’s only ever Scudetto! Then Tim Parks’ fabulous book “A Season with Verona” followed the infamous Brigate Gialloblu up and down the world of Serie B. It was a fascinating read of a somewhat rogue fan base in a seemingly sophisticated city! The title of the book really should have been,  “A Season in Hellas” rather than Verona, but in 2002 when it was published he might just have got away with it as The Flying Donkey’s of Chievo hadn’t taken off at that time! The situation has muddied even more now with the recent introduction of a third Verona team to the league, Virtus Vecomp Verona, who are in Serie C. They play a matter of minutes away from the Bentegodi in a modest stadium with views of its towering neighbour.

Chievo had steered a consistent path to Serie A since Tim’s book was written, and despite being an upstart wee team from the suburbs of the city, they cohabit the Bentegodi. While Hellas were fluffing their lines and ploughing a furrow as low as the third tier, Chievo were banging out continuous Serie A campaigns, if largely stultifyingly dull ones. I guess many years before Sampdoria’s rise started to eat into Genoa’s monopoly in the Ligurian capital, and Sassuolo’s continued lofty vantage point these days coinciding with Reggiana’s struggles, while older fans will always stay loyal to there team, younger fans might be drawn to the lure of a higher league team. This can happen in the modern era just by virtue of the greater media exposure and big named visiting sides, particularly if the smaller team hangs around the top flight for a considerable period without its rival in the same league. However, despite only fleeting returns to Serie A, Hellas will always be the biggest Veronese club. Chievo have never won the majority of the city over, but they are looked upon fondly rather than with menace of a real rival, like Vicenza.

Sadly Chievo never recovered from a significant points deduction a couple of years ago in Serie A, caught with their fingers in an accounting “scam” transfer that tipped the other guilty party Cesena into bankruptcy, and sent Chievo scuttling back to Serie B! I had seen a third tier version of Chievo in the ’90’s at Lucchese, but in January this year, while in Verona with my girlfriend I managed to wangle a pass for an early evening game in the Bentegodi versus Perugia. Having seen Hellas here three times, this was a rather flat occasion for me, Chievo’s homely fans lack the passion and the noise of their big brother, and it’s that Hellas wall of vociferous noise that makes the stadium come alive. In this rather tedious, foul riven tussle, two late goals sent the Flying Donkey’s fans out into the evening drizzle with a smile. I made a mental note never to venture back to the Bentegodi again when Chievo are playing, unless it’s a Verona derby.

Hellas meaning Greece is undoubtedly an unusual name, but it is more a nod to the founding fathers of civilisation rather than the club’s founders. Sadly this isn’t a Greek community club, indeed not one Greek was involved at the outset at all. The romantic notion of the club being started by a bunch of Greek philosophers in white toga and scrolls tucked under their arms isn’t in the formation of Hellas at all! Rather disappointingly they were a group of students, who in 1903 decided to start a football team, and adopted the name Hellas merely at the insistence of their “Classics” teacher!

A sophisticated city like Verona took a little time to warm to the beautiful game, and it needed an exhibition game between two local sides in that marvellous Roman Arena three years later before a whiff of enthusiasm lit the touch paper to the notion of acceptance. The intrigue surrounding the club goes beyond the club name though. You would expect the stadium to be named after an ex-player, but not in Verona. Bentegodi were the crack team to beat at local level in the early days, and as the idea of an Italian league structure came along in the ‘20’s, it was thought Verona would have a better chance of success if all three bigger teams of the city merged to form AC Verona. That merger saw Hellas, Bentegodi and Scaligera all coming together in 1929. Despite the greater synergy it took 28 Serie B seasons before AC Verona finally were promoted to Serie A in 1957/58, and even then it was merely for a taster one season. Somewhere in those three decades another Hellas had been started up and following AC’s relegation back to B the newer version of Hellas merged with the more established club in 1959. It seemed inevitable as technically two of the four constituent parts of the newly merged club were essentially Hellas, and a desire to bring back the essence of that part of the original name won the day. Hellas Verona AC became the name which largely stands today, aside from the Hellas name disappearing fleetingly in the early ‘90’s for four years through that familiar old tale, bankruptcy, when AC also morphed into FC briefly!

It is wonderful that the Bentegodi name survives if merely in the title of the Municipal owned Verona stadium, now shared by Hellas and Chievo, but the name Scaligera has disappeared almost completely, other than being one of the clubs nicknames, Gli Scaligeri! But the local basketball team keeps Scaligera alive!  

Once they’d dipped a toe outwith the city into the regional set up, a fierce rivalry was quickly established with Vicenza, a friction that continues to this day. You are more likely to see the Brigate Gialloblu getting het up by an encounter with the team 57 kilometres along the road, than playing Chievo. History leaves its mark, and it takes decades for mindsets to change, if ever, when it comes to rivalries.

Having merely sampled top flight football for one season as AC Verona, it took ten years for the new Hellas club to be back there under the guidance of Swedish legend Niels Lindholm. This time they were to establish themselves at the top table in a spell of Serie A football that would last until 1990, save one season, 1973/74 when they were sent down despite being safe due to a scandal involving the then club President! When Osvaldo Bagnoli arrived as coach in the early ‘80’s they were getting in amongst the big boy’s with a couple of Coppa Italia final appearances, one was a narrow 3-2 aggregate loss to Juventus, having led 2-0 from the home first leg. Despite losing Hellas got it’s first European experience going down to Sturm Graz the following season, as well as an even closer, more heartbreaking late Coppa Italia Final defeat, 1-0 to Roma.

All of these near scrapes were merely leading up to that historic 1984/85 campaign, when Hellas had one helluva team! A team full of names to conjure with, particularly for tifosi of a certain vintage; Antonio Di Gennaro the midfield magician, who was complimented upfront by Giuseppe Galderisi’s eye for goal and his imposing strike partner, the Great Dane, Preben Elkjaer. The supply of ammunition for the goals came via the wing wizardry of Pietro Fanna, and the defence was aided by the arrival of the immense German, Hans-Peter Briegel. These were days when you could only have two “stranieri” (foreigners) and Hellas had chosen well. An early season 2-0 win at Juventus signalled intent, and beating Roma added belief, but the crucial point was delivered not too far away from Verona in Bergamo in a 1-1 draw with Atalanta. A European Cup campaign followed and having got by PAOK Thessaloniki in the first round, they lucked out drawing Juventus next, and they were out. These were the glorious days when only the Champions of each nation and defending winners could participate, long before money and corporate greed took over!

Interestingly, the top four in ‘84/85 were Hellas, Torino, Inter and Sampdoria! This was not a typical top of the table even then, and it coincided with a season where the officials were randomly drawn rather than appointed! Sadly, it was obviously all too much for some to stomach with regular selection methods being re-instigated the following season, and normal service was resumed at the top end of the table, sadly!

The one Scudetto was the pinnacle for Hellas, as the players aged or left, but not before a European high of a Quarter Final in the UEFA Cup in 1988 versus Werder Bremen. It would be the last hoorah before relegation in 1990. The subsequent three decades have been volatile, with occasional visits back to Serie A, but more depressingly, bankruptcy in 1991 a legacy of overstretching to try to keep the side jousting at the top of Serie A in a new era where sadly moderate sized clubs were starting to struggle as money took control. As mentioned the name Hellas disappeared until 1995, but having got the name back the woes weren’t over as the club started to really struggle to keep Serie B status. Five thousand travelled to Como to see them survive one season, but by now it was becoming routine and the unthinkable happened when they lost a Play Out to Spezia, and after 64 years the club was in the third tier for 2007/08. Just when you thought they had hit rock bottom they had a shocking first half of the Serie C campaign that saw some chap called Maurizio Sarri sacked as the club were bottom of the league! The recovery was slow and ultimately only a 2-1 aggregate win versus Aurora Pro Patria saved the fourth tier! No one could say the fans had deserted the ship, as crowds remained strong with a 15,000 average.

It was amid these fraught moments in the club’s history that I first stepped into the Bentegodi, watching a 0-0 draw with Rimini on a miserable day in a Serie C promotion play off at the end of 2009/10. It was enough to get Hellas into the final versus Pescara, and I could have been there too, but in these early days of individualised ticketing it was impossible to get off a train an hour before kick off and get a ticket, as the Arena ticket office in the city centre was the only ticket outlet at the time! A hassle I had accepted for the Rimini game, but I was still struggling to get my head around this ridiculous new ticketing regime. It was a situation that had been imposed on clubs, most were lacking the facilities to expedite it properly, hence the outsourcing. A few weeks earlier Hellas could have gone up automatically, but in front of 25,000 for a last day promotion party, it all went sour as Portoguaro won 2,0. They were clearly punch drunk versus Rimini, but they just got the job done. However a week later Pescara condemned them to a fourth successive C season winning the promotion final 3-2.

The Bentegodi experience had entered my psyche though, and despite a relatively mundane goalless draw, Hellas had been leading 1-0 from the away leg, and the Brigate Gialloblu were in a vociferous mood. Subsequent visits have demonstrated that they are largely always in such fine fettle no matter the result, but I know that can’t be the case as like any group of fans, if they are disgruntled they will let the team know, especially here. I base my hypothesis on having seen a draw, and a loss without scoring in either before finally seeing them win. My three visits also covered the full array of leagues, C, A and B in that order. It did take me 7 years to go back though, and it took the enthusiasm of a Lazio supporting Georgian lass to get me back there too! Hellas were on the upper end of the yo-yo cycle merry go round that they find themselves on these days, back in Serie A but with a distinctly blunt attack. This was an achilles heel that would sweep them back to B by the end of that season, but for this sun soaked encounter against the capital side they were always second best. Despite losing 3,0 and with pressure mounting on a manager who would be gone shortly after, the fans stayed supportive throughout a very one sided affair.

With a second game under my belt at the Bentegodi, I found myself catching as many Hellas games online as I could. When I saw there was a derby versus Venezia scheduled for a Sunday night slot when I was back in Italy the following year, I had to be there. The art of ticket purchase is now easier, not only do they have them available outside the stadium, you can purchase online, or in my case, surprise a lady in a record shop in Novara who was acts as a ticket agent for Hellas amongst others. I suspect no one has rumbled into her premises before and asked for tickets to a Verona v Venezia match, but a seriously delayed train left me with only half an hour to get from station to stadium due to a medical issue on the train from ssssssh whisper it quietly, Vicenza. I was glad I had my brief ahead of time!

Stadio Bentegodi is a twenty minute brisk walk from the main railway station, Verona Porta Nuova. When you exit the station, the bus station and a large church are in front of you. If you head to the front of the church and then start walking to your left, staying on the church side pavement and follow the road straight across a busy junction or two, up a little rise and then it starts to subtly curve round in a crescent fashion delivering you right to the ground. If you are in the centre of town and heading across, beware that the significant remnants of the city wall preclude direct access from many roads, and you might find merit in heading towards the station and looping around as per above, or of course you could take a bus or a cab, but it’s not that far. The area around the Bentegodi is festooned with small bars, small restaurants, allowing plenty of pre-match choice, supplemented by a significant number of mobile catering units if Hellas are at home. I nipped around the opposite end of the stadium at the Chievo game to get a flavour of what was on offer, but no catering caravan were to be found, indeed just one old chap sat on a stool in front of his stall of Chievo nick nacks with no one to be seen anywhere. It was a rather forlorn sight.

There is nothing special about the stadium in Verona, it has a running track around it making the action seem distant, which is never good, but ticks boxes for municipal involvement. The three layer seating is a little unusual, but it is the hardcore fans of the Brigate that create the incredible atmosphere, and under the lights on a quiet, warm early March night the songs rang out louder than ever. Despite a 9pm kick off and the match being played during Carnival in Venezia, the visiting fans were here in big numbers too. This would be Walter Zengas last match as the Venetian coach as the clubs fortunes had nose dived. I finally saw Hellas score, and experience the explosion of joy at the Bentegodi, but in winning 1,0 the scoreline suggested a closer game than it’s reality. Giampaolo Pazzini had played well, as did the buzz bomb South Korean lad Lee Seung-Woo, despite demonstrating some woeful finishing for the second time in my presence, but no one can question his enthusiasm! If Hellas had been toothless in Serie A the season before, that baton had passed to Venezia in B. They huffed and puffed but they rarely looked like grabbing an equaliser. It was an odd second half for me when Venezia introduced a substitute Hugo St Clair, a Scot, doubling the number involved with Liam Henderson showing some tidy touches in the Hellas midfield. Two Scots involved in any game abroad must be a rare sighting!!

The win kept Hellas close to the automatic promotion slots in the table, but spluttering results closed that door, and they needed to work hard to avoid collapsing out of the play off picture altogether. A scenario that would have been considered a disastrous outcome. Failure to be promoted would also have seen the two Bentegodi tenants going toe to toe in B, but Hellas came through those play offs and avoided “il derby della Scala” to return to Serie A where they have been a revelation in 2019/20, and found themselves knocking on the door of a return to European competition amid all those summer fixtures without the tifosi. Given I have seen them host games in all three top Italian leagues, maybe a European night under the lights in Verona would be the perfect next occasion should they continue to push on in 2020/21, but no matter who the opposition are, I will be back in the Bentegodi to see Hellas.  

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