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 mw at any rate. if I wasn’t drawn back to certain places, I wouldn’t have experienced three games in the Bentegodi, Verona! The spectacular third demise of Ancona has allowed me a greater exploration of other favoured teams, but as they continue to recover under Anconitana, recently promoted to the 5th tier, the Marche Eccellenza awaits next season, where I would hope to get back on the Conero’s Curva Nord terraces as I did the last time they went bust!
Verona lures visitors to the city everyday by the thousands. The fabled balcony of Juillet is a major attraction for the young backpacking crowd, but the city holds so much more intrigue and beauty than this overcrowd 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 through towards the 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 love, but turning left brings you to my favourite part of Verona, Piazza Erbe. It is a spectacularly well preserved ancient square, bustling with market life and cafe’s. A walk to Castel San Pietro will be rewarded with wonderful panoramic views of the city and the Adige river.
A certain fascination with Hellas started for me in the ‘80’s when they won Serie A just after I started really following the Italian scene. It was a rare shot in the arm for the “smaller” team and Veneto football in general. It remains the regions 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 debuted in Serie C this season.
Chievo have steered a more consistent path in Serie A almost since Tim’s book was written, and despite being an upstart wee suburb of the city, they are cohabiting 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 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 has caused Reggiana to struggle and ultimately implode, despite Sassuolo being a small town well outside Reggio Emilia, who merely moved into town originally to get a big enough stadium for the top two divisions. They have become part of the Serie A furniture, and they even own the stadium in Reggio now. Older fans will always stay loyal, but younger fans might be drawn to the higher league team just by virtue of the greater exposure and bigger named visiting sides. 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, and they are struggling to recover from a significant points deduction start to this season, caught with their fingers in an accounting scam transfer that tipped the other guilty party, Cesena into bankruptcy, while the Flying Donkey’s are going back to Serie B! Hellas will still be hoping of crossing over with Chievo and step up, if not automatically now, then through the play offs, claiming the rightful crown as the kings of Verona once more in terms of league status, as well as on fan base!
Hellas meaning Greece is undoubtedly an unusual name, but it is a nod to the founding fathers of civilisation rather than the clubs founding fathers. Disappointingly they weren’t started by a bunch of Greek philosophers, walking around in white toga and scrolls tucked under their arms! No Hellas hail merely from a group of students in 1903, and the name merely came along 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, as you’d expect the stadium to be named after an ex-player, but no! Bentegodi were the 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 the three bigger teams of the city merged to form AC Verona, Hellas, Bentegodi and Scaligera all came together at in 1929. Despite the greater synergy (oddly Hellas’ shirt sponsor this season!) 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 and following AC’s relegation back to B the newer version of Hellas merged with the more established club in 1959. With two of the four constituent parts of the merged clubs now being Hellas based, a desire to bring back the essence of that part of the merger to the club won the day and 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!
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 keep 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 it mark, and it takes decades for mindsets to change, if ever, when it comes rivalries.
Having merely sampled top flight football for one season, it took ten years for the 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 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 the historic 1984/85 campaign, when Hellas had one helluva team! A team full of names to conjure with 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, 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!
This 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 a 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 the club 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! 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 clubs 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. Hellas could have gone up automatically that season, but in front of 25,000 a last day party 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 on aggregate after an entertaining 2-2 draw in the home first leg.
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 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! 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! 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 seasons end, 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, despite the relegation. When I saw a derby was versus Venezia was scheduled for a Sunday night slot when I was back in Italy, I had to be there. The art of ticket purchase is now easier, not only do they have sales available outside the stadium, you can purchase online, or in my case, surprise a lady in a record shop in Novara who was acting as a ticket agent for the agency Hellas use. I suspect no one has rumbled into her premises before and asked for tickets to a Verona v Venezia match, but 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!
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 fortune 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 has closed that door, and they will need to work hard to avoid collapsing out of the play off picture altogether, a scenario that would be considered a disastrous outcome. Failure to be promoted will see the two Bentegodi tenants going toe to toe in B next season, not that Hellas lose much sleep over the Flying Donkeys, in il derby della Scala!!