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Football News: Sporting Fairytales Part 1: Verona 85

Sporting Fairytales Part 1: Verona 85
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Sporting Fairytales Part 1 - Hellas Verona Winning Serie A


Before Leicester City won the Premier League, Hellas Verona won the strongest and most popular league in the world at the time, in what was possibly even more of a fairytale win. It was the 1984/85 season, Napoli had just signed Maradona for a world record fee, Juventus had Michel Platini, Inter Milan had the great Karl-Heinz Rummenigge and AS Roma had Brazilian superstar Falcao. Even Udinese had a legendary player in the shape of Zico.

Verona had never even contended before that season, only reaching Serie A for the first time for the 1957/58 season after their founding in 1903. While Napoli played in front of an average attendance of 77,000, Verona was better known as the setting for William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet than its football teams. In fact it probably still is!

A lot of the credit for their title is given to a match-fixing scandal that broke in 1980, called Totonero. Italy's Guardia di Finanza had uncovered a betting syndicate that had been paying players and club members to fix match results. A number of people were punished, including Italy international Paolo Rossi, whose ban was reduced so he could lead Italy to the World Cup win in 1982. AC Milan and Lazio were both relegated to Serie B, Avellino, Bologna, Perugia, Palermo and Taranto were all given point deductions. Napoli were implicated but managed to avoid a points deduction, though their winger Oscar Damiano was banned for 3 months. 33 individuals were charged with fraud.

The big fall out from the scandal was that, for one season only in 1984-85, referees were drawn randomly, rather than assigned. That is often seen as the reason why a 'minor' club could finish above the likes of Juventus and the two Milan sides. That rather denigrates how well Hellas Verona performed over the course of the season, though it at least gave them a level playing field with the richer and less scrupulous teams.

In the early 1980s, Verona was in Serie B but looking upwards under ambitious chairman Celestino Guidetti. Catching Guidetti's eye was Oscar Bagnoli who led Cesena into Serie A in 1982 before Guidetti swooped to bring him to Hellas. Bagnoli was not that highly regarded, this was his 6th job and all of them had been with minor clubs with little hope of genuine success.

However Bagnoli was something of an obsessive, so meticulous in his team preparation and analysis of opposition tactics that he was known as 'Lo Svizzero' 'The Swiss'. Bagnoli had been born in 1935 and made a career as a hard tackling midfielder for AC Milan, Verona and Udinese in the 1950s and 1960s. As a manager he jobbed around the lower leagues with Solbiatese, Como, Rimini and Fano before taking charge of Cesena and finishing second in Serie B to win promotion.

While his preparation was intense, Bagnoli's technical staff at the club consisted of just him and his assistant coach Ciccio Mascetti. The two had no real scouting network to use and Bagnoli admits he used the Panini sticker album as a help: "I was browsing the Panini almanac and looking for midfielders for three - four goals per season." Despite these handicaps, Verona won immediate promotion to Serie A in the 1982/83 season, as Bagnoli's ability to bring the team together as a unit paid dividends.

Their first season after promotion was a huge success, though they were never in a position to challenge for the title, they did finish in 4th place and reached the final of the Coppa Italia. The following season was a similar story, as the team reached the final again but finished 6th in the league. With a limit on foreigners at the time, their two ageing foreigners would have to be replaced in the summer and so Wladyslaw Zmuda was sold to Cremonese, while Joe Jordan signed for Southampton. Yes, that Joe Jordan.

The replacements were a revelation. Danish centre-forward Preben Elkjaer Larsen was a coup signed from Lokeren. Known as 'Il Sindaco' (The Mayor), he had been a star of the Euros for his country, but his eccentric personality and chainsmoking had kept the big clubs away from him. His other nickname, 'The Madman of Lokeren' probably had a part to play in him being available for Verona to sign!

It was the other foreigner to sign in the summer that had the biggest impact. Hans-Peter Briegel, 'The Steamroller' was a no-nonsense, hard as nails defender who refused to wear shinpads and picked up the nickname 'Panzer' over the course of the season. Playing for Bagnoli's team in a midfield role, he was essential to the very fluid system that would switch between 4-3-3, 4-4-2 and 3-5-2 during the matches.

Hellas would drop deep and draw opponents onto them and look to hit the space in behind them quickly on the counter-attack. In yet another comparison to Leicester in their fairytale year, Verona were happy to cede possession and rely on their solid, well-organised defence to hold out. However, ahead of the season opener against Napoli, nobody gave them a hope of challenging.

Napoli were parading their brand new, world transfer record fee (for the second time in his career) superstar Maradona and expected to smash Verona aside. The Neapolitans were meant to be the title-challengers, but Briegel completely shut the Argentine genius out of the game, even finding the chance to get up the field and score as Hellas ran out 3-1 winners. The next few months were spent with the rest of the country just waiting for the bubble to burst and their run to falter.

It was the 23th of January before they slipped up in a 2-1 defeat to Avellino, which gave Inter the chance to draw level on points the following week. That was believed to be the beginning of the end for the Hellas title challenge, which was not helped by Inter approaching two of Verona's better players, winger Pietro Fanna and left-back Luciano Marangon. The team was made of sterner stuff and, while Inter drew with Avellino, Verona went 3-0 up against Udinese only to throw it away and allow Udinese to peg it back to 3-3. Hellas were not done though and fought back to win 5-3 and retook the sole lead of the Serie A title race which they were not to relinquish again.

Instead it was Inter's challenge which faded away as Torino overtook them and became the main protagonist for the rest of that season. Verona lost just once more all season, though they did stutter a little in the final run in as they drew four of the final seven games. In an era of just two points for a win, Verona clinched the league with a game to spare and finished four points clear of second placed Torino, with Inter third. It was Hellas Verona's first, and so far only, Serie A title.

Briegel finished the season by becoming the first-ever player to win the German Player of the Year trophy while playing abroad. Elkjaer polled second in the Ballon d'Or and gained a new nickname 'Cinderella'. The new name was given to him after he lost a shoe in a challenge but went on a run and scored despite just having one boot, in one of those magical moments that title winning teams always seem to create.

It was all change for the following season though as referees were once more selected for each game, rather than drawn out randomly. The two players Inter had approached jumped ship and Verona finished just 10th as Juve, who had managed to scrape into 6th without favourable officials, once more won the league. By the 1989-90 season the dream was all over as Verona were relegated back to Serie B.

AC Milan considered appointing Bagnoli as their head coach, but the move was blocked by club president Silvio Berlusconi as Berlusconi believed Bagnoli to be a communist! Bagnoli instead took over at Genoa in 1990 and led them to a 4th place finish in his first season, their best placing for more than 50 years. He was never able to repeat his fairytale success again and Verona are still the small club who hop between the top two flights and have not managed to even put in a significant challenge for the league since.

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Written by Tris Burke March 22 2020 11:02:49


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