21 years before Leicester City’s incredible title winning run in England, there was a similar crowning achievement by a small team from the Veneto region in Italy as Hellas Verona stunned the reigning champions Juventus and the other big guns to ascend their way to the summit of Italian football.
The former AS Roma president, Franco Sensi, once claimed that a Scudetto in Rome is worth ten in Turin. Going by that logic, it really stretches the realms of imagination to wonder what one must be worth in Veneto, a region that hadn’t seen one of it’s teams win the title since the Second World War.
And this was not a league gripped by melancholy as it is these days; this was the era of the superstars – Michel Platini and Paolo Rossi at Juventus, Falcao at Roma, Zico at Udinese, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge at Internazionale and to sprinkle stardust on top of it, the 1984-85 season heralded the arrival of a certain Diego Maradona at Napoli.
One of the primary reasons for Verona’s unlikely triumph was the major match fixing scandal that had engulfed Serie A in 1980 which saw both AC Milan and Lazio relegated to Serie B (also called the Calcio Scommesse scandal). Until now, there was a lingering suspicion that the big clubs (from Turin, Milan and Rome) were always given favourable officials and in the two decades prior to Verona’s championship run, Serie A was won by clubs from these three cities in all bar one season.
As a result, a reform was suggested and came into effect from the 1984-85 season – referees would be selected at random instead of being hand-picked by a committee. This decision was welcomed by most fans – a chance for a cleaner, better and controversy-free era. Perhaps, just perhaps, this season would bring a different perspective to Italian football.
The arrival of Osvaldo Bagnoli and counter-attacking Catenaccio
Osvaldo Bagnoli was considered a great coach by those who worked under him but because of his quiet persona and his inclination to stay out of the limelight, his contribution to Verona and to football in general has been overlooked outside of Italy. Ask a non-Italian football fan if they’ve ever heard of Osvaldo Bagnoli, and all you get is a blank stare and a shake of the head.
Bagnoli arrived at Hellas Verona at the start of the 1981 season and guided the Gialloblu back to Serie A in his debut campaign and followed that up with a very respectable fourth place finish next season. Verona also went on to reach the Coppa Italia final that season (and the next) only to be defeated by Juventus and AS Roma respectively (they actually took a 2-0 lead to Turin in the second leg only to be hammered 3-0). Nicknamed Lo Svizzero (the Swiss) for his studious and meticulous approach to studying the opposition ahead of each game, Bagnoli assembled a squad of players in his first three seasons who were either on the fringes of the top clubs and had a point to prove to their former employers or players who were already with the club and were overlooked by the top clubs.
Verona signed Hans-Peter Briegel from Kaiserslautern in midfield ahead of the 1984-85 season and added Preben Elkjaer up front to a squad already boasting the intelligent playmaking of Antonio Di Gennaro and the pace of Roberto Fanna.
At the time, Catenaccio (an Italian term for defensive tactics that roughly translates to “The Chain”) still had a strong hold in the Italian game and Bagnoli’s tactics were a slight tweak on the old system – a counter-attacking Catenaccio, if you will. Bagnoli preferred a fluid 3-5-2 system – a libero supported by a right back, a central defender/defensive midfielder, wide midfielders dropping back into defence when not in possession, 2 quick box-to-box midfielders, a focal point of attack who had the pace to run in behind the opposition defence supported by the predatory instincts of a forward and a playmaker floating behind them. Verona invited the opposition onto them before springing their counter attacks (again the Leicester reference comes to mind from recent memory).
Only 17 players were used by Bagnoli in the title winning campaign, a testament to the consistency of selection and loyalty he displayed to his group of players.
The beginning of the dream
When Napoli came visiting to the Stadio Marc’ Antonio Bentegodi for the opening game of the 1984-85 Serie A season, the spotlight and media attention was all on the visitors. Diego Maradona, having arrived for a record fee of £5 million from Barcelona, was expected to make Verona his sparring partner and crush them by the end of the bout. But Bagnoli and his men had other ideas. Briegel not only marked Maradona out of the game, he scored the opening goal of the contest as Verona went on to thump the visitors 3-1 in front of the delirious Bentagodi crowd. The Verona fans are a passionate, fanatical bunch (read Tim Parks’ “A Season with Verona” to truly grasp the magnitude of those words) and the feeling in the crowd that afternoon was electric. Verona went top of the table that day, a position they did not surrender for the rest of the season (they did go second briefly later in the season on goal difference to Internazionale but regained top spot on the next Matchday).
Hellas wrapped up the next two games with straight forward wins against Ascoli and Udinese before drawing 0-0 with Internazionale at the San Siro. The true test of Verona’s swashbuckling start came with the visit of champions Juventus to the Bentegodi on Matchday 5. Galderisi headed Verona into the lead in the 62nd minute after the Juventus stopper Tacconi misjudged a cross horribly, getting underneath it and leaving an open goal for the Verona striker. But it was the second goal, scored by Elkjaer, that is indelibly etched in the memory of the Verona supporters.
Garella’s long goal kick found the Danish forward on the left wing who dummied his way past the Juventus right-back. The defender lunged after him hoping to scythe him down but Elkjaer was too fast, too quick-witted, too determined to be deterred by something as basic and demeaning as a last ditch tackle. Elkjaer’s boot came off at this point but not even divine intervention would have stopped the Dane from hurtling past the Juventus juggernaut. Elkjaer left him on the ground, turned inside, beat another defender and slotted the ball into the far corner of the net. A truly iconic moment in Scudetto history, a moment sadly forgotten by most.
It was at this moment, when the Gialoblu went 2-0 up with 10 minutes to play, that they truly started to believe. Could the impossible happen? Could a team from a region, known more for Romeo and Juliet than football, do the impossible and go all the way?
Matchday 10 saw Verona travelling to Torino, their closest challengers at that point. Torino were breathing down their collective necks; a win for the Turinese would have seen them overtake Verona at the top. Verona, in keeping with their season, kept their heads above the water and emerged with a hard fought 2-1 victory to take a 3-point lead at the summit.
In the next few matches, Verona and Torino matched each other’s results – when Verona drew goalless against Como, Torino laboured to a 0-0 against Atalanta. Verona followed that up with a 1-1 draw against Atalanta and Torino fought out a thrilling 2-2 draw against Fiorentina. On Matchday 15, at the halfway point of the campaign, Verona suffered their first defeat of the season. Without the suspended Galderisi and the ailing Elkjaer, the Gialoblu went down to a late goal at Avellino and allowed Internazionale to close the gap at the top to just 1 point.
Verona were involved in another cracking game on Matchday 18 as they travelled to Udine to face mid-table Udinese. The visitors took an early 3-0 lead only to sit back and get complacent. Udinese ate away at the Verona advantage and levelled the tie at 3-3 with half an hour still to play. But Verona replied and, as was the norm, it was Briegel and Elkjaer who restored their advantage (it finished 5-3 in the end).
Internazionale came calling at the Bentegodi next but were held to a 1-1 draw by the would-be champions with Briegel heading in the equaliser for the hosts who were without 6 first-team players as flu had struck the camp on the eve of the game (legend has it that Bagnoli served his players piping hot tea at half-time to prevent them from showing any ill effects of the fever). Verona managed to scrape a 1-1 draw at Juventus the following week and scraped past a determined AS Roma side 1-0 with Elkjaer scoring the solitary goal. As Verona continued to collect points, Inter suffered a slip and lost two games in between. Verona suffered only their second defeat of the season at the hands of Torino but were held to a 0-0 by AC Milan but kept their noses in front at the top of the table as their rivals continued to flounder and failed to pounce on Verona’s blip.
Verona needed only a point to clinch the Scudetto on the penultimate Matchday as they travelled to Atalanta. Elkjaer cancelled out Atalanta’s goal and after a truly agonising second half, in which the hosts missed two glorious chances, Verona clung on by the seat of their pants to send the long suffering fans into delirium.
The Gialoblu strolled past Avellino 4-2 at the Bentegodi on the final day of the season to coronate their Scudetto win as the city, so far known more for William Shakespeare’s work, immortalised itself in Serie A folklore.
This remarkable story cannot be fully told without mentioning the team’s defence – they only conceded 19 goals in 30 games with the goalkeeper Claudio Grella an absolute monster in-between the sticks. Club captain and libero, Roberto Tricella, was a mainstay in front of him and was ably supported by Silvano Fontolan, Mauro Ferroni and Luciano Marangon.
As it turned out, this was the only season when the referees would be allotted at random; the Italian FA committee chose to pair referees with their favoured clubs from the following season again and it doesn’t take a complex mathematical equation to work out who was crowned champions in the 1985-86 season (it was Juventus, in case you hadn’t worked that one out).
Many Serie A fans firmly believe this was the only Scudetto which was controversy-free and was fairly contested. Verona’s triumph holds a special place in the hearts of most fans as it broke the stranglehold the big cities had on the Scudetto and gave wings to the dreams the fans of other clubs had, of seeing their team being crowned champions one day.