How Verona defied the odds – and the unwritten rules – to lift the Scudetto in 1985

How Verona defied the odds – and the unwritten rules – to lift the Scudetto in 1985

Last season saw Juventus win the Scudetto for a seventh consecutive season, setting a new record in the process. As the Milan clubs continued to underwhelm and Roma failed to challenge domestically, it was left to Napoli to attempt to prevent Juve’s seventh – and they pushed them close.

Kalidou Koulibaly’s late goal in week 34 meant the Partenopei left the Juventus Stadium with three points amid delirious celebrations and renewed optimism. Such hope would be crushed the following week, however, Koulibaly going from hero to villain as his sending off against Fiorentina led to a Napoli collapse. Their 3-0 defeat all but sealed the Serie A title race for another year.

Maurizio Sarri’s subsequent hinting of certain off-field factors benefitting Juventus was the most recent in a long line of accusations made against Italy’s most successful club and the powers that be. Such claims are, of course, not unfounded. Juve were notoriously the most severely punished participants in the Calciopoli scandal in 2006, and were relegated to Serie B. The revelation of match-fixing sent shock waves throughout the footballing world, though in truth it was the culmination of a long and murky history of corruption and deceit operating within calcio.

Before Calciopoli came Totonero, the first major match-fixing scandal of Italian football. Totonero broke in 1980 when Italy’s Guardia fi Finanza uncovered a betting syndicate that had been paying players and club members to fix results. Milan and Lazio suffered the same fate as Juve did in 2006, both being relegated to Serie B. These crimes of some of Italy’s largest and most successful clubs make the stories of underdog challengers even more attractive.

The reality is, however, that corruption is not something reserved for the country’s more glamorous clubs, having pervaded every pillar of Italian football. Totonero also saw Avellino, Bologna and Perugia receive point deductions for their involvement, while Palermo and Taranto of Serie B were similarly punished. Napoli were also implicated despite avoiding a points deduction, with winger Oscar Damiani receiving a three-month ban. In total, 33 individuals were charged with fraud offences.

Totonero would be the catalyst for a move which would lead to a significant change being made for the 1984/85 Serie A season: referees were to be randomly assigned to matches for the first time, rather than being selected by a panel as before. This move, made as part of a bid to clean up the image of Italian football, would become forever intertwined with the most unexpected Serie A win of all-time. It was the city of Romeo and Juliet that provided one of calcio’s more romantic stories, as provincial club Hellas Verona stormed to their first and only Scudetto.

Verona is a modest club from the Veneto region of Italy. Founded in 1903, it wasn’t until 1957/58 that the Gialloblu reached Serie A for the first time. Much of their history has been spent bouncing between Italy’s first and second tier, with limited success. Last season, Verona finished in 19th, scoring a mere 30 goals all season while conceding 78.

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Thirteen points from safety and returning to Serie B once more, Verona had lasted just a single season in the top flight following their 2016/17 promotion. This current state is reflective of Verona’s history as a yo-yo club, which has seen the northerners win three Serie B titles and finish as Coppa Italia runners-up as many times – all of which makes their Scudetto all the more impressive.

Verona had, in fact, enjoyed relative success in the years preceding their miraculous achievement, finishing sixth in 1984 and fourth the season before. The latter would see them enter the following year’s UEFA Cup, exiting in the second round on away goals to Sturm Graz. These campaigns also saw Verona receive two of their Coppa Italia runners-up medals, reaching the final in both 1983 and 1984.

It could all have been so different for Verona, the club having spent the years prior to their promotion languishing towards the bottom of the second tier. Having been relegated from Serie A in the 1978/79 season after accumulating a mere 15 points – nine fewer than second-bottom Atalanta – the following two seasons saw the Gialloblu narrowly avoid relegation to Italy’s third tier.

It would be the following term, when former Cesena manager Osvaldo Bagnoli took over from Giancarlo Cadè, that Verona would enjoy a rapid upturn in performance. In his first season, Bagnoli took Verona from near-abyss to first place in Serie B, winning the title ahead of Pisa and Sampdoria. Little did anyone know, but Bagnoli would repeat the trick in Italy’s top division just three seasons later.

The fact remains, however, that despite Verona’s excellent Serie A performances under Bagnoli, the title remained a distant dream for the Veronese faithful and an unthinkable prospect for outside observers. This was a Serie A in which the traditional favourites were populated with elite players, from Michael Platini, Paolo Rossi and Zbigniew Boniek at Juve to Falcão and Roberto Pruzzo at Roma, and Alessandro Altobelli and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge at Inter Milan. It was also the debut season of a certain Diego Maradona, who joined Napoli for a world-record fee that summer.

It is, in fact, with Maradona that Verona’s incredible story would begin. The Partenopei travelled to Veneto with their new superstar on the opening day of the season, amid much fanfare and media attention. Those eager to see the world’s most expensive player strut his stuff would be disappointed, however, as Maradona and his new team were humbled by the unfancied provincial club.

Verona’s own new signing, German international Hans-Peter Briegel, neutralised his more glamorous Argentine counterpart. Briegel would also score the opening goal of the game, sending Verona on their way to a 3-1 victory and top spot in the league, a position from which they wouldn’t look back.

Briegel’s contribution to Verona’s opening day victory would set the tone for a season in which he and fellow new signing, the enigmatic Preben Elkjær, would prove decisive. Briegel, a versatile and physical midfielder, joined the Gialloblu from Kaiserslautern as a regular for the German national team. Briegel’s exploits in Verona would see him receive the 1985 German Footballer of the Year award, the first foreign-based player to do so, as the midfielder’s energy and skill proved pivotal to Bagnoli’s side.

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It was Elkjær, though, who would prove to be the true star signing. Moving from Belgium side Lokeren as somewhat of a coup for Verona, the forward would go on to finish third and second in the 1984 and ’85 Ballon d’Ors, in addition to claiming the Bronze Ball as Denmark’s great generation of talent reached the last 16 of the 1986 World Cup.

The chain-smoking forward is remembered perhaps as much for his eccentric personality as for his precocious footballing ability; Elkjær’s unique playing style combined excellent technical ability with a strong sense of aggression and a powerful will to win. His exploits in Veneto earned him the nickname Il Sindaco – The Mayor – as his charisma and goals helped power Verona to the title.

These two shrewd summer signings, made on a limited budget, would be the only foreign players to feature in Verona’s season and joined a side that, while not featuring the renowned players of more prestigious Serie A teams, were certainly not lacking in talent. Briegel and Elkjær were the final pieces in the jigsaw of a squad that Bagnoli had spent the previous seasons astutely assembling, made up of a mix of talented and hard-working individuals. Many members joined with of a point to prove, having been picked up after struggling to make the grade at larger clubs.

Defenders Luciano Marangon and captain Roberto Tricella joined from Roma and Inter respectively, while talented winger Pietro Fanna joined having made over a hundred appearances for Juventus, despite never quite achieving his early promise. Elkjær was partnered up front by young striker Giuseppe “Nanu” Galderisi, who would join Tricella as a member of Italy’s 1986 World Cup squad.

Whilst the two would play little part in Italy’s tournament, Antonio Di Gennaro, Bagnoli’s playmaker-in-chief, would play in every game. Di Gennaro was a talented midfielder who matched skilful dribbling and passing with a high work-rate and stamina, and his role as the orchestrator of Bagnoli’s midfield would drive the team to glory.

Under Bagnoli’s tutelage, this mix of players of varying ability and talent was turned into a solid and cohesive unit, with a strong, pervading sense of focus and belief. His man-management skills and shrewd work in the transfer market produced a squad of players whose styles and attributes complemented one another, and who were all heavily invested in the cause.

Despite his managerial experience prior to Verona consisting of time spent in Italy’s lower divisions, the unassuming Bagnoli proved himself as a modern coach with the ability and knowledge to match Italy’s best. Meticulous in his preparation of his team and analysis of opponents’ tactics, his studious nature earned the nickname Lo Svizzero – The Swiss – from the Veronese faithful.

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Bagnoli’s Verona were distinguished by their staunchly organised, counter-attacking form of catenaccio, founded on a dogged defence with captain Tricella operating in the libero role. Tricella was partnered by Silvano Fontolan in the centre of defence, with Mauro Ferroni and Luciano Marangon operating as the disciplined full-backs. The agile and reliable Claudio Garella, renowned for his somewhat unorthodox style, was the team’s goalkeeper. These players made up the most resolute back line of the Serie A season, conceding a mere 19 goals.

Further forward, Briegel and Domenico Volpati would provide the midfield steel, with Di Gennaro as the regista. The quick and tricky Fanna operated mostly on the right wing, supporting forwards Elkjær and Galderisi, who would score 20 goals between them over the course of the season. This was a side in which each player knew their role, yet had a tactical versatility that allowed them to comfortably alternate formations throughout matches in response to the opposition’s tactics.

Having defeated Maradona’s Napoli on the opening day, Bagnoli’s side would maintain their impressive start, remaining unbeaten for their first 14 games. A series of narrow victories and hard-fought draws exemplified the solidity and mental strength upon which this Verona side was built.

The highlight was a 2-0 victory over Juventus in which Elkjær would score an unusual goal which that prove to be symbolic, not only of the maverick Dane’s footballing style, but of Verona’s season and success as a whole. Picking up the ball on the left wing, Elkjær drove forward at the Juve defenders, evading two tackles and losing his right boot in the process, yet still managing to cut inside and slot the ball home. This goal, bizarre, unexpected and beautiful in nature, represents the resolute, never-say-day attitude of both the idiosyncratic scorer and his unfancied team.

Verona’s first defeat would come at Avellino, the 2-1 loss reinforcing suspicions that Bagnoli’s men were a flash in the pan and would start to fall away. This was not the case, however, and their spirit and resolve was on view once again throughout the remainder of the season. This was perhaps most evident in a match against Udinese when, having been 3-0 up, Verona allowed Udinese to come back and level the score at 3-3. Unfazed by the draining sight of the opposition reaching level terms, the Gialloblu dug deep to score a further two goals and secure the win, Elkjaer nabbing the final one.

Following the stunning victory against Udinese, Verona faced Inter, deprived of the services of six first-teamers after they were struck down by illness. Despite going a goal down following an Altobelli strike, Verona rallied, Briegel scoring the equaliser and the team holding out for a vital point. The following week would see another crucial draw achieved away to Juventus.

Verona’s strong form would continue into April, with only Inter and Torino, themselves enjoying an excellent campaign, able to keep within touching distance. A 2-1 home defeat to the Granata generated nerves after reducing the gap from six points to three, but the Veronese held out.

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The title was secured with a week to spare, Elkjær scoring the crucial goal in a 1-1 draw with Atalanta, securing his place as a Veronese icon in the process. A final day victory would see Verona match the points total of Roma and Juve’s previous two Scudetto victories, despite having a comparatively small squad that saw Bagnoli use just 17 players all season.

The manager and squad returned to Veneto as heroes, hailed by the press and fans alike, having written themselves into football folklore. The success remains the last time to date that the league would be won be a provinciale, with every title since going to one of the big-city clubs.

Sadly, Bagnoli’s side were unable to maintain their success, with the club’s subsequent fall matching its meteoric rise in terms of speed. They would be drawn with Juventus in the 1985/86 European Cup, being knocked out by the holders, while their league form never again matched the highs of the previous season.

Though Bagnoli remained loyal despite approaches from other teams, members of his squad would find the attraction of bigger clubs more difficult to resist. Reminiscent of the modern-day stripping of clubs such as Monaco, a number of Verona’s stars would leave the club over the next few seasons. Fanna would be the first to go, joining Inter, while Briegel, Garella and Galderisi joined Sampdoria, Napoli and Milan, respectively. Elkjær stayed longer than most, though both he and Bagnoli would eventually follow, the influential coach leaving for Genoa in 1990 as Verona were relegated to Serie B once more.

The 1985/86 season would see normal service resume as the title headed to Turin. There was, however, a return to normality in more ways than one, as the random selection of referees was abandoned. It is unfair and inaccurate to devote too much attention to the referee selection process when discussing Verona’s triumph – this was a title won on footballing terms by excellent players masterminded by a genius of a coach. It is, however, impossible not to consider the issues in Italian football that are highlighted by Verona’s victory.

For many, it was hoped that Hellas’ victory would be the catalyst for a purer, more honest future for calcio. This was an image of what football looked like when it was freed from outside influences – a level playing field in which success was determined solely by sporting values. Indeed, their victory appeared to prove suspicions that the Italian FA had previously helped the big clubs from Turin, Milan and Rome by pairing them with favourable officials.

Despite reverting to type over the following seasons, for fans of Italian football Hellas Verona’s solitary Scudetto serves as a picture of what a footballing landscape free from corruption and outside interference may have looked like in times gone by. It served as a reminder that the sport, when at its purest, can provide upsets rarely seen elsewhere.

Though the limelight will continue to fall on the traditional, often controversial, powers from Turin, Milan and Rome, nobody can ever take away Verona’s Scudetto. It remains one of the truest victories in calcio history.

By Alan Draper-Lewis

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