The 19th May 2020 marks the 35th anniversary of the end of Hellas Verona's historic championship winning season. To celebrate the occasion, the Crazy Faithful revisits the events, personalities and highlights of that remarkable campaign.
Hellas Verona versus Avellino might not sound like the most significant game of football in the sporting calendar, but this was 19 May 1985 and the final whistle of this seemingly unremarkable fixture sparked the beginning of one of the wildest parties Verona has ever seen – a celebration of one of the greatest ever sporting achievements.
U.S. Avellino 1912 were a little-known southern provincial side with a chequered history spent mainly in the lower echelons of Italian football. In the early 1980s they somehow sustained a ten-year stint in the Italian top-flight and even finished a respectable 8th place in the 1986/87 season.
On this sunny Sunday afternoon 35 years ago today, the plucky southerners were no more than a bit part, a footnote in annals of Italian football.
That afternoon Hellas Verona were the undisputed stars of the show, for they had miraculously clinched 1984/85 season scudetto the previous weekend with a famous 1-1 draw away to Atalanta.
Even today, 35 years later, fans who were there that day in Bergamo still remember it as the greatest moment of their lives.
The following weekend, nearly 46,000 fans packed into the Bentegodi to celebrate. With goals coming from Fanna, Galderisi and Elkjær, as well as an Avellino o.g., Verona emerged comfortable 4-2 winners. It was a fitting finale to a remarkable campaign.
Back in September, on Hellas Verona’s opening game of that season, a certain Diego Armando Maradona made his Serie A debut at the Bentegodi.
Hellas Verona’s wily coach Osvaldo Bagnoli assigned another foreigner making his Serie A debut the unenviable task of marking the Argentine. In a sign of what was to come, it was the former decathlete Hans-Peter Briegel who emerged on the winning side that day, as Verona started the season with a convincing 3-1 victory against Napoli. In fact, it was Briegel who opened the scoring for Verona that afternoon with a well-placed header.
This was an era before television interests had distorted the fixture list beyond recognition and games were played exclusively on Sunday afternoons. But Serie A was still big business. Arguably the preeminent league in the world, the mid-1980s was just the beginning of a prosperous golden age for Italian football, in which the biggest names in the game flocked to the peninsula. Despite being limited of just two foreign players per team, Platini, Falcao, Zico, Socrates and Rummenigge were just some of the international talents on show in the Italian league that season.
After getting the season off to a winning start, Hellas Verona didn’t lose a match until the 13 January, when they travelled south to play the aforementioned Avellino. It would be two months before they lost another game – this time 2-1 at home to Torino.
These were the only two games that Hellas Verona lost that entire season. Of their many celebrated victories, perhaps the most remembered was the famous 2-0 victory over Juventus, which included the famous Elkjær ‘no-shoe’ goal in front of the home curva.
There were other crucial victories along the way at Udinese (in the mud and rain Hellas had gone 3-0 up only for Udinese to pull it back to 3-3, the match was settled with a remarkable sequence of three goals in four minutes and a famous 5-3 victory for Hellas). Equally important was the 3-1 away victory to Fiorentina in March, a result which seemed to signal that a historic scudetto might actually be possible.
By the beginning of May, there was no halting the momentum, and Hellas went into the penultimate game of the season, a tricky away fixture against Atalanta, requiring just a point to secure the championship.
A caravan of Veronese fans made the short trip along the Autostrada A4, or Serenissima, the motorway which connects Turin and Trieste via Milan, Verona and Venice. It was Elkjær, who else, who secured the crucial equaliser for Verona that afternoon.
Hellas had achieved something that few ever thought possible. An unfancied provincial team were champions of Europe!
Incredible scenes greeted the final whistle, including the iconic image of Osvaldo Bagnoli being carried shoulder high around the pitch by euphoric players and fans.
Probably only the Leicester City Premier League winning side of 2016 has achieved something comparable. But Leicester’s achievement is all the more impressive because they had been relegation contenders the previous season, while Hellas Verona had enjoyed a couple of seasons in which they’d finished in the top six.
So how did they do it?
As with Leicester 30 years later, Verona’s victory was achieved thanks to that rare symbiosis of management, technical staff and players. Coach Osvaldo Bagnoli himself described it as a victory for the changing room. Players who were part of his changing room describe a sense of unity, solidarity and humility unlike any they had experienced before or since.
As a coach, Bagnoli was something of a maverick. A man of few words, but when he spoke (he rarely needed to raise his voice), people tended to listen. He had won the scudetto himself with a Milan side that included Nils Liedholm and Cesare Maldini, who both went on to achieve managerial success of their own.
Bagnoli was no fan of lateral passing or what we might call today ‘tiki-taka’. Instead, he favoured a ‘vertical’ offensive style of football and assembled a team that defended well and transitioned quickly into attack. His side was balanced, united and well-drilled.
Despite his outwardly serious persona, his philosophy was to live and let live, which perhaps explains why a non-conformist personality like Elkjær thrived under his management. In Bagnoli’s first season at Verona, he won promotion into Serie A. He then achieved an impressive 4th and 6th place in the following two seasons.
By the beginning of the 84/85 season, Bagnoli had assembled a formidable team, which included the unflappable keeper Claudio Garella, who conceded just 19 goals in the championship winning season, creative playmaker Antonio Di Gennaro, and hit man ‘nanu’ Galderisi, who scored 13 goals in the scudetto winning season.
In the summer of ’84, the arrival of Briegel, a defensive-minded midfielder from Kaiserslautern, and Elkjær, who replaced Joe “Jaws” Jordan, proved to be inspired acquisitions. Both remain legends in Verona. Elkjær was fun-loving with a wry sense of humour, his team mates immediately warmed to him. On the pitch he was a thorough-bred, his goal against Juve epitomising his pace, power and poise. While Briegel scored 11 goals that season, Elkjær, formed a formidable partnership with Galderisi, contributing 13 goals a piece.
Off the pitch, President Celestino Guidotti and owner Ferdinando Chiampan, a big shot for the Japanese electronics manufacturer Canon, secured the financial backing that was vital for the development of the squad. The iconic blue Adidas/Canon shirt with yellow pinstripe is still revered as the archetypal colours of Hellas Verona.
As to the unavoidable question of whether it could ever happen again – a so-called ‘provincial’ team winning the Italian championship, it seems unlikely. Certainly, few in Verona harbour any hopes of the feat being repeated anytime soon. But a glance westwards towards the neighbouring provincial town of Bergamo, home of Atalanta, offers the best glimmer of hope that once again a miracle might happen.