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Modern football has made it nigh on impossible for provincial teams to win major prizes. As the game’s chief beneficiaries are mostly metropolitan clubs from large cities, the possibility of an unexpected championship triumph becomes beyond rare.
In Italy, Juventus from Turin and the Milanese clubs have invariably dominated Serie A, but very rarely, a smaller club has come to the fore. But if you take the clubs from Milan, Turin and Rome, along with Napoli, out of the equation, there have been only four Italian champions in the modern game from elsewhere – Fiorentina (1969), Cagliari (1970), Verona (1985) and Sampdoria (1991).
In 1984-85, Hellas Verona won their only scudetto, in an era when Serie A had some outstanding players from home and abroad. For a short while, the football club outshone the tourist trade in a city more known for its romantic links with Shakespeare and the tale of Romeo and Juliet.
That list of luminaries included Diego Maradona, who landed amid a blaze of publicity in the summer of 1984 as he sought refuge from his unhappy spell with Barcelona. Other clubs had their trophy acquisitions, such as Michel Platini at Juventus, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge at Inter, Zico at Udinese and Junior at Torino. Verona were not among the favourites for the title, although they had performed credibly since returning to Serie A in 1982. Verona’s prize imports, both signed in the close season of 1984, were a German, Hans-Peter Briegel, and Denmark’s Preben Larsen-Elkjær, who arrived from Bundesliga side Kaiserslautern and Belgian club Lokeren respectively.
Elkjær had been one of the outstanding players of the 1984 European Championship, scoring twice as Denmark charmed their way to the semi-finals, only to lose on penalties to Spain. It was Elkjær that missed Denmark’s fifth penalty that paved the way for Spain to go through to the final. At almost 26 years of age, Elkjær was now in his prime and if he was going to make an impact on world football, he needed a move to one of the top leagues. Verona gave him that opportunity, although if more people were aware of the power of the Dane, bigger clubs may have come in search of him. At Lokeren, he scored almost a century of league goals in six seasons, but it was his performances for Denmark that finally brought him to the attention of the international football community.
Briegel had been part of the West Germany team that won the 1980 European Championship. A versatile player, he was also a superb athlete and his physical strength played to the stereotyping of German footballers from the period, strong, upright and functional. However, Briegel won 72 caps for his country and for four consecutive seasons – between 1979-80 to 1982-83 – he was named in the Bundesliga all-star team.
Verona’s coach, Osvaldo Bagnoli, was in his fourth season in charge and had taken Verona up from Serie B in 1982. Bagnoli, a Milanese, had played for Verona in a journeyman career in which he made a reputation as a hard midfielder.
His methods were built around defensive solidity but with an emphasis on fast counter-attacking, you could say typical Italian qualities although this was not a team founded on the dreaded catenaccio. Verona had the toughest possible opening fixture, at home to Napoli – Maradona’s Serie A debut. Verona opened the scoring in the 26thminute through Briegel and ran out 3-1 winners as Maradona struggled against the German hard man. Verona continued their impressive start, winning their first three games and going 14 games unbeaten. At the turn of the year, they were top, two points clear of Inter and Torino. Their first defeat came on January 13 at the hands of Avellino.
Despite being pacesetters all season, there were still doubts that Verona could go the distance and win Serie A for the first time. On March 24, people really started to believe – Verona beat Cremonese 3-0 while Inter lost to Juve and Torino beat Milan. Verona were five points clear at the top. A week later, that margin extended to six points. Their next game was at home to Torino, one of the sides with hopes of overtaking Bagnoli’s team. Torino won 2-1, but that proved to be Verona’s last defeat of the season.
The final run-in was tense, Verona stuttering with four draws in the last seven games. But their rivals were equally hesitant: Torino drew three of their last four games; Inter lost three of their final seven and Sampdoria won just one of their last four. Throughout the final hurdle, Verona had a four-point advantage in a time when two points were awarded for a win. Only once did anyone draw level with them, in January when Inter and Verona were both on 23 points. The title was clinched on May 12 1985 at Atalanta, a 1-1 draw secured by a second half goal from Elkjær. At the same time, Inter were losing a seven-goal thriller at Roma and Torino were drawing 0-0 in Florence. It was enough to make the scudetto safe.
Verona ended the Serie A programme with a 4-2 victory against Avellino, with leading scorer Giuseppe Galderisi netting his 11thgoal of the season. Galderisi, a speedy, dimunitive player, had joined Verona from Juventus in 1983. He went on to win 10 caps for Italy but stayed only one more season after the title win and signed for Milan in 1986. The first regular to depart, though, was ever-present goalkeeper Claudio Garella to Napoli, where he won another Serie A medal.
In the closing weeks, the normally sedate city of Verona had acquired a frantic edge with every success celebrated as the team closed-in on the title. It was but a fleeting moment, for Verona finished 10thin 1985-86 and although they rose to fourth again in 1987, within five years of winning their only scudetto, Hellas Verona were relegated and Bagnoli departed. The good times were over for now, but it is fair to say that in 1985, the Veronese had never had it so good when it came to football.