"When donkeys'll fly, we'll have a derby in Serie A," chanted the gleeful fans of Hellas Verona. Year after year, decade after decade, they poured scorn on their long-suffering city rivals, mocking them for their seemingly endless existence in the Italian lower divisions.
Hellas were the team synonymous with the city of Verona; since their promotion in 1968 they were a mainstay in the top flight for over two decades and famously won the Scudetto in 1985, at a time when city neighbours Chievo were amateurs playing in the regional fifth tier. Such was their superiority, they briefly rebranded as ‘Verona’ in the early 1990s before reverting back to Hellas Verona.
Indeed, the disparity between the clubs ensured the Derby della Scala (named after the aristocratic family who ruled the city during the Middle Ages) only staged its first competitive match in 1994 following Chievo’s promotion to Serie B.
This in itself was huge for the club, named after their tiny district in the west of the city, home to fewer than 3,000 inhabitants. Its meaning derives from the Latin "clivium mantici" - “hill of the magic wood" -but Tim Parks, author of A Season with Verona, described it rather less optimistically in a piece for the Guardian in 2001: "I'd lived in Verona more than 10 years before I stumbled across it, a miserable case of working-class suburb overflowing into declining semi-industrialised fenland,” Parks explained.
“Fortunately it's not very large. On a generous count there are a mere 3,000 souls; pigeons, water rats and stray dogs included. No guide ever showed any tourist round this place.”
These comments may have been a touch mischievous, due to the author’s affinity with Hellas, yet seven years on from the first Verona derby, this tiny working-class suburb produced a team that won a deeply improbable promotion to the top flight. The miracle occurred only 72-years after the club was born and a mere 15-years after they upgraded from amateur status following their promotion to Serie C2.
Chievo would be competing with the likes of Juventus, Inter, AC Milan, Roma and Lazio, with Nedved, Del Piero, Thuram, Buffon, Ronaldo, Vieri, Veron, Totti, Montella, Inzaghi, Shevchenko, Maldini and all the rest. Serie A hosted a plethora of talent and was the envy of world football. Tiny Chievo was a David in a world of Goliaths, where the thought of survival let alone any degree of success appeared faintly ridiculous.
They had secured promotion virtue of a third-placed finish, trailing Torino and Piacenza but were in no financial position to gamble on revamping their squad ahead of the new campaign. Only two new signings became regulars - ex-Roma reserve goalkeeper Cristiano Lupatelli and Simone Perrotta, the midfielder previously at Bari.
"I don't have £100million to spend, therefore I spend what I've got and I try hard to spend it well," stated club President Luca Campedelli.
The 33-year-old had inherited the post ten years previously, when his dad Luigi passed away following a heart attack. Luca, who’s laid-back and matter-of-fact approach to the club’s meteoric rise became renowned, also took over his father’s company Paluani – that made Verona’s famous ‘Pandoro’ Christmas cakes.
The club made Lupatelli their record signing at £1.3 million, but their modest purchases – which also included the permanent signing of winger Eriberto (who had been on loan from Bologna) and the return of striker Massimo Marazzina from Reggina – as well as lack of expenditure on expensive foreigners, did little to change the consensus that their time in Serie A would be short and not particularly sweet.
Coached by former Empoli boss. Luigi Delneri, who had been instilled a year previously, Chievo stuck with their 4-4-2 formation which had proven so effective in securing promotion. They became known for being tactically disciplined and extremely dangerous on the counter attack, carrying a significant goal threat. The extremely offensive wing pairing of Eriberto and Christian Manfredini provided flair and ensured thrills, while Perrotta partnered the hugely experienced and dead-ball specialist club captain Eugenio Corini, formerly of Hellas. Up front, Delneri alternated between Massimo Marazzina, Bernardo Corradi and Federico Cossato – notching up over 30 league goals between them.
Lupatelli not only established himself as the regular goalkeeper, but his number 10 shirt and combination of a shaven head with sideburns and a goatee beard became legendary. He marshaled a well-drilled backline who, between them, would amass in excess of 1,300 appearances for the club. Long-standing centre-half pairing, Lorenzo D’Anna and Maurizio D’Angelo, excelled having been at the heart of the club’s success and were flanked by full-backs Fabio Moro and Salvatore Lanna.
They became renowned for playing a high defensive line and were committedly combatant, an aggressive style that led to plenty of yellow cards. However, this potentially risky approach proved hugely effective.
Chievo flew out of the blocks. They began the campaign with back-to-back two-goal victories over Fiorentina and Bologna, before their visit to the Stadio Delle Alpi to meet title favourites Juventus. Many predicted Delneri’s men would be brought crashing back to earth, with the star-studded Bianconeri putting them in their place. Within twenty minutes, Marazzina netted twice to give the visitors a scarcely believable two-goal lead. However, goals from the unlikely sources of Alessio Tacchinardi and Igor Tudor leveled things up for Juventus, before a hugely controversial late penalty – awarded for a handball by Moro, when replays showed the ball hitting his chest – was converted by Marcelo Salas.
But rather than deterring the Gialloblu, this miscarriage of justice spurred them on, incredibly winning four of their next five matches including a victory over high-flying Parma. It was a run of results which propelled Chievo four points clear at the top of Serie A. The scarcely believable fairytale had altered the Italian definition of incredulity and torn up the script. When Marazzina scored the first of his side’s three goals in a comfortable victory over Torino in the final week of October, he rushed to the corner flag, wrenching it from the ground, made as if it were a magic broom before being joined by several team-mates. Not even they could quite believe it.
"What pleases me is that the demand for our Pandori (Christmas cakes) keeps going up and that makes me much happier than being top of Serie A,” said President Campedelli, typically cool as a cucumber.
” What worries me about our success is all the time I have to spend talking to reporters - I have a business to run! Maybe I'll hire a temporary president to do all the interviews while I get on with the pre-Christmas rush on our cakes."
For six weeks they stood atop the standings, looking down at their stunned opponents, basking in the glory and admiration of observers in Italy and Europe alike. The second defeat of the season was a painful one, losing a five-goal thriller to Hellas at a sell-out (38,356) Stadio Marc'Antonio Bentegodi. Just as at Juve, Delneri’s side raced into a two-goal lead before eventually succumbing. The emotion for Hellas was clear before the clash: "win for us Hellas, and these miserable peasants will magically disappear”, proclaimed a writer on their website.
It was a similar story a fortnight later at San Siro with yet another 3-2 defeat, this time to AC Milan. As with all defeats, Chievo had taken the lead and it was penalties – usually a result of their high-risk style – which proved their undoing in all three losses.
Despite the setbacks, Chievo remained in the Champions League positions with victories over Perugia, Lecce, Atalanta and their biggest scalp of all – Inter. The Nerrazzuri led the table when they hosted Chievo ten days before Christmas, but goals either side of the break from strike duo, Corradi and Marazzini, stunned Héctor Cúper’s side in what Delneri described post-match as ‘the biggest win in our history.’
January saw the start of a run which yielded only one victory in eleven outings, although that in itself was a convincing 3-1 win over Lazio and they suffered only three defeats in this time.
However, tragedy struck midway through Chievo’s run of five consecutive draws, as they faced a midweek fixture away to Parma. Jason Mayélé, the 26-year-old winger signed from Cagliari the previous summer, died in a car crash as he made his way to the game. Mayélé made ten appearances for Chievo and had starred in the African Cup of Nations earlier that year. It was news which once again shocked the Italian game, less than six weeks after the death of Brescia defender, Vittorio Mero, in a similar accident. After Mayélé’s death, Chievo retired his number 30 shirt as a mark of respect.
The club’s winless run was ended in the sweetest of circumstances – Cossato scoring twice to down Hellas in a bad-tempered fixture which was overshadowed by racist chanting from the Hellas fans directed at Eriberto. A little gloss was also taken off the victory after Moro was sent-off in the closing stages for a rash challenge.
Chievo only lost one of their final 12 league outings and secured well-earned draws at Lazio and Parma while they also held both Milan clubs – Cossato’s last minute equaliser against Inter with only two games remaining proved pivotal in the destination of the title.
A final day win over Atalanta wasn’t enough to ensure a spot in the following season’s Champions League, as they were pipped into fourth place by AC Milan, who ironically went on to win European club football’s top prize. However, the remarkable campaign ensured that they qualified for the UEFA Cup and this provided a much-needed financial boost to a club who only a year previous, had been playing in front of fewer than 5,000 spectators.
The journey from Serie C2 to the top flight and immediate European football is a true fairytale story in modern football. But how was a squad built on a wage bill less than that of Andriy Shevchenko able to achieve such a feat? This was a club who struggled to fill even a quarter of their near 40,000-seater stadium when taking on the giants of European football.
The squad were comprised of players who had either been part of the club fabric since the days of lower-league football – D’Angelo, D’Anna, Manfredini, Cossato – or were cast-offs from other top-flight clubs and thus they had a point to prove – Lupatelli, Corini, Eriberto, Corradi. It was a group of players who all wanted to show that they belonged at the top level having previously only dreamed of being elevated to such a status. They wanted to fight and prove the doubters wrong, and it proved a cocktail that was simply too intoxicating for their opponents.
Their hard-running, high-pressing, in-your-face style led to criticisms that they would eventually crash in the latter stages of the season, but despite a slow-down in results they only suffered two defeats after January.
It was a story that was important on more than just a footballing level, explained boss Delneri.
“You cannot deny that we've become a symbol for some, even if we are only a football club. Not everyone in this life is a millionaire. We've proved that we can still pull off some useful results."
Amateurs just over 30 years ago, this season Chievo will compete in Italy’s top flight for the 16th time in 17 years. In 2006, they even made it into the Champions League qualifiers, albeit thanks in large part to the Calciopoli punishments. In contrast, their city rivals Hellas were relegated at the end of Chievo’s debut season. Lunging from one disaster to the next, they suffered an 11-year absence from the top flight and after a three-year stint, were relegated again in 2016.
Chievo’s adopted nickname? Mussi Volanti – Flying Donkeys. It is now a badge of honour for the fans, who continue to live the miracle.
Words by Colin Millar: @Millar_Colin
'Colin is a European football writer, focusing on the game in Spain and Italy. Passion for Andalusian football and runs @FutbolAlAndalus twitter account. Also owns and runs @NIFootballDaily, the one and only website to comprehensively cover the game in his native Northern Ireland'.