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May 12, 2003

Gentlemen of Verona

You may think Chievo are in their second Serie A season ever, but it's not that simple.

There actually have been three seasons so far for the Verona club: last year, the season of roses, the first few months of cheers, flying donkeys and patronising stories; then, the second season, from January on, when Chievo were no longer a novelty and people started to get tired of all those cliches (ask Tim Parks and Verona fans about this).

Then, this season, which has been marked by a consistent streak: Chievo are not the amiable, fun-loving, home-cooked bunch they were (or were thought to be) nor are they a cynical, money-grabbing, ref-baiting Serie A club.

They are simply Chievo, which means they will make the headlines for their positive feats and will be criticised for making a wrong move, just like everyone else, having long given up the honeymoon period when they could do no wrong because even if they did no one would have dared speak ill against them, in the sacred name of political correctness which states 'thou shalt not blast provincial teams whose chairmen are not bald and do not have a stare which maketh you rush to the emergency exit'.

Their origin and makeup were obviously irresistible for the PC forces, the same media sources who regularly kiss up to the mega-clubs and perhaps felt that devoting pages and pages to little Chievo may regain them some of their long-lost virginity.

Chievo had been founded in 1929 as OND Chievo, OND being the acronym for the fascist-era organization meant to provide means for youth sports, but for more than forty years they remained stuck in the Prima and Seconda Categoria, Italy's eight and ninth division, and no one complained, as after all they were a club based in a small village (the name Chievo stems from the ancient Latin Clivus) which was subsequently gobbled up by Verona's urban expansion.

Playing their home games in a dilapidated, riverside shack of a stadium named Bottagisio, which has only recently acquired legendary status because of the team's ascension, Chievo only climbed up in 1975, reaching the Promozione (sixth division) before attracting the attention of Luigi Campedelli, a local businessman who had made a name for himself in the food industry, gaining a big chunk of the market in 'pandori', a Christmas cake in the shape of a chef hat indigenous to Verona.

A sugar daddy in a literal sense, Campedelli took over Chievo and treated it as a family jewel, helping it to the Serie C2 - the lowest level of professional football in Italy - then in 1989 to the Serie C1, Italy's third division.

Pro football had meant leaving the Bottagisio and sharing the big Stadio Bentegodi with Verona, which made for a lack of atmosphere as the few hundred of Chievo fans could fill only a fraction of the 30,000 capacity stadium.

The Chievo faithful at Stadio Bentegodi.
The Chievo faithful at Stadio Bentegodi.

Promotion to the Serie B was nevertheless achieved in 1994 and that's basically when most of Italy learnt that 'Chievo' did not actually play in their hometown, a fact that had previously been known only to anxious opposing team's coach drivers.

Alberto Malesani, who went on to Fiorentina then ironically to Verona, was their manager, but Serie A status was memorably achieved in 2001 under Luigi Del Neri, who had previously taken Empoli to the top division before being mysteriosly dismissed.

Chievo's unlikely promotion sparked the now-famous 'flying donkeys' legend: during a Verona derby in the Serie B in 1997, Verona fans had displayed a banner with the word 'we'll meet in Serie A when donkeys fly'.

As soon as Chievo went up, the rhetoric of the flying donkeys spread like a wildfire (it was tailor made for patronising stories, after all) and you could see 'mussi' (local speak for 'asini', donkeys) pictured everywhere in the stadium, in banners, on T-shirts.

While taking the Serie A by storm in the first weeks of the 2001-02 season, Chievo established a standard which they themselves would be hard pressed to keep up to.

Brilliant play, constant movement, a complete lack of awe for big name teams, as witnessed by the early season game at Juventus where the Verona team went up 2-0 before the Bianconeri managed to claw their way back and win 3-2 with a late penalty (so nothing new here....).

But it was less a case of brilliant results than brilliant play: the cognoscenti had scoffed at Del Neri's suggestion that his preferred 4-4-2 style was actually a 4-2-4, but Chievo's effectiveness was beyond suspicion and soon everyone was jumping on their bandwagon before the novelty wore off.

Fifth place meant access to Europe, but many felt that Chievo would have trouble in their second (or third, if you will) season, as opponents would find now be able to expose their weaknesses.

Weaknesses? What weaknesses? While Luigi Campedelli's son Luca, a 35-year-old fanatic of English football whom many infuriatingly keep comparing to Harry Potter for his appearance, is keeping a steady ship with good judgment and a relatively low payroll, Del Neri has managed to steer Chievo again to the upper half of the Serie A and with two games to go in the season only Lazio and their 57 points stand between Chievo and a Champions League preliminary phase spot.

The beauty of this all is that Chievo have changed a few players from last year, but have managed to cling to Del Neri's belief that 'We are not good one on one, we can beat anybody ten against ten', the epitome of team play.

Del Neri himself is seen as a candidate for every big-club job opening - but some say his egalitarian beliefs would cause problems for star players - and as an up-and-coming coach even though he's already 53, but that perception is part of the 'mystique' that has surrounded Chievo and has not completely vanished.

Granted, no one talks about flying donkeys anymore, no-one even remembers Luca Campedelli's famous statement that he'd have to pay bonuses in 'pandori' - a gentler version of 'let'em eat cake'.

Luca Campedelli, Harry Potter lookalike and English football fanatic.
Luca Campedelli, Harry Potter lookalike and English football fanatic.

Now Chievo are taken seriously just like they deserve: the perception as an attacking team is somewhat disputed by those who think that the basis of their success is in a stout defence and constant pressure by the midfielders, among them 25yr old Simone Perrotta, who's already a member of the National team and might move to Juventus, Inter or Parma in the summer, whoever meets the £11m asking price.

It is believed Chievo will make changes in the offseason, especially in midfield where Luciano (The Player Formerly Known As Eriberto) has struggled on the right since coming back from injury, and wingers are crucial for Del Neri because at times they truly become part of the 4-2-4 which has brought them such a successful season.

Some of their games this time have been less than memorable - they were woefully punchless in Bologna two weeks ago but equalised on a last-second strike from Della Morte - and at times it has seemed ball possession is more valuable to them than actually trying to score, but the bare facts are Chievo are three points from a Champions League place with two games to go, and no amount of patronising can disguise that.

Why, Campedelli may even achieve one of his dreams, a preseason friendly in England against some Premiership team. After all, it's not like someone will pick up the phone at Goodison Park and say 'Chievo who?' anymore, is it?

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