Ballad of the flying donkeys

Large attendances and a rich history. A shoe-in for top flight football, surely? Not in Italy, and not in Verona. Adamo Digby on changing times.

In 1986, AC Chievo Verona asked permission to move from Carlantonio Bottagisio - essentially a local parish field - to the Stadio Bentegodi, home to the reigning Serie A champions and city neighbours Hellas Verona. This was the first time many fans in a city of a quarter of a million inhabitants had heard of the minnows, coming as they did from a suburb that is home to just 4500 people. The move stemmed from Chievo’s promotion to Serie C2 for the first time in their history, the fifth promotion earned by the team in a fifteen-year period. Six years and another promotion later, Chievo were rocked when their President, Luigi Campedelli, died of a heart-attack, passing ownership of the club to his then 23 year old son Luca. Luca continued the excellent work of his father, although their main philosophy was to always protect the family company - confectioners Paluani - by not spending too much money on the football club. The dream of course was to join their neighbours in the top division, a hope often derided by Hellas fans firm in their belief that 'donkeys will fly before Chievo are in A'.

By the mid nineties however, Alberto Malesani had led Chievo to the C1 title and promotion to Serie B, a rise that coincided with a slight decline for Hellas. This finally meant the two Verona clubs would meet and on December 11 1994, the city had its first derby, which ended 1-1. The bigger club managed to escape the second division and went back into Serie A, continually mocking their rivals but never again reaching the heights of that 1985 title triumph.

Then in 2001, the distant dream finally became reality. Chievo were in A, yet surely fans of Hellas could console themselves it would not last. In football, many words are used to publicize matches, sell tickets or television packages and to promote players and clubs in order to make money. Miracle is one of the words used all too often, to the point where it’s meaning and impact is lost from hearing it all too regularly.  Nevertheless, when it comes to discussing Chievo's debut season in Italy's top flight miracle is precisely the word that must be used. How else to describe a club that had such modest resources and fan base actually leading the league for six weeks, before eventually finishing fifth and earning entry to the UEFA Cup? To complete the fairytale their city rivals were relegated.

Over the next few seasons, Chievo established themselves in the top-flight and they were one of the few beneficiaries of the Calciopoli scandal. The seventh place finish they originally achieved in 05/06 was impressive enough but once the punishments were handed out, they ended up fourth. These donkeys were not just flying, they were in the Champions League!

However, their good fortune did not last and they too were relegated back to Serie B at the end of that same season. Unlike Hellas however, Chievo bounced back in impressive fashion, securing the league title and they have not been back to Serie B since. Even with their meteoric rise, their start to this season has been eye-catching. Away wins over Napoli and Genoa were impressive, and a home win over champions Inter was as deserved as it was shocking. A 1-1 draw with a resurgent Juventus saw them go into the winter break in tenth place. The biggest story however came with the unveiling of their new away shirt on which their usual club crest has been replaced by what looks like a simple ladder motif. The connotations run far deeper however, as it is the Scaglieri ladder, the emblem of the ancient lords of the city, the clearest signal yet that Chievo are little by little replacing Hellas as the club of Verona.

"The world at large finds Chievo a far more palatable phenomenon than Hellas… If Chievo go up to A and Hellas down to B… could this really be the beginning of the end for the Hellas community?"  - Tim Parks, A Season with Verona

The only criticism one can make of the club is the number of empty seats at the Stadium, with the second lowest attendance in Serie A and, most telling, lower than Hellas manage in the third tier. Chievo rely almost completely on television money to compete, but even so they are in good financial health and, crucially, competitive on the field. The credit for this lies almost solely with one man, sporting director Giovanni Sartori whose shrewd maneuvering in the transfer market marks him out as one of the best in the business.

Hellas looked to be improving last season when they spent most of the year on course for promotion but lost their final game and then the play-off final to remain in C1. This situation is seen by some as epitomising what is wrong with football today, as a club surviving purely on TV money and relatively few fans triumphs over a far more historic well supported rival. Given the way Campedelli and Sartori run Chievo, the words of Tim Parks appear almost prophetic and he, along with the rest of the Brigate Gialloblu, will be forced to continue looking skyward at their rivals.

You can follow Adamo on Twitter @Adz77 for insight into the Italian game, past and present.

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