"And Chievo?" All over Italy this autumn, or so it seems, that two-word question is on the lips of football fans, experts and commentators alike.
Implicit in the question are two queries- 1) How long can the 'fairy tale' last?; and, 2) How does one explain the fact that a Serie A 'new entry', a tiny club from the Verona boondocks, are cocking a snook at Juventus, Roma, Inter et al from atop Serie A?
The Chievo success story is the very stuff of modern football legend. Based in the small Verona suburb of Chievo, a quartiere with just 2,430 inhabitants, this is the sort of club that you might expect to find doing well in a regional amateur league, played of a Sunday morning. Indeed, until their arrival in Serie C2 in 1986, Chievo were an amateur club and one that had been founded along Sunday morning kick around lines by a group of friends back in 1929. Since 1986, however, Chievo have climbed through three divisions on a meteoric trajectory that has taken even their most loyal supporters by surprise. When striker Massimo Marazzina scored the first of three goals with which Chievo beat Torino in late October to go four (repeat, four) points clear at the top of the table, he immediately rushed over to the corner flag. Pulling the flag out of the ground, he stood astride it as if it were a magic broom, and was soon joined in that irreverent position by various team-mates.
That little gesture tells a story that reveals much about the rise and rise of Chievo. A couple of seasons ago when Chievo clashed in a Second Division derby with better known Verona team Hellas Verona (winners of the 1985 Serie A title), the Hellas Verona fans thought to taunt their upstart rivals with a derisive banner: "When donkeys can fly, then Chievo and Verona will meet in a Serie A derby." Marazzina's corner flag gesture was a reference to flying donkeys. Such has been the Chievo run at the top that, just now, football experts all over Italy are ducking low and often to avoid the flying donkeys. Even if it is highly unlikely that Chievo will be anywhere near the top of the table next May, their performance so far has brought a wry smile to many faces, reinforcing the old adage that, sometimes at least, willpower, enthusiasm and commitment can compensate for technical and financial shortcomings.
Inevitably, the Chievo rise and rise has prompted an overdose of fanciful Italian media analysis, with 'fairy tale' and 'Cinderella' being the not too original but most used epithets. This is not the sort of talk that appeals much to coach Luigi Del Neri, formerly a tough, battling midfielder with Udinese and himself a Serie A debutant as coach. "Would people stop talking all this saccharine stuff about fairy tales, there is no fable here. Chievo is the result of hard work, on a daily basis," he said recently. Hard work, the enthusiasm and energy of the debutant, lack of pressure and a less demanding calendar than their more famous rivals, involved in mid-week Champions League and UEFA Cup games, all certainly provide a rational explanation for the Chievo success story. All those factors applied to similar success stories for Atalanta last season and for Vicenza back in 1996, who both briefly topped the table.
Such analysis, however, hardly does justice to a club that is nothing if not a David in a world of mega-Goliaths. While Chievo are justifiably proud of having signed up more than 4,700 season ticket holders this year, the Milans, Romas and Inters of Serie A can all claim more than 10 times as many season ticket fans. Whereas Chievo will be more than delighted with the estimated £5million-worth of TV rights money earned this season, Juventus are currently on a five-year pay-tv deal worth at least 12 times that much, and that does not take into account Champions League earnings this season.
Such statistical differences, however, mean little when Chievo take to the field, as seen in wins against Fiorentina, Bologna, Piacenza, Udinese, Parma and Torino. Built around a 4-4-2 line-up that uses a zonal defence much given to playing the offside trap, Chievo make the most of a hard running, hard-chasing, combative style that leads them to pick up a lot of yellow cards. Unlike many Serie A debutants, Chievo did not mark their arrival in the First Division with the purchase of big-name foreigners. Rather, they stuck both to the side that earned promotion last season and to the fiscal stringency enforced by club president, 33-year-old Luca Campedelli, head of Paluani, a company that makes Verona's celebrated 'Pandoro' Christmas cakes. Therefore, this Chievo is mighty similar to last season's team with only two 'new boys' regularly picked - ex-Bari midfielder Simone Perrotta and ex-Roma reserve goalkeeper Cristiano Lupatelli.
Another of this summer's signings, ex-Reggina striker Massimo Marazzinao has in fact returned home to the club where he had played for four seasons from 1996 to 2000. As for the money spent, prices such as £1.3m for Lupatelli, £1m for Perrotta, £1.2m for Brazilian Eriberto (he was on loan last season from Bologna), and £1m for Marazzina are hardly earth-shattering by modern Serie A standards. "I don't have £100million to spend and therefore I spend what I've got and I try hard to spend it well," says Campedelli, who is fast becoming legendary for his laid-back approach to his club's sudden notoriety. "What really 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.
”What really worries me about our success is all the time I have to spend talking to reporters. I have a business to run and at this stage what I'll have to do is hire a temporary president to do all the interviews while I get on with the pre-Christmas rush on our cakes," Campedelli told La Repubblica.
The club president's views are echoed by his players, with long-time Chievo stalwart, 32-year-old defender Maurizio D'Angelo, telling Gazzetta Dello Sport: "When we were in C2, the club begged a reporter to watch us once a week to give the players the impression that the press was interested in us. Nowadays, we are under siege.”
The journey that some of the current Chievo team have made from those C2 days to Serie A also goes a long way to explaining the success story. Players such as talented left-sided midfielder Christian Manfredini have become inebriated with the unfamiliar elixir of week-in, week-out clashes with the Shevchenkos, Del Pieros and Batistutas of Serie A. Others such as influential captain and former Juventus midfielder Eugenio Corini have a point to prove after previous Serie A disappointments. Between them, they have formed a wickedly effective cocktail. In the process, the club may also have embarrassed more famous rivals with their sound soccer-business know-how.
One man who believes that Chievo represent a raw nerve for Italy's mightiest names is former Milan star Gianni Rivera, who suggested recently: "Chievo to some extent represents the bad conscience of the big clubs. I would like to think that the big clubs could learn from Chievo but I have my doubts. All the big clubs start off these days with 30-plus players and then they get rid of at least 10 of them and among those rejects are bound to be players who, in a less pressurised environment, begin to play really well."
And Chievo have been playing really well. Furthermore, they have been running really hard, so much so that expert opinion is convinced that the little team will "blow up", sooner or later (perhaps in December, when they play Milan, Inter and Roma). Coach Del Neri is less convinced, saying recently: "All last season in Serie B, people kept on asking when we would blow up. There were stronger clubs than us in Serie B, some of them came up and some stayed down. We were out in front, we had a logical slowing down but we didn't blow up, even if lots of people were hoping we would." Even if Del Neri is all too aware that his club's success story may well get under the skin of famous rivals, he freely admits too that thousands of fans all over Italy are wishing Chievo well: "It's true, 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."
Not too many people would argue with that. In the meantime, remember to watch out for flying donkeys.
This article originally appeared in the December 2001 edition of World Soccer.