Calcio Retro – The Rise and fall and rise again of Chievo’s Flying Donkeys

Here are two misplaced pieces of conventional wisdom that followers of calcio will have to endure from those who have never taken to it. One:- Italian football is a monopoly in which only four or five clubs ever make any sort of impact (although that one seems to have died a death in recent Premier League seasons). Two:- Serie A is a boring league played by teams with defensive mindset, in which a pair of chain-smoking coaches engage in a chess match between themselves in a tedious and mind-numbing attempt to score a solitary and deciding goal. Chievo’s emergence in the early part of the decade as a side that matched almost all in Serie A was a living, breathing embodiment of the stupidity of the above critique. One:- they are not even the biggest team in Verona, let alone the rest of the peninsula, yet managed to reach the qualifying rounds of the Champions League as well as having a genuine impact in Serie A over a number of seasons. Two:- their play at the time exhibited a complete lack of fear. Indeed, the way they approached their first Serie A season produced some of the most expansive and eye-pleasing football you will see anywhere. They were a little on the naïve side if anything. Stereotype well and truly broken.

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It is always worth examining the past of a club in order to outline the context of a particular period of time and its historical significance. The club from the Chievo suburb of Verona lived for many years in the shadow of their bigger brother, Hellas, whose peak was their remarkable Scudetto success of 1985. After going through a multitude of names and incarnations – including Paluani Clievo, after the cake company that originally owned them – the club embarked on a steady ascent up the calcio pyramid that saw it reach Serie C1 in 1989. The story of serial over-achievement began in 1993, when Alberto Malesani was promoted from within to become their new coach. An unbeaten record at home led them to the summit of the Serie C1A tile race before a 2-1 win at Carrarese ensured promotion and that they would join their more illustrious neighbours in the second tier. Malesani then oversaw two seasons of consolidation that were built on solid defence – with the added bonus of a 3-1 success over their neighbours in only the second Verona derby. 1996/97 was the first time that promotion to the elite level looked a possibility. They eventually faded to finish seventh, and the disappointment was compounded by Fiorentina being sufficiently impressed to poach the services of their coach. For a few seasons a sense of gravity and realism took hold again as merely remaining competitive in the second tier became a more achievable aim before Luigi Del Neri, former coach of Empoli and Ternana, arrived in the summer of 2000.

Del Neri had already shown in his Ternana days that there was a way in which you can create positive vibes and an upward momentum at a club that can defy the laws of any game played on paper. From the moment they overcame the relative giants of Genoa on the opening day, results that would seem far-fetched to the eye of a layman were achieved without fuss. Bernardo Corradi spearheaded an attack that proved incisive while Lorenzo D’Anna and Salvatore Lanna provided a strong defence at this level. The experience of Eugenio Corini proved useful as well as his dead-ball expertise. Empoli, Torino,Venezia, Cagliari, Salernitana? No problem. All brushed aside, and results like a 5-1 mincing of Monza indicated at the attacking intent that would gain a much higher profile the following season. Throw in a victory at Luigi Ferraris to complete a double over a club that should have been able to devour them and you have promotion material. Torino may have eventually won the Serie B title that year but the real accolades belonged to Del Neri and his team. For many fans of larger Serie A clubs, a patronising romanticism could be afforded as it was almost certain to an onlooker that the party would last for only the following season. Chievo and their relatively small band of fans could enjoy themselves before succumbing to the inevitable relegation that followed. Even if survival were somehow negotiated, they were no threat to the established elite, surely? Wrong!!

The history of newly promoted sides in Serie A is not great. There are two factors that tend to cripple many of them before a ball is kicked. One is the departure of key personnel, either on the playing and coaching side, which leaves something weaker at the elite level than the collective entity that got there. The other is psychological fear, a sense that somehow ‘we do not belong here’ and a self-fulfilling prophecy that relegation is inevitable. Thus, a side that plays positive football to ascend a tier suddenly goes into a defensive shell, born out of a sense of paralysis and too much respect for the opposition.

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Neither of these happened to Chievo. From the moment Simone Perotta gave them the lead in Florence in Week 1, Chievo meant business. The Flying Donkeys were airborne and a team of snipers would have struggled to shoot them down. Massimo Marrazina became synonymous with the term Goalazzo!! as yellow shirts swarmed and ambushed their opponents, especially proficient from wide positions. Their play was with the aim of attacking and unsettling their opponents, with some sizeable scalps. Established teams such as Udinese, Parma and Lazio all found themselves unable to deal with this high-tempo style, Chievo hit an all-time high by beating Inter at the San Siro on December 16 2001. Corradi and Marazzina wrote their names in history as Chievo sat proudly at the top of the standings. That Roma would outclass them 3-0 the following week was perhaps an indication that even fantasy in football has its limits. Still, the slide in form that followed was arrested in time to win the second Verona derby of that season and remain in the race for European qualification. The 2-1 win over Atalanta on the final day guaranteed fifth spot, which was still an incredible achievement for a club whose natural home was probably a division lower. That they scored 57 goals and conceded 52 was a testament to their sense of enjoyment and rejection of the hardened cynicism that can blight football at all levels across Europe. It was also a fitting tribute to Jason Mayele, their Congolese wide player who died in a car crash during that season and in whose honour the number 30 shirt has been permanently retired.

In addition to the emergence of Nicola Legrotaglie and the renaissance of Oliver Bierhoff, the following season was notable for Chievo’s seventh-placed finish, a clear demonstration that this was no glorious fluke. It was apparent that many of the players who had been with Chievo since their days in the lower divisions were indeed much better than they had been given credit for. Indeed there was something special about the environment which maybe brought an extra ten per cent out of them, but there was the sense that these donkeys could continue to fly for some time, even in the absence of their inspirational coach. It was also the season in which a disappointing record in European competition began, with Red Star Belgrade progressing 2-0 on aggregate. Their failure to qualify for continental competition the following season was due to a late winner for a Juventus side whose own achievements at the time would later endear them much less to the general public. The ninth placed finish in Del Neri’s last season was with the biggest compliment you can pay to a club of Chievo’s stature. It was no longer considered a surprise it had happened.

As Del Neri moved on to have troubled coaching stints with Porto and Roma, with him went some of the idealism that had illuminated the previous four seasons. A relegation battle was successfully negotiated by seven points from the last three matches of the 2004/05 season. While Chievo would eventually play in the 2006/07 Champions League qualifying rounds (lost to Levski Sofia of Bulgaria), the club is remembered more by the context of the Calciopoli scandal, which sadly overshadowed the fact that Giuseppe Pillon had skilfully moulded a side that had never been out of the top seven in the league and had once again qualified for European competition on merit. This time it owed much to quality players like Franco Semioli, who had made his Azzurri debut while a Chievo player against Croatia on 16 August 2006. That Pillon was sacked the following season and Del Neri’s return failed to prevent relegation marked the end of an era. However, Chievo are back in Serie A and look set to stay there under a more pragmatic coach in Domenico Di Carlo. Still, their work in dispelling myths and cultural stereotypes is their mark on mortality.

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