The Blue and Yellow Calcio Miracle

How Hellas Verona took on the elite and won

Such was the dominance of the big city clubs in Italy that only twice in over 20 years prior to 1985 had a team outside of Turin, Rome or Milan won the Scudetto, this dominance still continues as the following 32 years have only seen the title be lofted elsewhere on just three occasions. This statistic is what makes Hellas Verona unique, one of the last smaller teams and probably the smallest of all, to win Italian football’s biggest prize. Hellas were, and still are, a club of modest stature and prior to their Serie B title win in 1981/82 they only had a 1956/57 Serie B title to their name.

In the early 1980s Serie A hosted several superstars of the era; Brazilians, Zico, Socrates and Falcao, future Ballon D’or winner, Michel Platini and German striker, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, were among the elite. There was also the small matter of Diego Maradona’s transfer from Boca Juniors to Napoli in 1983 for a then world record fee of £5m. Platini and company may have been the marquee names but players such as Preben Elkjaer and Giuseppe Galdersi were about to gate crash the party.

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Under the guidance of quiet and unassuming, Osvaldo Bagnoli, Hellas were promoted to Serie A for the 1982/83 season after flipping between the top two divisions for much of the previous decade. In a country still heavily influenced by Catennacio, Bagnoli became the master of a counter attacking hybrid, where the team defended very compactly and were happy to concede possession only to break on the counter with their attacking full backs, Mauro Ferroni and Luciano Maragon, ably assisted by sweeper, Roberto Tricella.

Danish striker, Preben Elkjaer was arguably the star of the team. Bought from Belgian side, Lokeren, in 1984, after playing a vital role in Denmark’s Euro 1984 campaign, he scored 11 goals in his debut season and was the club’s joint top goal scorer. During Hellas’ title-winning season, Elkjaer scored a memorable goal in their 2-0 victory over Juventus; he received the ball in midfield, during a challenge outside the box he lost his right boot but continued and struck home with his bootless-foot. His efforts for club and country were recognised by UEFA as he came third and second in the Ballon d’Or award in 1984 and 1985 respectively. He scored a total of 48 goals in his four years for the Gialloblu, not a huge amount by modern football standards but one has to take into account the strict defences who patrolled Serie A at the time. He helped Denmark to the Semi Final of the 1986 World Cup with a hatrick against Uruguay in a 6-1 win, that Denmark side containing Jesper Olsen, Michael Laudrup and Jan Molby is still considered to be one of the finest the country has produced.

In the days of tough-Italian defending Hellas had their own physical, ball-playing defender. Hans-Peter Briegel, brought agility, pace, technical ability and a goal scoring instinct to Verona’s title challenge. Instantly recognisable because of his preference to play without shin pads, he weighed in with 12 goals during his two years in Italy, nine in the title winning year, and was instrumental in Hellas conceding a league best 19 goals during that season. He played in two World Cups, 1982 and 1986, for West Germany and made 72 appearances. He also made history in 1985 as the first foreign-based winner of the German Footballer of the Year.

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Hellas quickly settled in to life in the top division by finishing fourth, although they drew more games than they won, they only lost six times, proof that Bagnoli had already moulded Hellas in to a tough, determined team who were more than capable of competing with the country’s best teams. Their Serie A results included a fine 2-1 home win versus runners-up, Juventus, although The Old Lady gained some revenge for that defeat by defeating Hellas 3-2, after extra time, in the Coppa Italia Final. Nonetheless Hellas’ reward for an impressive first season was qualification for the following season’s UEFA Cup.

Hellas reached the UEFA Cup Second Round before losing on away goals to Sturm Graz of Austria. They finished a respectable sixth place in Serie A; missing out on a European place by just three points. They only managed two away wins but only lost once at home and were victorious against the top three teams; Roma, Juventus and Fiorentina. On loan journeyman striker, Maurizio Iorio, finished as Hellas’ top goal scorer with 14. Again they suffered Coppa Italia disappointment as they made the Final but were beaten by Roma.

The 1984/85 season saw changes in how referees were selected for Serie A matches as a result of measures brought in after the 1980 Totnero scandal in which a betting syndicate were found to be attempting to influence Serie A and B games, the result saw seven teams and 22 managers and players prosecuted. Lazio and Milan were amongst the teams to be relegated to Serie B. Before Totonero the referees had been selected by a committee but in an attempt to avoid any accusations of corruption the referees were selected randomly the week before the games. Italy is fond of a conspiracy theory and today allegations of favourable refereeing towards the teams from the big cities are still rife. It was hoped by randomly selecting referees a more level and transparent standard of officiating would be brought about.

Hellas’ title-winning season is deeply ingrained in the folklore of the club and Serie A. They were undefeated in their first 14 games and the 2-0 victory over a strong Juventus side (bootless-Elkjaer goal and all), was a defining moment, as was the 1-0 home victory over Roma in March. Diminutive striker, Giuseppe Galderisi, finished as top goal scorer for Hellas with 11; noted for his work rate and accuracy he would go on to play for Milan and in the United States. He later become a reputable lower league manager and his most recent stint the dug out was at Lega Pro side, Lucchese in 2016. Hellas secured the title with a game to spare and in the end the gap to second place was four points. Again Bagnoli’s side proved difficult to beat as they drew 13 games and lost just two, one of which was against runners-up, Torino.

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The conspiracy theorists were given more ammunition in 1985 when the decision was made to revert back to the older method for selecting referees by committee. It is hoped it is merely a coincidence that this happened the season after a provincial team won the title and heavy favourites, Roma and Juventus, finished sixth and seventh. However, it remains a contentious issue for those who don’t follow teams from Rome, Milan and Turin.

The 1985-86 season was something of an anti-climax as they finished way down in tenth position and only managed a solitary away win. Away defeats, 5-0 and 5-1, to Napoli and Udinese, respectively, affirmed their struggles away from Verona. They did however reach the second round of that season’s European Cup after beating Greek side, PAOK, 5-2 on aggregate. They were knocked out by Juventus in controversial fashion after a contentious penalty gave Juve the aggregate lead in the second leg. The first leg in Verona finished 0-0, however the second leg, played behind closed doors due to punishments handed out after the Heysel Stadium disaster in the Final the previous year, ended 2-0 to Juve.

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Much like Zdenek Zeman’s Foggia team of the 1990s, Hellas became a cult team in Italy and around Europe following their title win and subsequent European appearances. Inevitably, like Foggia again, their better players became very attractive to the country’s bigger clubs; Midfielder, Pietro Fanna, Roberto Tricella and Hans-Peter Briegel joined Inter, Juventus and Sampdoria in the years after Hellas’ title win.

Their league fortunes fluctuated over the next five seasons as Hellas mostly finished in mid-table, however they finished fourth in 1986/87 and made a club-best Quarter Final in the following season’s UEFA Cup. They were relegated in 1990 and Osvaldo Bagnoli left the club that summer having overseen the most glorious period in the club’s history. However, the financial pressures of higher wages for players who were in a now ordinary team, coupled with the subsequent relegation took their toll and Hellas were liquidated in 1991 before reforming in 1992 under the name Verona. Bagnoli had already moved on to his next role and achieved success with Genoa in 1992 as they finished fourth and reached the UEFA Cup Semi Final. Success in Genoa facilitated a move to the San Siro to manage Inter in 1992 and the team finished second under his guidance the following season. He retired shortly after his sacking from Inter in 1994 and in January 2018 he was made Hellas’ Honourary Vice President.

To purely attribute Hellas’ title win to the random selection of referees is extremely short sighted, Bagnoli moulded a team of hard-working, talented and tactically aware individuals into a title-winning team. Much of the credit for their triumph is heaped upon the players given Bagnoil’s quiet nature, however he was a great motivator and had a very strong bond with his players and staff; the very fact he only used 17 players in 1984/85 demonstrates the faith in his first team squad. It is sometimes a surprise to see a squad whose focus is solely on tactical awareness and good old fashioned teamwork win a title as it doesn’t happen very often, but it does happen. Favourable comparisons with Greece’s Euro 2004 victory and of course, Leicester City’s 2016 Premier League win, are obvious. Those two victories, not unlike Hellas’, are probably the last of this kind we’ll see for some time, if ever again.

Vive la revoluce! – Zdeněk Zeman, Foggia and the Serie A tactical rebellion.

“If you score 90 goals then it shouldn’t really worry you how many are conceded.”

Zdeněk Zeman

 

Italy’s Serie A in the early 1990’s was dominated by defences, a time of Franco Baresi, Paolo Maldini, Giuseppe Bergomi and Jurgen Kohler. 1991/92 and 1992/93 champions, Milan, scored 74 and 65 goals during the 34 game campaign, their third successive title win in 1993/94 produced an astonishingly low 36 goals, however they only conceded 15 that year as defences tightened their grip on the best league in the world.

Meanwhile, in Apulia, southern Italy, something was starting which would forever change the way modern managers thought about attacking football. Foggia, were starting their rise up into Serie A and were about to threaten the established order at the top of the league as they became one of the 1990s cult teams. Their stay in the top division would only last four seasons but their aggressive attacking style earned them and in particular, their manager, Zdeněk Zeman, many admirers. Lead by the tactical maverick they finished as Serie B champions by six points in 1991/92 and went on to finish ninth, twice, 12th and 16th in Serie A.

Czech-born, Zeman, came from a sporting background, including volleyball and handball, although he never played football and is the nephew of Cestmir Vycpalek, a coach who lead Juventus to two championships in 1971/72 and 1972/73. In 1975 Zeman completed a degree in Sports Science; something which would heavily influence his future training methods and began coaching with the Palermo youth team. He joined Foggia in 1989.

Heralded as an innovator during his time at Foggia, his tactics are straight from a game of Football Manager and have their origins in the Dutch-born ‘total football’. He used a 4-3-3 formation which allowed the full backs and wingers to join the central striker to form a swarm of attacking players and resulted, more often than not, in goals. On the flip side his teams always played a very high defensive line, pressed the opposition midfield and as a result of the attacking full backs being caught out of position the team was very susceptible to the counter attack. In their Serie B championship season they conceded the most of the top six teams and the following season in Serie A, Foggia conceded the second most goals but also scored the second most too, this would become a very familiar statistic for Zeman’s teams. This tactical style of high pressing and overlapping full backs is widespread today however in the ultra-conservative Serie A in the early nineties it was a radical approach, much like ‘total football’ and ‘catenaccio’ before it.

Zeman’s training regimes were notoriously tough and centred around fitness and physical condition as he demanded his players fully buy in to his tactical revolution. Upon being questioned about the rigidity of his training methods he once replied sternly “no one has ever died from them.”

He never found major success with Foggia, their biggest achievements were just missing out on a UEFA Cup place by three, five and seven points in successive seasons as they continuously punched above their weight. His cavalier attacking approach was ultimately his downfall though as his defence was painfully exposed on occasions. During their first season in Serie A, Foggia drew 4-4, 3-3 (twice) and were defeated 5-2 and 8-2. The 8-2 defeat was after leading at half time, 2-1, away to eventual champions, Milan.

Zeman’s time at Foggia had reached a peak after just four seasons and although they continued to excite crowds across Italy the squad was in decline. The previously unknown players were now stars of the Italian game and were snapped up by bigger clubs. Giuseppe Signori, Francesco Baiano and Roberto Rambaudi all moved elsewhere in 1992. Future famous faces of European football such as Dan Petrescu, Igor Shalimov, Jose Antonio Chamot and Luigi Di Biagio all came and went during Zemen’s reign and as a result the team floundered and he left the club for Lazio in 1994. Foggia were relegated at the end of the 1994/95 season and have never returned to the top division since.

Lazio were undoubtedly a step up in his career and he is credited with allowing a young Alessandro Nesta to flourish in the first team as his elegant, ball playing abilities suited Zeman’s style and allowed the defence to turn into the attack at a moment’s notice. He experienced more trophy-less heartache though as they finished second and third in his two seasons managing the Biancocelesti. He stuck with his tactical philosophy and his first season included huge home victories over his old club, Foggia, and Fiorentina, 7-1 and 8-2, respectively. Zeman’s second season was mostly successful as their third place finish guaranteed UEFA Cup football again and his tactic of playing to outscore the opposition, no matter how many they conceded was highlighted with successive wins over Sampdoria and Atalanta by a combined score of 11-4.

He was replaced by Dino Zoff in January 1997 after he was fired as a result of Lazio’s poor start to the season. It wasn’t until the season after that we saw him on the touchline again as he moved to the other end of the Olimpico and took charge of rivals, Roma. He guided them to fourth in 1997/98 as they scored 67 goals, a tally only matched by champions, Juventus. As we know that isn’t the full story with Zeman as the team conceded 42 goals (Atalanta, who were relegated, only conceded six more). The following season brought a fifth place finish and the team scored the most goals in Serie A. However, like being stuck on the set of a Bill Murray movie, this was all beginning to look a little familiar; lots of entertaining, high-scoring games, but no trophies. He was replaced by Fabio Capello at the end of the season as Zeman’s career and novelty value attraction had levelled out somewhat. One positive note which Roma fans can thank Zemen for is giving future Roma legend, Francesco Totti, his chance in the first team. Under his guidance he matured immeasurably and was awarded the captaincy in October 1998, he went on to score 27 goals in two seasons with Zeman as manager.

Zeman, despite his revolutionary style, is still virtually unknown outside of Italy, but his style of football has been replicated, to a greater or lesser extent, by modern coaches such as Maurizio Sarri, Pep Guardiola, Jose Mourinho and Jurgen Klopp and if Zeman had have been starting his managerial career today he would undoubtedly have been held in similar high regard across the world as his modern peers.

Today he would have been referred to as a type of hipster coach; passing triangles, sports medicine and high pressing. It can be argued if football in the 1990s was the global behemoth it is today Zeman would surely have had a chance to manage one of the top European clubs. As it is he was something of a 1990s version of today’s hipster; an under the radar, sharp dressing, chain-smoking revolutionary who changed the face of attacking football and didn’t mind ruffling a few of the bigger clubs’ feathers.

While at Roma in 1998 he accused the mid-nineties Juventus team of using performance enhancing drugs. His accusations which involved a number of then Juve players led to a long trial in which club doctor, Riccardo Agricola, was given a suspended sentence for administering banned substances to players between 1994 and 1998, his sentence was overturned on appeal in 2005. Needless to say Zeman wouldn’t be getting a call from Turin asking him to manage the team anytime soon and his unwillingness to alter his tactics to stem the tide of goals conceded will certainly have tarnished his reputation with the bigger Italian and European clubs.

A lot of football is about timing and this era in Serie A of strong, impenetrable defences was waiting for an attacking revolution. Zeman had filled his Foggia team with unknown, young players and moulded them in his style to become a neutral’s favourite as they hugely overachieved in his managerial reign. This preference of younger players benefited his whole ethos as he was able to instil his own playing style on them rather than trying to change the ways of older, experienced players. This also attributed to his lack of genuine success on both sides of Rome as he took over squads full of expectant and trophy-hungry experienced professionals, not to mention directors with limited patience who didn’t have time for Zemen to bring in the players he wanted in order to continue his trophy quest.

The major trophies never found their way into his possession; just two Serie B titles and one Serie C2 title to show for over 40 years on the touchline. One cannot help but think if he had focused his efforts on improving the defence his teams may have won a trophy or two. However knowing Zeman’s stubborn insistence for entertainment over wins, changing his ways would’ve boarded on the blasphemous and would’ve detracted from the verve and flair with which his teams attacked. Nicknamed The Bohemian, Zeman is now 70 and was recently sacked from Serie B, Pescara. To see such an empty mantelpiece in the Zeman household is a tragedy for one of Italian football’s most influential and controversial characters.