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.

Sócrates – Football’s last intellectual

a thinking man’s footballer of grace and intelligence. His interest in left-wing politics also formed a large portion of his legacy.

There are many iconic World Cup images; Bobby Moore and Pele embracing after the England and Brazil game in Mexico, 1970, Diego Maradona’s ‘Hand of God’ goal in 1986 and Marco Tardelli’s passionate celebration after his goal for Italy against West Germany in 1982. For many the image of headband-wearing, bearded, Brazilian midfielder, Sócrates, in that clean, stylish, yellow shirt is one which brings back fond memories.

He was a member of the Brazil team at the 1982 and 1986 World Cups and it’s hard to argue with popular opinion that, particularly the 1982 squad, was along with the Holland team of 1974, the best team never to win a World Cup. Their style of free flowing, attacking football, with a huge helping of flair and grace belied the functional, almost European style with which the Brazil teams of 1994 and 2002 won the competition. Socrates was more than a part of those great Brazil teams along with Zico, Careca and Falcão, he was also a large political presence in his homeland, particularly campaigning against the military dictatorship of the time.

Sócrates had a fortunate start to life, whereas many children in Brazil were, and still are, born into poverty and had little education; Sócrates was born into a middle class family and made use of the political and sociological literature at his fingertips in his father’s library.

He split most of his playing career between Botafogo and Corinthians and it was at the latter club where he made his name after he signed for them in 1978. He played a deep lying midfield role and had incredible technique and vision. His languid and pedestrian style was completely at odds with his technical and metal ability; he was able to pick out a pass with either foot and could also hit a ferocious shot. A 1980’s Andrea Pirlo, if you will.

As his reputation grew he came to represent the more romantic side of the game; a thinking man’s footballer of grace and intelligence. His interest in politics, particularly left-wing politics, part educated and part self-educated would also form a large portion of his legacy. After he won his first league title at Corinthians in 1979 he co-founded the Corinthians Democracy. The aim was to make the team a co-operative where everyone, from the coaching staff, the ground staff and the doctors were given a say on how the club was organised. He wasn’t afraid to be outspoken and he and his team mates supported the rights of workers and of the introduction of presidential elections in Brazil, defying the military regime, led by Joao Figueiredo. During Sócrates’ time with Corinthians the club didn’t have a shirt sponsor, instead they wore slogans on their shirts which supported their political views and one slogan simply read ‘democracia’.

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He was also a heavy smoker and drinker and ironically, given his lifestyle, he completed a bachelor’s degree in medicine while playing professionally. This gave birth to his nickname ‘The Doctor’. It can certainly be argued he didn’t practise what he preached in his medical studies.

During the build up to the 1982 World Cup he again won the Brazilian title with Corinthians, preparations for the tournament saw the national team play over 30 games, they lost just two while scoring an average of 2.5 goals per game. Sócrates later referred to their style as “organised chaos” but he was doing him and his team mates a huge disservice as they were anything but. Their quick and decisive play saw them head into the tournament full of confidence. On a personal level his training regime for the finals saw him become leaner and stronger as he cut down on cigarettes and alcohol for a time. It was clear to see he was determined to bring his Brazil team out of the shadow of the famous World Cup winning side of 1970.

His team took the field against the Soviet Union on 14 June; the Soviets had reason to be hopeful as they were one of the two teams who beat Brazil during their World Cup preparations. Although Brazil won, 2-1, they were fortunate to do so. Sócrates later described the Soviet team as a “red wall” and they were denied a clear second half penalty. For the man himself the game is best remembered for his goal. He skipped one sliding tackle, dropped a shoulder inside to evade another opponent and in the open space he thundered a 25 yard shot past Soviet goalkeeper, Rinat Dasayev. Sócrates later described the goal as feeling like an “endless orgasm”.

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They progressed through the tournament and looked like they would win it at a canter after beating Scotland, 4-1, and New Zealand, 4-0. In the second group stage they met old foes, Argentina, and a resurgent Italy team in a mouth-watering group of death. Italy had Paolo Rossi back in the squad after he returned from suspension for his role in a 1980 betting scandal and fired a hatrick in a 3-2 win as the two teams produced one of the all time classic World Cup games. Sócrates equalised Rossi’s opener after playing a neat one two and smashing past Dino Zoff at his near post, an almost majestic cloud of touchline chalk rises as his shot crosses the goal line. However Italy won out despite Falcão putting the South American’s ahead midway through the second half.

It must be remembered that Brazil only needed a draw to qualify for the Semi Final; moreover they knew they would be eliminated with a defeat. Arguably a wiser move may have been to defend their advantage against Italy, however this was Brazil and in particular the early 1980s Brazil where they played simply to outscore the opposition, no matter how many they conceded and no matter what was at stake.

Sócrates’ status grew over the next four years and although his career was winding down when he represented Brazil in Mexico in 1986 he was still arguably their most influential player. He was very aware of the media attention he would receive, not only for his on-field ability but also for his political views. Guaranteed maximum exposure he lined up for the national anthem before each game wearing a headband with a political message written on it. Before their first game against Spain on 1 June, his headband read “Mexico, stand tall” in reference to the 1985 earthquake in Mexico City which resulted in the deaths of over 5000 people. Prior to their second game versus Algeria it read “yes to love, no to terror” This is a message which transcends any race, culture or time in history and was believed to be in response to the US military bombing of Libya. It’s fair to say this kind of political statement would never be allowed now; one only has to think back to the furore around British teams wearing the poppy to see how much the game has changed since 1986.

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On the field, Sócrates scored the only goal of the game against Spain and they moved into the knockout stages with three wins out of three. Poland were dispatched, 4-0, in the last 16; Sócrates scored a penalty in that game. The Quarter Final against France went to a penalty shoot out after finishing 1-1. Sócrates missed his penalty and Brazil lost 4-3, however it is widely regarded to be one of the games of the tournament as then European champions, France, with Michel Platini, Jean Tigana and Alain Giresse, made the Semi Final in Mexico. Brazil would have to wait another 16 years before lifting the World Cup again in Japan and South Korea in 2002. That 1986 penalty shoot out was Sócrates last action for Brazil and he never won any major honours with the national team, something his younger brother, Rai, did in 1994.

Sócrates has never hid his political affiliations, he once named John Lennon, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara as his heroes (he even named one of his sons Fidel). During the Corinthians Democracy times of the early 1980s he stood in Sao Paulo’s Cathedral Square in front of an estimated 2 million people and declared if presidential elections were not introduced he would end his career with Corinthians and move to Italy. This may seem unbelievably pretentious but such was Sócrates’ standing with the Brazilian people it wasn’t too outlandish to think political reform could be achieved in this way. Inevitably things didn’t change and he kept his word by moving to Fiorentina for the 1985/86 season. He made 25 appearances for la Viola, however he later criticised the rigidity of life in Italy, stating “life is more spontaneous in Brazil…sometimes I just wanted to hang out with friends, party or have a smoke. There is more to life than football”. He moved back to Brazil and joined Flamengo then Santos where had made a further 49 appearances over two seasons. He eventually retired in 1989 after making over 660 appearances and scoring 262 goals; an impressive record for a defensive midfielder. He also won 60 caps for Brazil. During his retirement he perused a media career and wrote political and economic articles. His playing career wasn’t quite finished though as, at 50 years of age, he made a bizarre comeback for English amateur side, Garforth Town. He joined them in a month long player-coach role and made one substitute appearance for them.

It’s fair to say his lifestyle was partly responsible for his death although, much like George Best, he never admitted these problems until it was too late. He died on 4 December 2011; officially it was from an intestinal infection caused by food poisoning. He said before his death he wanted to die on a Sunday when Corinthians won the title and his wish came true as they won title that very day.

In 2009 he said modern footballers lack the education and desire to use their voice to promote change, he acknowledged the growth of the game globally and stated footballers have an immense power to drive change for the better. Most people will agree that in a world of colourless, corporate football, driven by profits and filled with media-trained players toeing the party line, the game now lacks true rebels and mavericks. Sócrates was arguably the last true intellectual of the game, both on and off the pitch and football is definitely worse off without him.