Verona's Great Romance

Recalling the drama of Italy's most unlikely champions
By

A dozen men are sat around a table in one of Verona’s humblest establishments, talking animatedly over three bottles of Valpolicella and Recioto. Among them, there is a dentist, an estate agent, a pensioner and an insurance salesman. Nothing extraordinary about that, perhaps, apart from the German and Danish accents that frequently break up the conversation, while the room’s other diners occasionally raise their eyebrows at the flashy one with the exaggerated sun-tan who brags about his restaurants and bars in the Dominican Republic and the 6km of beach he owns in Mexico. Listen carefully, though, and it soon becomes clear that this is a reunion of sorts, the special nature of which is hidden in the air of normality that surrounds the group. If it hadn’t revealed itself already, the down-to-earth nature of the men is confirmed when the one with the tan says over the laughter, “If I could, I would live in a camper van.”

It’s hardly the kind of behaviour you would expect from a legendary football team, especially one with something truly historic to celebrate. The restaurant booking had been made for the evening of 12 May 2010, the 25th anniversary of Hellas Verona’s first and only Scudetto – a heartwarming reminder that every now and again miracles can happen in football.

Earlier that day, members of that 1984-85 title-winning squad had laced up their boots and pulled on the blue shirt with the yellow pinstripes one last time for a tribute match at the Bentegodi. Some 11,000 ultrà packed into the Curva Sud, their nostalgia piqued by Hellas’s current plight in the Lega Pro Prima Divisione, Italy’s Dante-esque third tier. They unfurled old flags and sang songs from the era, demanding that the team’s captain Roberto Tricella be called up to the Italy squad and its star, Preben Larsen-Elkjaer, be elected mayor of the city. The effect is of being transported back in time. Then, just minutes before kick-off, the Brigate Gialloblu unveiled a banner, capturing the zeitgeist perfectly: “The most beautiful triumph will remain in history and the people who lived through it will be covered in glory again.”

Domenico Volpati had been waiting for this moment ever since Hellas made sure of the Scudetto with a 1-1 draw away to Atalanta on the penultimate day of the season all those years ago. When the full-time whistle finally went in Bergamo, the veteran holding-midfielder had told his teammates, “Lads, we can’t possibly realise what we’ve achieved right now.” It would take a testimonial a quarter of a century later really to drill home the scale of their feat. “Seeing all these fans,” said Volpati, “I now realise what we did.” Stood by his side, a hand settled poignantly on his heart, Tricella said, “We always have Verona here. We realised a dream with these fans and made a lot of people support Hellas who would otherwise have chosen Juventus or Inter.”

If, as the late Roma president Franco Sensi firmly believed, a Scudetto in Rome is worth 10 in Turin, then it’s hard to imagine how much one must be worth in Verona. After all, the Veneto region had no sustained record of football success to speak of, and not since the Second World War had a city that wasn’t a regional capital seen one of its teams finish top of Serie A. Venezia had lifted the Coppa Italia in 1941, finishing third the following year thanks to the efforts of the great Ezio Loik and Valentino Mazzola, two epoch-changing players whose memory is forever ingrained in the consciousness of the Italian game for the football they later played with Il Grande Torino and their deaths in the air crash at Superga. Once they left the Pierluigi Penzo in 1942, Venezia sunk. The Lagunari would re-emerge in the top flight in the 1960s, but only briefly.

Excitement about the game in the Veneto was fleeting, but when the flames of passion were fanned they burned like few others across the peninsula. Lanerossi Vicenza were the unlikely flint that provided the next such spark in 1978. Their coach Giovan Battista Fabbri, the personification of Italian sartorial style, had happened upon a gaunt-looking 20-year-old right-winger whose qualities he thought would be better deployed at centre-forward. His name was Paolo Rossi. The 24 goals he scored led Lanerossi Vicenza to a second-place finish in Serie A and, if it hadn’t been for an indifferent opening five games, the newly promoted side, would have beaten Juventus to the Scudetto. “I never believed that a team from the provinces could play the kind of football Lanerossi Vicenza play,” wrote Gianni Brera, Italy’s most influential sports writer.

Typically, though, they were relegated just a year later, their first-round defeat to Dukla Prague in the UEFA Cup heralding an irresistible downward spiral towards Serie B. It seemed as soon as football in the Veneto flickered into life, it was engulfed by another dark age. Another prolonged spell in the wilderness seemed probable, when, in June 1981, a pensive, dour-faced man stepped off the train at Verona’s Porta Nuova station, wearing the Greek fisherman’s cap made famous by John Lennon. It would become a defining characteristic of Osvaldo Bagnoli’s career in Italian football, the symbol to accompany the landmark Scudetto he would win with Hellas four years later.

Born in 1935, Bagnoli had spent his childhood in the working-class district of Bovisa on the outskirts of Milan at the height of the Second World War. “I lived in via Candiani, where the trains of the Northern Railway unloaded all the people who worked in the factories nearby,” he told Il Corriere della Sera. “There were lots of football pitches around. I grew up on those pitches. We entertained ourselves playing with balls made of rubber or rags. We went to the railway yards to steal the wood and coal that the German trucks had dumped. I remember the air raids, the planes dropping bombs that seemed like fireworks. On the day of my first communion, I had just come out of the church when the air-raid siren sounded. We had to throw ourselves in to the bomb shelter, which was under the football pitch. I also remember the day of piazzale Loreto. The word spread that they had brought us [the body] of Mussolini. But I got there too late and didn’t see anything.”

With the effects of the Marshall Plan taking time to be felt, Italy’s immediate post-war reality was austere. Like so many of his peers, the young Bagnoli had to hold down a number of jobs to make ends meet, partly because his father Aristide was incapacitated. He first worked as a ceramist before getting a position at a water factory and a blast furnace, all the while bolstering his income by making belts for trousers, using scrap pieces of wire, which he would weave together. These formative experiences would remain with Bagnoli. They kept him rooted even amid great adulation, informing his outlook on life and his coaching philosophy. Years later he would say, “Wherever I go, people recognise me. Perhaps because they remember me as a person with whom it was easy to identify - a normal person, someone who spoke simply.” Bagnoli struck a chord with everyone.

Aged 20, Bagnoli was spotted playing for Ausonia, the local side, by the AC Milan talent scout Mario Malatesta. He played on the right wing where he stood out with his good technique, exemplified by a powerful shot. Milan treated Bagnoli and his lifelong friend Pippo Marchioro to a steak at the city’s famous Assassino restaurant, an eye-opener for the two undernourished kids from the poor side of town. Both were accepted into the club’s academy in 1955 and it wasn’t long before they graduated together with Cesare Maldini and Gigi Radice.

“One day,” he remembered, “the club called me into the office and a director said to me, ‘You, Bagnoli, you are being called up for the first team. Go to the training camp at San Pellegrino’.
“I was shocked: ‘Me? Really me? I can’t.’
“‘Why not?’ he said. ‘I work in a factory. I have a father at home. He’s disabled.’
“The director then asked, ‘How much do you earn at the factory?’ 28,000 lire a month? Well, we’ll give you 35,000 lire, so now be good and go to training camp.’”

Bagnoli’s life changed in an instant. Milan’s flair player at the time, the flamboyant Argentine Ettore Ricagni, was asked to drive the young charge back to Bovisa to collect his things. “I had goosepimples,” Bagnoli told La Gazzetta dello Sport. “Not because I was in his car, a Lancia Ardea, or for the admiration and envy of my friends. But because that day I stopped working in the factory, in the blast furnace, where the time went so slowly and the heat burned your skin. I was going to get some fresh air in the mountains and I needed it. I was one of those kids who had to visit the doctors every month to check for tuberculosis. At the end of the training camp in San Pellegrino, the players used make a collection to leave for the waiters at the hotel. Gunnar Nordahl went up to each and every one us, but when he got to me, he said, ‘Not you, we don’t want anything from you.’ I was the boy from the factory.”

Converted into a tough-tackling central midfielder, Bagnoli started Milan’s first five games the following season and they went on comfortably to win the Scudetto, recording the second of three Serie A titles that decade. But he never felt lan integral part of Milan’s success and readily admitted to journalists that he didn’t consider himself “worthy” of a great side that included Ricagni, Nils Liedholm and Juan Alberto Schiaffino. He left that summer with his dignity intact, accepting an offer from Hellas, where he spent three years before moving on to Udinese, Catanzaro, and Spal.

Bagnoli was at the third division outfit Verbania when he retired in 1973. He was unsure as to what direction to take, and even considered becoming a bookbinder for Italian publishing giant Mondadori. He asked the club’s director of sport Carlo Pedroli for advice, and he suggested trying his hand at coaching. Bagnoli began with Solbiatese, but was fired after just eight games, falling foul of a club’s president who didn’t take kindly to being told to leave the dressing room when he felt he had a vital piece of tactical advice to impart. “I certainly didn’t think that I could succeed as a trainer,” he sighed after suffering the ignominy of relegation in his next job at Como.

The breakthrough, though, came with Fano and then the Serie B side Cesena, a club that had a reputation as a staging post for aspiring young coaches on their way to greatness. Between 1970 and 1990, six future Scudetto winners occupied the bench at La Fiorita, a tradition started by the club’s great patrons Dino Manuzzi and his nephew Edmeo Lugaresi. ‘Apprenticeships’ were handed to the brightest minds of a generation, from Gigi Radice and Eugenio Bersellini to Albertino Bigon and Marcello Lippi. Even Arrigo Sacchi got his first start in football at Cesena by way of the club’s youth team.

When Bagnoli was appointed in 1979, he benefited greatly from that atmosphere, gaining confidence thanks to the backing of open-minded sponsors like Manuzzi and Lugaresi. He found himself as a coach and established the principles of his management style. Oddly, the Eureka moment came not on the training ground, but in the kitchen. Bagnoli used to cook chicken soup for his wife Rosanna whenever she came to visit during his two-year spell on the Adriatic coast, showing a flair for domesticity that was reflected in Cesena’s club record run of 14 home wins in the 1980-81 season. All he would ask is that she bought the stock, the vegetables and the meat. “I’ll do the rest,” Bagnoli said. To him, this became a metaphor for the importance of ingredients and their use.

“Football is a simple game,” Bagnoli explained. “Abstruse concepts like pressing and playing zonally aren’t indispensable. The important thing is to have the luck to find the right men, then put them in the right positions and let them be free to express themselves. It’s their willpower that comes above everything. I have led players who have deserved to win the Scudetto without inventing new tactics, without Machiavellianism or any secrets. Football is one game and one game only.”

Indeed, it was this emphasis on a player’s motivations and desires that led Brera to nickname Bagnoli ‘Schopenhauer’, alluding to the 19th-century German philosopher whose most famous work, The World as Will and Representation, influenced the likes of Friedrich Nietzsche, Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud. This was his way of acknowledging that behind Bagnoli’s apparent anti-intellectualism, his suspicion of theory and admission that “I didn’t have a lot of book-learning at all,” he actually possessed a deep understanding of men.

A tendency to play things down meant Bagnoli credited Cesena’s promotion to the top flight in 1981 to everyone else at the club, even though the local press heaped plaudits on him for masterminding an implausible escape from a unusually strong division that included not only Sampdoria and Genoa but also Milan and Lazio, who had both been relegated the previous summer for their part in the Totonero betting scandal.

Serie A beckoned, but Cesena would have to take the next step without Bagnoli, who left Emilia-Romagna to be closer to his family in the north. Hellas provided him with another opportunity, welcoming back their old midfielder in the hope that he could repeat his success at Cesena and get the club out of Serie B. They were desperate to re-establish themselves, having gone a long way to becoming a regular top-flight team in the late sixties and early seventies only for the Scandalo della Telefonata to send them slithering back where they’d come from.

Saverio Garonzi, the club president, had made the mistake of ringing Sergio Clerici, a former Hellas player, before a key game against Napoli on 21 April 1974, apparently promising to help the Brazilian striker open a FIAT dealership on his retirement if he could rig the match. The Neapolitan papers got wind of the phone call and published details, sparking outrage across Italy. Foggia, who occupied the third and final relegation place, protested, prompting the Appeals Commission of the Italian Football Federation (CAF)to levy an initial three-point penalty against Hellas. It would later emerge, however, that Foggia’s laundry was dirty too. The club secretary Sergio Affalato had allegedly corrupted a referee and two linesmen before a home game with Milan. The responsibility passed to Sampdoria, another relegation-stricken side, to ask that Hellas be demoted and Foggia receive a points-penalty, making their survival impossible. CAF obliged and also banned Garonzi and Affalato for three years.

Hellas bounced back, winning promotion to Serie A at the first attempt. They then made it through to the Coppa Italia final at the end of the following season, a landmark achievement in itself. But karma caught up with the club as Hellas faced a Napoli side with a grudge. They lost 4-0, having remained in the game until the 75th minute when an own-goal opened the floodgates. It wasn’t long before another relegation. They lost their top-flight status in 1979, the team seemingly still shaken from having been involved in a train crash outside Bologna the previous April, an accident that left 48 people dead and 76 injured. The resilience Hellas had shown a few years earlier abandoned them. The club Bagnoli took over was ailing, and had survived the drop to Serie C by a single point. Stopping the rot was paramount, promotion a daydream.

That was the darkest moment, but Hellas, like Italian football as a whole, was about to enter a golden age. A decade that started with the Totonero betting scandal ended with le notti magiche di Totò Schillaci. Italy opened its borders, lifting a lengthy ban on the signing of foreign players, and enthusiasm for the game reached new heights after Italy’s triumph at the 1982 World Cup in Spain. “We truly were the centre of the world and no one thought that one day Spain, England or Germany would overtake us,” wrote Fabrizio Bocca in La Repubblica. “It was football heaven. The clubs paid like no one else, and the champions arrived in flocks.”

Hellas, meanwhile, were taken over by Tino Guidotti, a bespectacled local car dealer known for his jokes and for offering his strikers a new Maserati if they managed to score 15 goals in a single season. Although he was successful in his own right, the real money came from the club’s majority shareholder, Ferdinando Chiampan, who had the exclusive rights within Italy to import goods from the Japanese technology giant Canon, hence the appearance of their logo on the team’s blue and yellow shirts. Yet financially speaking Hellas were having to run to stand still. Italy was still a couple of years away from the Apocalypse Now spending at Milan when Silvio Berlusconi would personally drop off new signings to the club’s training ground by helicopter, but a series of mini arms races had already begun.

With that in mind and relatively few resources available, Bagnoli and the club’s director of sport Emiliano Mascetti pioneered a recruitment strategy which, while not exactly Moneyball, was still ahead of its time. The overriding goal was that of finding value. And while teams like Ascoli indulged in PR stunt signings, making the Ivorian midfielder François Zahoui the first African to play in Serie A, Hellas primarily targeted players who had come up through the ranks, usually at one of Italy’s top clubs, only to find the door to the first team bolted. They were young, gifted, but unwanted and could be signed at a low cost. Some teams turned their noses up at Hellas’ scavenging ways, but not Bagnoli. “It would be wrong to think of them as second-hand,” he said. “After all, they aren’t cars.”

Hellas built gradually, adding to the squad each year. “It was a puzzle and the right pieces were always the right people before being the right athletes,” Bagnoli said. The foundations of Verona’s title-winning side were laid in 1981, its cornerstones identifiable in three players who would come to embody the Bagnoli philosophy of giving players a second chance.

Roberto Tricella was a prime example. A libero of disarming composure and class, he had moved to Verona two years earlier after finding his path blocked at Inter. If it hadn’t been for the Juventus legend Gaetano Scirea, Hellas’s future captain would have become the linchpin of Enzo Bearzot’s Italy side. Tricella had found a kindred spirit and fellow dressing-room leader in Bagnoli’s first signing, the 22-year-old No 10 Antonio Di Gennaro. Tactically intelligent and two-footed, the ‘Dige’ empathized with his new teammate, having seen his own progress stunted at Fiorentina by the presence of Giancarlo Antognoni.

Both of course had a point to prove, as did the team’s new goalkeeper, a maverick with a mop of brown hair: Claudio Garella. He was awkward, clumsy and rough around the edges, bearing no resemblance in terms of style or technique to a cold-blooded aesthete like his contemporary Dino Zoff. Supporters of Garella’s former club Lazio knew him as Paparella, a cruel play on the Italian word for howler. Aged 26, he was no longer trusted in Serie A and had spent the previous three seasons at Sampdoria in Serie B. But Mascetti and Bagnoli recognised that Garella had a rare quality - his instinct. Highlight reels show a player making saves with his feet, chest and backside. “Garella is the best goalkeeper in the world, but not with his hands,” joked the Juventus patron Gianni Agnelli. Garella was unfazed, however. “The important thing is to make saves,” he said; “not how you make them.”

Amid general scepticism and little expectation, Bagnoli’s team of misfits gelled instantly. Their shared experience of rejection bonded them, while the humility it engendered meant they were much more open to the new coach’s ideas than might otherwise have been the case. Hellas finished top of Serie B in 1982, returning to the top flight largely on the back of the Garella-Tricella-Di Gennaro triumvirate, the goals coming from a journeyman striker called Domenico Penzo and his partner Mauro Gibellini, who was renowned as one of Italy’s most prolific lower league hitmen of the era. Bagnoli had accomplished back-to-back promotions with two different clubs. It was a remarkable exploit in itself, one that wasn’t lost on Di Gennaro.

“Everyone remembers the year of the Scudetto,” he said. “But a couple of seasons beforehand we won Serie B playing an even better and more complete brand of football. The tactical aspect didn’t matter all that much. Verona were a perfectly synchronised team in which everyone knew exactly what their job was and how it should be interpreted. There was the right attitude on the pitch and the following year, with the individuality we acquired, Hellas took off.” That individuality came from Pietro Fanna, the son of a milkman from the small town of Clodig, just a stone’s throw from the Slovenian border.

With nothing much to do out in the sticks, football became the boy’s overriding passion. “There was a piece of land where you could play. It was 50m in length and all downhill,” he recalled. “First you had to put the chickens and rabbits away in the henhouses and hutches otherwise Don Azeglio would come and clip you round the ear.” It’s no exaggeration to say Fanna’s enthusiasm for the game knew no bounds. He organised local matches, even trekking through the woods for three hours if it meant reaching a pre-arranged venue. “I always had a ball at my feet,” he smiled. “I don’t know why. Perhaps because there was nothing else.”

His father Rino drove the 12 year old to Friuli for trials with Udinese, sleeping in his van during training sessions. A scout from Atalanta liked what he saw and invited Fanna to join the club’s academy. His Slovenian-speaking mother wasn’t sure whether he should accept, but Rino gave his blessing. “I spent two difficult years in a big city like Bergamo,” he said. “I was used to being on the pitch every day. Nothing else mattered. I studied instead. There were days when I washed shirts, socks and boots in freezing cold water and I asked myself if the decision had been right or wrong and how it would all end.”

After making 55 appearances for Atalanta in his teens, Fanna received an offer from Juventus that seemed to vindicate the decision he had made with his father. It turned out to be a dead end. “It was both a dream and a bitter pill to swallow,” he explained. “The critical period in a footballer’s life comes between the ages of 15 and 18. You can either go to Juve or to Acquapozzillo. You are playing for your career. I was at Juve, but I would have been better off back in the priests’ college where I’d lived in Bergamo. I was less alone there. I found a lot of competition from Franco Causio, Roberto Bettega, Pietro Paolo Virdis and Domenico Marocchino. I always felt under examination.”

Fanna won three Scudetti in Turin, but even he admits, much like Bagnoli at Milan, that none of them felt like his own. He was on the fringes, accused of lacking spirit, something to which he took great offence. “At one point, I went to see Giampiero Boniperti and said, ‘Halve my contract, just make me play.’ But the club had other plans and I asked to be sold.” Fanna arrived at Hellas in 1982 and, although he wasn’t the final piece in Verona’s jigsaw, the 24 year old became the most important as Bagnoli set about building the team around his unusual qualities.

There is a case to be made that Fanna was the original inside-out winger. He was a blend of strength, speed and agility rendered all the more unpredictable by Atalanta’s muddled reading of his attributes. The svelte technique he possessed was used as an excuse to turn him into the next great No 10, a player supposed to be a Gianni Rivera for the 1980s. Tactically, though, he didn’t conform to the established wisdom. If you discount Nils Liedholm’s trailblazing efforts to introduce zonal marking into Italy at Roma, the overwhelming tendency was still to man-mark. Indeed, it was inconceivable for anyone other than the central playmaker to have something resembling a free role. Each player had his own position and was told to stick rigidly to it. They were straitjacketed, their eyes fastened wide shut.

Bagnoli saw things differently, though, creating a hybrid between playing the system and the spaces too. Ideologically speaking, this was a step along the way towards Italian football’s Berlin Wall, when catenaccio fell to the advance of Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan.

Fanna was used by Bagnoli as an agent of the revolution. “Bagnoli turned me into a giocatore a tutto campo,” he explained. “He gave me different jobs, filling me with enthusiasm.” Fanna would always start out on the right-hand side, but no one knew where he would end up during the game. From a man-marking perspective, that in itself didn’t generate much concern among opposition coaches. It was seen to be enough for the full-back to follow Fanna as he cut inside.

The principal difference lay in Bagnoli being the first in Italy to make a point of asking a teammate to move into the space left by his winger, typically a holding midfielder. This wreaked havoc as the opposition’s regista was obliged to follow his man, something which almost never happened. Conversely, if the full-back chose not to track Fanna and keep his flank covered instead, the libero would be drawn out, creating space behind the defence. Bagnoli devised a number of these simple but lethal traps, illustrating emphatically that, contrary to the image he put out of being an ordinary guy who thought and spoke like everybody else, there was an extraordinary and deeply innovative football brain lurking beneath the John Lennon hat.

“Every surprise in football lasts a maximum of 30 games, let’s say no more than a season or a season and a half,” wrote the respected football pundit Mario Sconcerti. “But Bagnoli understood that if he had players of good quality, he could multiply the surprises.” Hellas finished fourth in their first season back in the top flight and sixth in their second, reaching the Coppa Italia final in consecutive years only to lose to Juventus and Roma respectively.

They had been a revelation, but no one expected anything more from Hellas, not in a league where seemingly every club had a galáctico to call their own. This was the time of Diego Maradona’s Napoli, Zico’s Udinese and Michel Platini’s Juventus. If Inter bought Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, Fiorentina simply wrote a cheque for Sócrates. Hellas were a low-budget production in a Hollywood league. How on earth were they supposed to compete? Bagnoli had his own explanation. “It was possible above all because everyone was hungry and wanted to show their former clubs that they were wrong to let them leave,” he said. “We needed to be together for some years, to get to know each other well then the results began to arrive. We worked a lot on the players, who were either strong or very strong, but no one was a Martian or a phenomenon who came down from another planet.”

Few would have any reason to doubt Bagnoli’s assessment were it not for the arrivals of a dwarf, a Dane and a decathlete, a trio better known as Giuseppe Galderisi, Preben Larsen-Elkjaer and Hans-Peter Briegel. They would complete the Hellas puzzle.

Galderisi was a 20-year-old centre-forward nicknamed ‘Nanu’ because he stood only 5’4”. He had encountered the same frustrations as Fanna at Juventus and decided to follow his former teammate to Verona in 1983. Initially, however, it looked as though his lot wouldn’t improve. “In the training camp I told Galderisi that he wouldn’t be a starter,” Bagnoli said. “He called Boniperti and asked if he could go back, then he scored a brace in the Uefa Cup in Belgrade against Crvena Zvezda, who were a great team, and stole Joe Jordan’s place up front.”

Nanu’s first strike partner was Maurizio Iorio, a fast-twitch loan-signing from Roma, who finished third in the race to become Capocannoniere that season, behind Zico and Platini. Unsurprisingly, the journeyman was re-called to the capital in the summer of 1984; he would never capture the same form again. Bagnoli, meanwhile, needed a replacement and looked in the shop window that was the European Championship in France. Beyond the exhibition of the Carré Magique, he noticed a stick of Danish Dynamite and its detonator, Preben Larsen-Elkjaer, the player most closely associated with Hellas’s Scudetto.

Alhough he missed the decisive spot-kick in Denmark’s penalty shoot-out against Spain in the semi-final, Elkjaer’s incessant, rhythmic performances were enough to merit a place on the podium in the voting for the European Footballer of the Year. Sepp Piontek’s virtuoso was joining Bagnoli’s orchestra, even if the start of his career, notably his antics at Köln, suggested he would have been better suited to Giorgio Chinaglia’s rock-and-roll Lazio side of a decade earlier. Bagnoli even thought Elkjaer’s scugnizzo personality was more Neapolitan than Danish.

Spotted by Hennes Weisweiler, who had unearthed the likes of Günter Netzer, Berti Vogts and Jupp Heynckes, he was nothing if not an enfant terrible, displaying a reckless abandon for his fledgling career. “One time, the press blabbed to the coach that I’d been out until the small hours with the usual blonde beside me and a bottle of whiskey completely empty in front of me,” Elkjaer told Guerin Sportivo. “Weisweiler called me in. He was raging. He said, ‘I know that last night you drank whiskey like a sponge, no? Do you deny it?’ I candidly replied, ‘Mister it’s not at all true. It was vodka, not whiskey…’”

Elkjaer later regretted falling out with Weisweiler. “I understood that man late, too late,” he said having been one of the pallbearers at his funeral. Köln had grown fed up with Elkjaer. They sold him to Lokeren in 1978 and it was in Belgium that he finally settled down. The striker’s debut in the Belgian Cup against Standard Liege remains strong in the memories of Lokeren supporters. Their side were 3-0 down and in disarray when Elkjaer got angry, firing a hat-trick to conjure a thrilling 5-3 win. Flanders suddenly had a football phenomenon to idolise. Four times in his last two years at the Daknam stadium Elkjaer scored four goals in a game and, if it hadn’t been for the death of Lokeren’s president, he would have stayed beyond 1984, despite interest from Tottenham and Paris Saint-Germain.

A hair cut in a local salon proved a defining moment in Elkjaer’s career, as he met his future wife Nicole. “It was a hairdresser who put my life in order,” he said. “She guided me like a child. Nicole checked through the contract with Verona before I signed it. I was on the point of calling the whole thing off. The Lokeren directors were refusing to give me a golden handshake… with patience, though, Nicole convinced me to do it. She was in love with Italy. We had been on holiday in Taormina the summer beforehand.”

The couple soon found a house on the banks of Lake Garda where Elkjaer’s habit of bathing in the swimming pool even at the height of winter had the locals shaking their heads in bewilderment. He drove to his first training session at Cavalese with Verona’s other signing of that transfer window, Hans-Peter Briegel. Aged 29, the West German full-back was distinguished above all by his athleticism. “I was a great decathlete,” he said. “I could run the 100m in 10.5 seconds and jump almost 8m in the long jump. I came across football when I was 17 and discovered that I liked it. They told me, ‘You’ll never make it. You’re too bulky and clumsy. You’re like a tank.’” Yet Briegel, much to their surprise, was a footballer of brain as well as brawn. He won a European Championship in 1980 and reached the World Cup final two years later, collecting a runners’ up medal after a 3-1 defeat to Italy in Madrid.

Just as importantly, Briegel was an altruist too. He was only too keen to put side before self, so much so that when Bagnoli revealed he would be loath to sell Luciano Marangon, the team’s existing left-back, in order to accommodate him, Briegel replied, “It’s always been a dream of mine to play in midfield.” The tank changed position and parked himself in the centre of the Bentegodi’s lawn, bombing from box-to-box. He scored nine league goals in his first season in Verona, more than Elkjaer, even though his job was ostensibly to shackle the opposition’s No 10.

An attitude like Briegel’s epitomised the culture Bagnoli had created in his first three seasons in Verona, one patently after his own humble heart, that of a workers’ collective. “Hellas were really like the fingers of one hand,” he said. “Open or closed, but always together. I knew all of the players and they all knew me. A look was enough to know what the other was thinking. I have never been spiritual, but I had a strong and happy team.”

The opening day of the 1984-85 campaign was a clash of footballing civilisations. Napoli’s wily president Corrado Ferlaino had paid £6.9million to sign Maradona from Barcelona and unveiled the Argentine playmaker galáctico-style in front of tens of thousands of supporters at the San Paolo. The Partenopei flag was tied to the mast, exalting the cult of the individual. Briegel, for one, remained undaunted and called to mind his first encounter with Maradona a couple of years earlier in Uruguay. “That day he didn’t fill me with enthusiasm,” he said. “He had a terribly swollen belly and little desire to fight.” When the pair were reunited on 16 September 1984, the day belonged to Briegel again. Not only did he better Claudio Gentile’s display against Maradona at the World Cup in 1982 by all but swapping shirts with him during the game, but he struck on his debut too with a deft glancing header from a corner.

Hellas went on to record a convincing 3-1 victory, the fluid give-and-go build up to Galderisi’s goal in particular a sign of their quality. Bagnoli’s side went top of Serie A and were alone in first place a week later after another 3-1 win, this time away to Ascoli, where Briegel scored again and Elkjaer got off the mark after a slaloming run. Hellas never relinquished top spot.

Though excitement percolated in Verona, the city itself never got overly carried away. Unlike Italian football’s traditional power bases - Milan, Turin and to some extent Rome - where the focus of the spotlight can burn through even the thickest skin, there was little pressure in Verona and the players thrived. Voplati revealed how Bagnoli would take himself off during training to thumb through La Gazzetta dello Sport. “The temperature in the atmosphere is normal, also because you see how normal it is around here,” Tricella said. “The only time we’ve had a few people come out in the street for us was after beating Crvena Zvezda. We only understand that we’re top of the table when on Sunday there are 40,000 fans in the stadium for games that, in other circumstances, would be watched by 10,000 maximum. For many of us it’s a chance that’s unique rather than rare.”

Things did start to hot up in the city when Juventus’s bus pulled up at the Bentegodi on October 14. The champions were unbeaten, but that record consisted of an impressive 5-1 win at home to Atalanta and three draws. This was a team comprised of Platini, Rossi, Boniek and Scirea, one that would win the European Cup in May, albeit in the tragic and macabre surroundings of Heysel. Encounters with Juventus had an added significance in Verona, because of the pasts of players like Fanna and Galderisi, and because of the 1982 Coppa Italia final, when Juventus had overturned a 2-0 first-leg deficit to beat Hellas.

It may have been early in the season, but the game provided an iconic moment in Hellas folklore: Elkjaer’s famous gol senza scarpa. Galderisi put Hellas ahead just after the hour, heading in an out-swinging cross from Fanna that eluded Stefano Tacconi in the Juventus goal; a goal of great satisfaction for the pair against their former club. It was overshadowed, though, by what Elkjaer did nine minutes from time.

Strating a fraction inside the opposition’s half, he let a ball bounce past his heels and then set off in pursuit along the left flank, prodding it further in front of him with the top of his knee. He left one tackler in his wake and felled another once inside the box, remaining composed enough after losing his boot to beat Tacconi at the far post. “From that moment, I became the idol of the fans,” Elkjaer said. The civic pride he had bestowed on the city with that one goal was deemed a service great enough to merit a new nickname if not an honorary title, as Gol-kjaer became ‘the Mayor’.

Hellas had laid down a marker with that victory. But the incredulity remained. “If Verona were called Juventus or Roma they would be more credible and more believed in,” Gianni Mura wrote in La Repubblica. That sentiment became harder and harder to disagree with as Hellas continued to offer guarantees in all but name. After 12 games of the season they had exactly the same record at home and away both in terms of results and goal difference. At that stage, Hellas’s defensive record was the best in Serie A for 11 years and they were on course to finish with a points tally not seen since 1977, when Juventus had finished on 51, one ahead of and 16 clear of Fiorentina. Their opening head-to-head matches with the top seven yielded fours wins and three draws.

Verona’s poise, their unflappability, was disturbing the balance of power in Italy, and the team itself was cautiously optimistic when Serie A broke up for the winter. “On New Year’s Day, my players all went to celebrate together with their wives in Cavalese where we had our training camp,” Bagnoli said. “When it came to making the toasts at midnight, Fanna raised his glass and said: ‘This is the year in which we can realise something great’. But what happened in that hotel stayed in that hotel. For my part, I had never spoken about the Scudetto in public, only about survival. Obviously in the dressing room, I’d said to my lads that I had the impression that we could do something important this year, but I also recommended that these thoughts should stay in the dressing room.”

Bagnoli claimed that Hellas only started to truly believe in the Scudetto after they went to Napoli and came away with a point on January 20. Inter actually caught Verona that day with a 1-0 win over Atalanta, but that would be as close as they came to overhauling them. Ilario Castagner’s side drew at struggling Avellino a week later and they began to fall behind. “You come to ask us if we are tense?” Tricella demanded of journalists. “Rather I ask you if you have seen Beppe Bergomi on TV: if we are tense what are they?”

Verona’s rhythm was relentless. They saw off Ascoli and then played cat and mouse with Udinese on a famous February afternoon at Friuli. The match offered a microcosm of Hellas’ season, as they raced into a 3-0 lead before half-time, got pegged back to 3-3 only to then accelerate away and record a 5-3 victory. “I speak a lot on the bench with Ciccio Mascetti, our director of sport,” Bagnoli said. “He was a midfielder like me and it means we see football as midfielders. So we looked on with a little bemusement as our players went forward in sixes and sevens with the score 3-0 to us. But we’re like this. We’re a team who can’t manage a result but rather imposes it on our opponents.”

If anyone was still labouring under the misapprehension that Hellas would suddenly collapse, the back-to-back 1-1 draws that followed at home to Inter and away to Juventus turned the remaining doubters into believers. It was around this time that street vendors outside the Bentegodi started selling terracotta bulldogs dressed in Verona’s blue and yellow colours. They were called ‘Osvaldini’ and paid homage to the sort of fighting spirit Hellas showed when Di Gennaro equalised in Turin two minutes after his side had gone behind to Juventus. Elkjaer missed that goal because he was arguing with his marker Sergio Brio.

A measure of Hellas’s toughness was the hard-wearing nature of their squad. Though only 16 men deep, it was irrepressible, absorbing injuries to first team regulars like Briegel and the full-back Mauro Ferroni without losing step. It mattered not that Elkjaer was missing from trips to Roma and Torino, as they still managed to carve out precious victories. When Verona did have a bit of a wobble in mid-April it was too late. Three wins and a draw the month before had opened up a six-point lead at the top.

Gigi Radice’s Torino mounted a late challenge on the back of a 2-1 victory at the Bentegodi with a handful of games still to play, Hellas’s first home defeat, but Bagnoli’s Osvaldini dug deep even as the gap at the top was cut to three points the following weekend. In this footballing Giro d’Italia, Torino would eventually lose Hellas’ back wheel as they failed to win in Florence and Bergamo. Bagnoli knew that a draw away to Atalanta on the penultimate day of the season would be enough to make history and, although the home side went ahead through Eugenio Perico shortly before half-time, Elkjaer – who else? - found himself in the right place at the right time to score the momentous goal that won the title.

Standing on the sideline at the Atleti Azzurri d’Italia, Bagnoli looked on with his hands in the pockets of his grey anorak, sucking in his cheek. The 49 year old betrayed no emotion, apparently oblivious to the roaring sea of yellow and blue flags off to his right. When the referee blew for full-time, Rai Uno’s charismatic gravel-voiced touchline reporter Gian Piero Galeazzi approached the Hellas coach and said, “Don’t tell me that you don’t deserve it?” The brief reply he gave was typically modest: “We all deserve it.” Minutes later, Bagnoli was hoisted on to his players’ shoulders and carried away, a grainy black-and-white photo capturing a fist pump and a smile.

Viewed over a quarter of a century later in the cold light of Hellas’ nine-year absence from Serie A, the 1985 Scudetto takes on an ethereal quality. It stands alone like a beautiful aberration; one that for many Italians revealed an inner truth, coming as it did in a year when the designation of referees was done by ballot, allowing for no ‘manipulation’. That sentiment hit home the following November as Juventus knocked Hellas out of the European Cup in the second round in highly contentious circumstances. Indeed, such was the frustration among the players at the suspect refereeing that a boot was thrown, breaking a window within the Stadio Communale. The Carabinieri were called and on their arrival at the door, Bagnoli quipped, “If you’re looking for thieves, they are in the other dressing room.”

By that stage, Hellas had already started to fray. Inevitably, their success brought with it a flock of magpies, the biggest of all being Inter, who lured Fanna and Marangon away while Garella left to join Maradona at Napoli. Having played agianst Hellas in a pre-season friendly, Johan Cruyff, then in his first year in charge of Ajax, felt compelled to ask, “How did a team like this win the league?” At the end of the 1985-86 campaign, the Dutchman’s question appeared valid. Hellas finished tenth.

Although Bagnoli outdid himself again the following season, narrowly missing out on a place on the podium, Hellas’s cycle was over. Beset by financial problems after Canon took the rights to import their products away from Chiampan, the club was relegated in 1990. “Football took away everything I had from 35 years of work,” he said. “I had to sell five companies to repay the debts. It’s like taking off on a plane to go on holiday and then the plane crashes.” Chiampan is now broke, living on state benefits, the only memento of his time with Hellas a framed photograph of Elkjaer’s gol senza scarpa.

As for Bagnoli, il Mago della Bovisa reluctantly left Verona after nine years to go to Genoa, where he worked one last miracle. In a phantasmagorical two-year spell under the lanterns at Marassi, he built yet another eclectic team that included the Brazilian full-back and inimitable free-kick specialist, Branco, a very young Stefano Eranio and of course the bohemian strike partnership of Tomáš Skuhravý and Carlos Alberto Aquilera. Surprisingly, given they were just a couple of seasons out of Serie B, Genoa qualified for Europe for the first time in their 98-year history and reached the Uefa Cup semi-final after accomplishing another historic milestone – that of becoming the first Italian team to beat Liverpool at Anfield.

The time for Bagnoli to coach a big club came soon afterwards with Inter, although it would be one he publically came to regret. “I probably wasn’t prepared for a top team,” he admitted, even though finishing runners’ up to Fabio Capello’s Milan in 1993 suggested otherwise. What Bagnoli meant, though, was that he didn’t feel his philosophy suited the politics that went along with being sat on such a high-profile bench. After months of sniping, the Inter president Ernesto Pellegrini asked him to resign in February 1994. Bagnoli responded by slamming the door in his face and was promptly fired. He walked away from football altogether at the age of 58.

Several offers subsequently arrived. Brera even put his name forward to Milan owner Silvio Berlusconi, but rumours that the former factory worker was a communist apparently stopped things from going any further. “I voted socialist because my dad did,” Bagnoli admitted. “The truth is that there was never any contact with Berlusconi.”

Nothing could tempt him back into the game. He had grown disillusioned and puritanical: “I said ‘no’ to everyone. I didn’t fit into the world of football anymore. There were already agents and in my opinion the youngsters were becoming too presumptuous. I felt saturated. Almost everything had changed and I didn’t want to grow old badly. My wife had always done everything by herself and we had a child who had been born blind. I felt the need to be there. I have a life without many special things, a simple family life full of beautiful things. I have more than I could wish for.”

And so just like that he withdrew, “giving up the game like someone quitting smoking,” wrote one columnist. Today Bagnoli can be seen driving through Verona in a blue Citreon Saxo or cycling along the city’s streets. He manages hotels instead of football teams, three to be exact, but you won’t find photos or relics of his time with Hellas in the corridors or the vestibules, just a series of pastel drawings depicting sailboats and ballerinas.

The players have moved on as well. Marangon owns property in central America, Sacchetti and Spuri are in insurance, Volpati is a dentist, Elkjaer is a commentator, Briegel has coached Albania. Yet the memory of ‘85 lives on and to the club’s long-suffering supporters, the mere sight of a John Lennon hat has the same effect as one of Proust’s madeleines, evoking the time when Bagnoli was at the Bentegodi and Hellas were improbable champions of Italy.

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