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When donkeys learned to fly, memories of Chievo

Chievo Verona have just been declared bankrupt, and we know only too well how that feels

Chievo Promotion X

Summertime in Italian football gives us both the excitement of the transfer window and the hope filled pre-season preparations. It also seems to be just another part of summer in Italian football where, yet another club goes bankrupt and is refused permission to take part in the upcoming season.

These clubs will need to be reformed and start again, usually from Serie D, away from the professional leagues. The latest victims are Novara, Carpi, Sambenedettese, Casertana, and Chievo Verona. There will of course now follow yet further appeals, as the Regional administrative court (TAR) of Lazio will almost certainly be the last roll of the dice for these clubs.

The Chievo one in particular stands out, given the heights they reached in the not too recent past. When I think of Chievo, it brings back memories, both good and bad. Their arrival in Serie A, a new era for the club, coincided with the end of an era for Fiorentina. That 2001/02 season would see the top flight debutantes defy all the odds, they were written off as favourites to go straight back down but surprised everyone. Fiorentina, meanwhile, would confirm suspicions surrounding Vittorio Cecchi Gori’s running of the club, and not only ended up relegated but also saw the club go out of existence.

In 2001 I was getting myself ready for a move to Italy. In December of that year, I would be starting a new life in the stunning renaissance city of Florence. Part of my preparations, once the end of August had arrived, was to check the sports pages of the newspaper on a Monday morning. While the reason for my transfer to foreign parts was in no way football related, the fact that I would be living in a city which was home to a Serie A club was something which made it even more exciting for me.

Italia ’90 had been a very big deal in my home country of Ireland. This was the first time we had ever qualified for a World Cup tournament and going out to the hosts at the Stadio Olimpico at the quarter-final stage was certainly no disgrace. The Irish TV station RTE had already started showing Serie A highlights on a Monday night in the season leading up to the World Cup, and later Channel Four in the UK would bring Football Italia with James Richardson to our screens, and a whole generation fell in love with calcio.

Which explains why, in 2001, a few years older and still none the wiser, what I was looking forward to most was the possibility of having a local team as iconic as Fiorentina, of being able to go to the stadium for every home game as they took on all the other giants of Serie A. I was not a Fiorentina fan before I arrived, in fact, I had almost fallen out of love with the game. Growing up in a country obsessed with English football, when the shiny new Premier League arrived, it failed to attract my attention.

I had never been to a game in England, had never visited any of the stadiums that I had only ever witnessed on television, and sometimes these long-distance relationships just cannot be sustained. This new adventure though had reignited something within me, it gave me a chance, finally, to become a regular match goer and to have a local club. Unfortunately, I would be arriving in Italy just as Italian football was heading into something of a decline, and Fiorentina’s best days were also behind them.

As the season started, back in Dublin I noticed a new name in the Serie A league table, a certain Chievo Verona. By the time I arrived in Italy in December, they had become the revelation and main story of that season. They had shocked the Italian football experts and were sitting at the top of the table. Back in August, on the first day of the season, the newcomers faced a trip to the Stadio Artemio Franchi to take on the Coppa Italia holders Fiorentina.

With Roberto Mancini’s side having lost the Supercoppa Final 3-0 against Roma a week before, he was hoping that a home game against the unknown Chievo could at least give them a good start in their league campaign. Having lost both Francesco Toldo and Rui Costa during the summer, and well aware that the club’s financial state meant there wouldn’t be any big-name replacements coming in, Mancini knew that his side would not be challenging near the top of the table that season. Getting three points on the board straight away may help to steady those nerves and could be vital for a side expected to struggle.

August 26th is a major date in the history of Fiorentina. This was the day, in 1926, in which the club was founded. Luigi Ridolfi was the man who brought two existing clubs in Florence together, Club Sportivo and P.G.F Libertas, and merged them to form Associazione Fiorentina del Calcio. The first game of the season took place on August 26th, 2001, but even the 75th anniversary of the club wasn’t enough to draw much of a crowd for the clash with Chievo. There was little optimism among fans in the city for how things would go for their club, both on and off the field, in this new season. Only around 15,000 turned up for the opening game.

Chievo Verona had been in existence just three years less than Fiorentina, but they had always been firmly in the shadow of the more illustrious and successful Hellas Verona. It took Luigi Del Neri’s newcomers just five minutes to score the club’s historic first ever goal in Serie A. Vittorio Cecchi Gori was not in the stands to witness it, but it made no difference to the Fiorentina fans who made their feelings clear. One banner unfurled in both the Curva Fiesole and Ferrovia read ‘Vittorio e’ la tua occasione: vendi la Fiorentina nel rispetto di Marione’, telling the owner that now was the time to sell the club, out of respect for Mario, Vittorio’s late father and former owner of the club.

After that early goal from Simone Perrotta, it was the away side who took control of the game. Mancini, seeing how badly his team were struggling, replaced Nuno Gomes with defender Tomáš Řepka before half-time. Eight minutes after the break though, Chievo doubled their lead. Bernardo Corradi’s shot came back off the far post, but Massimo Marazzina was there to fire home the rebound.

With twenty minutes still to play, Fiorentina were given a lifeline when Domenico Morfeo was taken down in the area by Maurizio D’Angelo and the referee pointed to the penalty spot. Up stepped Enrico Chiesa, who had narrowly missed a chance to level the game late in the opening half with a header from a Roberto Baronio free-kick. When his penalty kick also went wide of the post, many of the Ultras of the Curva Fiesole had seen enough and started to leave the ground.

Some of those fans were already making their way to the team dressing room to confront the players after the game. At the final whistle, Chievo’s 2-0 win saw their players celebrate under the away end, but they were also applauded off the pitch by many of the home fans, at least those still left in the stadium. One of the leaders of the Curva, Stefano Sartoni, better known as Passerella, later explained how he had led a group of Ultras in forcing open an entrance, under the watchful eye of the police, to have words with the players.

He spoke of how everything had been done in a calm and civil manner, while stressing that from now on they could give no guarantees that this would always be the case. The main excuse given by the players for their poor performance was that they had suffered from the heat on this August afternoon. Angelo Di Livio, in his post-match interview had this same excuse ready, claiming that for some reason they had been affected by the heat more than the Chievo players. He explained that they had apologised to the fans during their encounter and had assured them that the club’s problems were not affecting the players. They had also asked the fans not to abandon the team.

Roberto Mancini, understandably disillusioned, stated that a team like that could only hope to battle against relegation. He also explained that he would need another four or five players for his squad to be competitive. Those players would never arrive, and by the time I did, the writing was already on the wall as Fiorentina sat second from the bottom, while Chievo were still flying high.

By the time Fiorentina made the return trip to the Bentegodi in January, Roberto Mancini had already left the club. The game finished 2-2, with Adriano grabbing a last-minute equaliser for the Viola. The young Brazilian was on loan from Inter, a favour from Massimo Moratti to Mancini. A point was not what Fiorentina needed at that stage though, they were desperate for a win if they were to have any chance of survival. But in those 17 games of the second half of the season, Fiorentina would only manage to win once, which came at the Bentegodi in Verona.

That win over Hellas, where Adrian Mutu was on target for the home side, was never going to be enough to climb out of the hole the club had dug themselves. The game in Verona in March was played a day after the tragic death of Chievo’s Jason Mayélé. The striker had been killed in a car crash on his way to join his teammates for training. Before the game against Hellas, there was a minute of applause from the crowd, not only for Mayélé, but also Valeria Cecchi Gori, Vittorio’s mother, who had passed away the day before the accident.

While Fiorentina ended the season in the relegation zone, Chievo finished in fifth place and qualified for Europe in their first ever season in Serie A. The last time we saw Chievo in Serie A was just two years ago, and since then, both seasons have seen them reach the promotion play-offs in Serie B. Now however, it looks like it could be a long time before we see them back in the top division. During that fairy tale beginning, when they were the darlings of Italian football, they became the club that everyone wanted to do well. They were seen as the good guys, especially when compared to their city rivals Hellas, whose fans the media have always enjoyed portraying as racist and troublemakers. In time that wore off, and they eventually turned into a side that a lot of people were happy to see relegated.

For me though, the name Chievo Verona will always take me back to 2001. The start of my Italian adventure, becoming a Fiorentina fan (under difficult circumstances), something which changed my life forever. It was a time of learning a new language, making new friends, and a whole new way of life. I was also in the city of Florence when the local fans saw their club go bust and had to watch a team under a different name start again in Serie C2. It’s always sad to see any club go through this, especially when you’ve seen your own club in that same situation.

For all these reasons, I do hope that something can be done to save Chievo, or if not, that they can eventually find their way back to the top. Verona fans had long insulted their city cousins, saying that Chievo would make it to Serie A when donkeys could fly, they did it once, can miracles happen twice? Arrivederci Chievo, thanks for the memories!

“Perché il fatto che io sia famoso è un caso come il Chievo in serie A”