As a relatively young nation with proud regional identities, Italians have a complex relationship with their national team. Nowhere is this relationship more complex than in the city of Verona which tonight, in a match that will be televised live on Rai 2, hosts Italy’s last friendly (against Finland) before Euro 2016.
As a matter of policy, the Italian national team plays all over the country. But it is 27-years since the Azzurri last played in Verona.
On 22 April 1989, Italy faced Uruguay at the Stadio Marc’Antonio Bentegodi di Verona in a largely meaningless friendly match.
This was an era that had seen the rise to political prominence of the Northern League (Lega Nord) as well as a marked resurgence of regionalism in northern Italy more generally. In fact, some prominent leaders of the regionalist movement openly declared that they would support any team against Italy.
Against this backdrop, only 13,891 spectators paid to go and see the national team in Verona that night. But those few who did go certainly made themselves heard.
The national team was greeted with fierce hostility by the home support and loud whistling accompanied the Italian national anthem. Even the minute’s silence for the victims of the Hillsborough tragedy (which had unfolded only the previous weekend), was disrupted by vocal sections of the Veronese support before it was mercifully brought to a premature conclusion after just 30 seconds.
A direct consequence of the fan’s behaviour that night was a long hiatus during which the national team would not return to Verona for a period of 27 years. More generally, the image of the city was once again tarnished by the behaviour of its notorious fans.
For tonight’s friendly the Italian football federation, in partnership with the city council, has designated Verona a “Città Azzurra”, and aims to involve the fans of the national team, affirm the positive values of sport and promote youth football activities through a series of events that will precede the match. Fans will also have the opportunity to pay homage to 2006 World Cup winner and Hellas Verona legend Luca Toni, who just a few weeks ago announced his retirement from the game.
Flavio Tosi, the popular right wing Mayor of the city, has declared that it is time for Verona to make its peace with La Nazionale. The approach seems to have worked and some 25,000 tickets have been sold in advance.
Hopefully tonight at the Bentegodi there will be no repeat of the ugly scenes of 27-years ago and the only polemics that follow the match will be the inevitable discourse around team selection, formation and tactics for the Euros that kick-off later this week.
Of the 12 previous encounters between the two teams, Italy have have won 10, drawn one and lost one (at the Olympic Games of 1912). The most recent encounter between the two sides was another friendly in November 2004 when Italy won 1-0 thanks to a first half free-kick whipped in from an improbable angle by striker Fabrizio Miccoli.