Italy was bracing itself for Il Burian, the ferocious Siberian wind that would render the match between Juventus and Atalanta unplayable and would also see snow fall in Rome for the first time in 6 years. In Verona temperatures had barely risen above freezing all day and, with the exception of the ultra loyal Curva Sud, there were large empty sections across the tired looking Bentegodi stadium.
It was Sunday afternoon and Hellas Verona were hosting Torino, an ominous ten places above them in the league.
Verona have been struggling at the foot of Serie A all season. Back in the top flight after a season in Serie B, the Gialloblù have a young and inexperienced team, lacking in leadership and quality across the pitch. The departure during the January transfer window of two of the club’s most experienced players, Uruguayan defender Martín Cáceres and club captain and last season’s top goal scorer Giampaolo Pazzini, did nothing to improve the mood of the simmering Veronese public.
On Sunday, despite one of their best performances of the season so far, a well-deserved 2-1 victory against il Toro, the home supporters were merciless in their baiting of both rookie manager Fabio Pecchia and club president Maurizio Setti. In fact, for much of the season, Pecchia has faced withering criticism from angry fans, culminating in January with a mass walkout from the Curva Sud during the humiliating 3-0 home defeat to fellow relegation contenders Crotone.
Setti has also faced intense criticism for a perceived lack of investment and general mismanagement of club affairs. In response, he released an hour-long video outlining his vision for the club (placing its long-term financial stability ahead of unsustainable short term spending). This was followed by a rather unsightly public spat between him and Sean Sogliano, who as director of football between 2012 and 2015, was responsible for bringing stars like Juan Iturbe, Rômulo and Luca Toni to Verona. The Curva’s acerbic response to these off-the-pitch polemics was a banner unfurled on Sunday demanding less proclamations and more shots on goal.
And this is the nub of the problem for Verona. In 26 games, they have found the net just 24 times.Mired in a relegation dog fight, riven by disaffection, in-fighting and allegations of mismanagement, Verona, then, hardly seems like the ideal destination for a spot of football tourism.
Try telling that to long-time Manchester City fan Andy Barber, who was in Verona on Sunday for the game. After the match, I caught up with him for a beer and a blether.
Richard Hough: Hi Andy. You’re a massive Manchester City fan. Your team are currently 13 points clear at the top of the Premier League. You’ve got arguably the best manager in world football with some of the best players on the planet on your doorstep. As we speak they’re on the pitch for what could be the first leg of a historic treble. What on earth are you doing here in Verona? And what did you think of the match?
Andy Barber: Well, it was bloody cold and, if I’m honest, lacked a bit of quality. But I just love the Curva Sud! And to get 3 points and to see my mates from Verona so happy! It’s the best! I did my bit too, hence the croaky voice! It’s been a pretty crap season so far for Hellas and my friends here in Verona have been a bit low. But who knows now, fingers crossed…
RH: To go back to the beginning Andy, when and why did you first become interested in Italian football?
AB: The 1982 World Cup in Spain is probably my earliest memory of following Italy. The Rossi hat trick against Brazil in the second round. What a game that was! Just incredible!
I also loved the shirt from that world cup. And Dino Zoff. What a keeper!
Then, in the late 1980s, I was following AC Milan. You know, the famous team with the three Dutchmen – van Basten, Rijkaard and Gullit, plus the Italians, Donadoni, Baresi Ancelotti and Maldini.
This led to the 1990 World Cup in Italy – in my opinion the best world cup ever!
Then of course there was the Gazzetta Football Italia on Channel 4. By that point a new generation of Italian icons had emerged. Guys like Francesco Totti and of course Luca Toni, whose career I followed all the way to Verona!
RH: So what drew you to Hellas Verona in particular?
AB: Good question! As you can tell, I was really into Serie A. The Azzurri was my second love – after England of course! Anyway, I’m not a reader but I stumbled across the Tim Parks book [A season with Verona] and I was hooked with his journey. I can’t remember exactly when I read the book, but I remember thinking that I had to watch them!
I began reading everything I could about Verona. History, players… I knew they’d won Serie A and had the whole Brigade-Ultra-thing going on. And then there was obviously the infamous Curva Sud. I learnt all about them big time. Their colours also fascinated me – gialloblù. Finally, Luca Toni arrives and I’m a bit of a fan of his to say the least!
I’m a Manchester City fan. My son is 6. His favourite player is Luca Toni! That says it all!
I’ve totally fallen for the city of Verona. Everything about it. The food, the wine, the bars, the people. It’s difficult to explain. I’m just so passionate about the bloody place!
(Verona’s Curva Sud. Source: Richard Hough)
RH: From a fans perspective, how does the Italian experience compare to what you’re used to back home?
AB: The Italian experience just feels old school! I’m sure you know what I mean! Flares, flags, smoke, cigarettes and beers on the terrace. The fans are so loyal. But loyal to the club. To the city, not to individual players. I can just relate to the Ultras a lot more. Does that make sense?
RH: You’re right. The loyalty is incredible. I’m sure it’s the same with football fans all over the world, but there’s something about the loyalty of the Ultras and the Curva that’s just beyond normal! Anyway. Any particular memories or highlights supporting Hellas Verona over the years?
AB: That’s a great question because I’ve packed so many great memories into a relatively short period of time! On my first ever trip to Verona I was in the east stand. It was Hellas against Roma. To see two of my heroes, Luca Toni and Francesco Totti, on the same pitch at the same time was amazing! Also, the noise coming from the Curva Sud was just incredible!
Then after the match I remember looking for Zanzibar (because I’d read about it in Tim Parks’ book). Finding it was great, but then I went to Bar Stadio, which looked fun. Lots of singing and drinking going on! I decided to go in for a quick drink with two guys I knew. Six hours later… I was very drunk. I learnt a few new songs. Made some really great friends. This one guy, he really couldn’t understand why I was so interested in Hellas Verona! We had a great night and he’s been a great friend ever since!
Another memorable moment was my first Curva Sud experience. Alessandro, the guy I’d met in the Bar Stadio after the Roma game, sorted me out for tickets and stuff. He introduced me to his friends and we’ve all been great mates ever since! The Curva was just incredible. The noise, the passion, the banter, the camaraderie. There’s nothing like it!
RH: Finally, you’ve obviously had a great weekend here in Verona. Any tips for anyone thinking about coming to a game here or elsewhere in Italy?
AB: I get a lot of people who haven’t even heard of Hellas Verona, but if you’re passionate about football and you want an old-school experience of noise and a set of supporters who are loyal as hell, you won’t be disappointed! I can safely say it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done. I really have made some incredible friends through watching Hellas.
With its seemingly endless riches and state of the art stadiums, the English Premier League appears, on paper at least, to offer a much more marketable product. But Andy is far from alone in seeking a more authentic football experience outside the Premier League. I know lads (and lassies for that matter) from Grimsby to Glasgow, Dublin to London to Newcastle and back again, who follow Hellas Verona with the intensity and passion of a local.
Although Hellas Verona has something of a cult following (largely thanks I think to the Tim Parks’ book), it is by no means the only Italian provincial team that attracts such interest. And while I’m not entirely sure why you would choose Hellas Verona over Manchester City, I do know that a warm welcome awaits you here in Verona! Perhaps even a cheap glass of wine or a beer on the terraces, as together we embrace what Tim Parks calls “Questa pazza fede”. And what a crazy faith it is!
Words by Richard Hough: @rick_hough