Stadium Guide: Stadio Marcantonio Bentegodi

Date built: 1963

Attendance: 39,211 (of which only 31,045 are currently approved)

Derbies: Derby della scala (Hellas v Chievo); Derby del Garda (Hellas v Brescia); Derby del Veneto (Verona v Vicenza)

Nearest metro: Verona Porta Nuova (Verona’s principal railway station is a ten minute walk)

Best restaurant/bar: The Den

With its glory days firmly in the past, Verona’s Bentegodi stadium is not without its detractors. But what is the story behind the Bentegodi, what is it really like inside, and what does the future hold for this historic Italian stadium?

Marcantonio Bentegodi (1818 -1873) was one of the early pioneers of organised sport in Verona. A local councillor, he worked tirelessly to promote sport in the city. In 1868 he founded the city’s Gymnastics and Fencing Society and, when he died in 1873, he left a substantial legacy to fund sporting activity in his hometown.

Not long after its formation, a rival sporting association was founded that challenged the pre-eminence of the Bentegodi association. Established in 1903 by a group of school friends, on the suggestion of their classics professor they named the rival organisation Associazione Calcio Hellas.

To host the increasingly popular events organised by the rival sporting associations, in 1910 the first ‘Bentegodi Stadium’ was constructed in the heart of city, not far from the Arena, the Verona’s ancient Roman colosseum. The city centre stadium was the venue for football matches between various city teams, including the football section of the Bentegodi association and Hellas.

By 1928, the competing associations had put their historic rivalry to one side and joined forces, just in time to embrace the new era of the Italian national league system.

But it wasn’t until 1957 that the Bentegodi staged the city’s first Serie A match, when Hellas Verona competed in the top tier of Italian football for the very first time. Finally playing at the highest level, off the pitch an ambitious new project was taking shape at the periphery of the city.

The urbanisation of the neighbourhood now known as the Zona Stadio began in 1961 and extended rapidly from the historic district of Borgo Milano. A new stadium was designed by Leopoldo Baruchello, with an innovative design that featured three overlapping tiers of terracing. When it was inaugurated on 15 December 1963, it was the first partly covered stadium in Italy. The inauguration of the new stadium didn’t quite go according to plan, as Hellas lost the Serie B match one-nil to local rivals Venezia.

In the years that followed, not much changed, but the Bentegodi witnessed some of the most iconic moments in Italian football, amongst them the miracle season of 1985 when Hellas Verona lifted the scudetto for the first and only time, not to mention the Serie A debut of one Diego Armando Maradona. Forty-one thousand fans packed into the Bentegodi to catch a glimpse of the diminutive Argentinian on the opening day of the ‘85 season. A whopping 45,860 packed into the stadium for the last game of the season – a 4-2 thriller against Avellino, but by then the scudetto was already in Verona’s hands.

This, of course, was a different era. Over 80,000 had packed into the San Paolo to watch Verona draw nil – nil against Napoli. More than 53,000 saw them beat Lazio at the Olimpico, and even Torino and Udinese were attracting upwards of 40,000 fans. These were the golden days of Italian football, when matches were played at three on a Sunday afternoon and there was no live television transmission.

The ageing stadium underwent some superficial improvements for the 1990 World Cup, some of which are still visible today. The third upper ring and the roof were also added. The Bentegodi hosted group E matches (Belgium, South Korea, Spain and Uruguay), as well as the knockout game between Spain and Yugoslavia. But those were the last substantial improvements that the Bentegodi has enjoyed!

Now it’s clear that the stadium is no longer fit for purpose. A decaying shell of its former self.

Located just a short distance from the city’s train station, the Bentegodi is owned by the city and leased to both Hellas and Chievo for their home matches. It is an arrangement common in Italy that is ill-suited to innovation, commercialisation and modernisation.

Equipped with an eight-lane athletics track that hasn’t been used at years and serves only as a security cordon between the fans and the players. Regulars will often bring a cushion or newspaper to avoid sitting directly on the filthy seats. Nesting pigeons inevitably leave their muck, and the half-time comfort break is never an experience to relish. I’m reliably informed that the services for women are even worse! On the plus side, for around 4 euros a can, you can enjoy a halftime beer from one of the many bars located in the grimy bowels of the stadium. The service is basic but adequate.

The Bentegodi in recent years

Aside from its general state of decay, the fundamental problem with the Bentegodi is its size. Quite simply, it’s too big, with many of the seats inaccessible because of security regulations which require a security cordon between home and away fans. And when it’s half empty, the cavernous old stadium shows its age and lacks atmosphere (just ask a Chievo fan). But on the big occasions, the Bentegodi still packs a punch.

With a capacity of 39,211 seats (limited for security reasons to just 31,045), the Bentegodi is the eighth largest stadium in Italy. Before the lockdown, Verona were averaging just over 18,000 a game. For February’s historic victory against Juventus, 28,654 were admitted, and that was declared a sell-out. Demand was so high that its possible that another couple of thousand tickets could have been sold had the regulations permitted it. But even when it’s ‘full’ (such as against Juve), there can still be up to 10,000 empty seats. An unsightly blight that is clearly visible to the tv audience.

Although some modest improvements were undertaken in 2009, when the roof of the stadium was fitted with solar panels, what is needed now is a complete refurb, but in Italy stadium modernisation is always a thorny issue.

Despite its flaws, fans are proud of their stadium – which holds many celebrated memories, particularly from the glory days of the mid 1980s. For many of the most loyal fans, the Curva Sud is hallowed ground. Few of them crave the clean, clinical and corporate experience that is available elsewhere, nor the price hike that would inevitably come with it.

My own love affair with the Bentegodi got off to a fairly inauspicious start. Back in September 2011, when I first moved to Verona, Hellas were struggling in Serie B after a long period in the footballing wilderness. Back then, it was city rivals Chievo who were flying high in the Italian top-flight and, knowing no better, I decided to go and watch them play. Afterall, I wasn’t sure how long we’d be staying in Verona and the opportunity to enjoy some Serie A action on my doorstep was too good to miss.

Keen to avoid the rush, I got up early and headed to the stadium to buy my ticket for the afternoon’s game (a glamour tie against newly promoted Novara if memory serves me correctly). Remembering that I’d been told that I’d need photo ID I had no problem getting my ticket and returned home for lunch, before heading back to the stadium for the three o’clock kick off. When I returned to the Bentegodi, I thought I must have made some mistake. There was barely a soul to be seen. I checked my ticket. No mistake. Where is everyone?

Deflated but undeterred, I went for a beer in an empty bar and returned to the gates half an hour later. By now, a trickle of fans were entering the stadium. I presented my ticket to the security guard, who then asked for my ID. Of course, I’d left at home. I didn’t realise that it was necessary to enter the stadium as well! I tried to talk my way in, but to no avail. Eventually, in frustration, I ripped up the ticket and threw it on the ground in front of the unimpressed-looking steward.

The following week I decided to try my luck with Hellas. The difference was striking. There was that electrifying match day buzz about the place. The bars where overflowing. Families in gialloblù were enjoying the late summer sunshine. As I made my way towards the Curva, there was a hint of tension in the air, but no trouble this time. Inside, 15,000 fans rocked the vast stadium. I don’t remember much about the game, but the atmosphere was intoxicating! The following season I got my first season ticket and celebrated with the locals as Hellas finally returned to Serie A. The season after that I started taking my son and we’ve been going together ever since. Along the way there have been plenty of lows, but a few highs as well! They tell me Chievo are now languishing in Serie B, soI think I made the right choice!

The Curva Sud is the heart of the stadium. It is here that the most loyal and most fanatical fans gather on matchday. Sitting is not an option as the ultras stand for the duration of the game, singing and chanting their way through the match, orchestrated from the front by a handful of vocal leaders. There is little in the way of stewarding and the curva is generally self-policing. Despite its reputation, the Curva Sud is generally a safe and welcoming place to experience the match. It’s also the cheapest (approx. €18) and the liveliest part of the stadium, so don’t expect to find your allocated seat.

The Curva Sud of the Bentegodi during a derby against Vicenza

If you are looking for something slightly more sedate and with better optics for viewing the match, the Poltrone Est (the east stand) opposite the technical area is a good option. From here you can enjoy a decent atmosphere, easy access to bars and a clear view from your seat (even if it’s not the one indicated on your ticket). Ticket price is approx. €25. The Poltrone Ovest (West Stand) is above the tunnel/dugout. It also houses the VIP and media seating. A ticket here will cost you around €35. There is also a family enclosure, somewhat unfortunately placed between the away section and the worst elements of the Poltrone Est (said be composed of those who have suffered the indignity of being banned from the Curva!).

The Bentegodi very rarely (if ever) sells out, so it is usually always possible to get tickets on match day itself from official outlets. The only exception to that in recent years has been the fixture against Juventus, tickets for which can be pretty hard to come by. Tickets are generally released no more than a week in advance, so getting them any earlier is not generally possible. About a week before each home game, full ticketing information is published on the Hellas Verona website. A season ticket in the Poltrone Est will set you back about €250 (€60 for kids) – a very decent investment if you are a regular.

In the past couple of years, some fairly serious looking plans have been made to redevelop the stadium. Proposals currently being considered include the demolition of the current stadium and the construction, on the same site, of a completely new purpose-built stadium, with a temporary site to be developed while the construction work takes place. A public consultation by the city authorities has taken place and various notes of interest have been submitted, including by some very credible players in global stadium construction and management. The new design for the current site includes a modest commercial area, improved access, particularly for those with disabilities. Other details being considered include a sports museum, a restaurant, some shops and even a new hotel with a stadium view. While Hellas are clearly behind the initiative, Chievo are less enthusiastic.

In terms of budget, a figure of between €100 and €500 million euros has been touted. The city, it is claimed, won’t be out of pocket as the project will be funded by private investment. If this all sounds too good to be true, then it probably is. Redevelopment plans have been mooted before and came to nothing. In Italy, projects of this nature are notoriously difficult to get off the ground.

At the moment it all seems fairly academic anyway. Fans haven’t been inside the stadium in meaningful numbers since that magical night in February, and there is little prospect of us doing so before the end of the current season. In the meantime, match day has a radically different feel to it and we pine for those glory days of the past.

Words by: Richard Hough. @richardhough