Thirty years ago, Hellas Verona concluded Italian football’s greatest fairy-tale. On May 12th 1985, the club travelled to Atlanta looking for a point that would secure them their first, and to date only, Scudetto.
A one-all draw saw the team return home with the trophy, their place won in the hearts of generations of Veronese and a special page for them in the history of the sport.
But, when Hellas lifted the title on that day, theirs was also a victory for football romantics that many hoped would inspire a cleaner future for the Italian game. Their victory was built on the shrewd management of Osvaldo Bagnoli, a talented coach who fashioned a team of hard working and talented individuals.
However, their triumph was also due in large part to the response of the Italian authorities to the 1980 match fixing scandal that saw Lazio and AC Milan relegated to Serie B.
One of the major reforms recommended for Italian football in the wake of the betting scandal was for match officials to be randomly selected to officiate matches. The new way of selection came in to force for the start of the 1984/85 Serie A season.
Beforehand the suspicion was that the selection process, carried out through an Italian FA committee, always paired the big clubs from Rome, Turin and Milan with favourable officials. In the two decades prior to Hellas’ achievement the title had only left those cities on one occasion.
Hellas had spent much of that time bouncing back and forth between Italy’s two top divisions before Bagnoli took over in 1981. Achieving promotion from Serie B at the first time of asking, Bagnoli’s team would finish fourth on their first season back and reach the Coppa Italia, losing out to Juventus. They would repeat the feat the next season but again fall short in the final to a Roma side managed by Nils Liedholm.
Over Bagnoli’s three season at the club, he had carefully selected players with a strong work ethic that would complement what he already had at the club. Hellas could not match the likes of Platini’s Juventus or Rummenigge’s Inter in the transfer market but they signed some great players. One of those was Hans-Peter Briegel, a German midfielder fresh off an excellent Euro ’84 campaign.
His debut would come in Hellas’ opening match of the season, a home tie against a Napoli side with their own debuting star, Diego Maradona. Hellas ran out 3-1 winners over the team from Naples, Briegel opening the scoring from a corner in a man of the match performance that also saw him nullify the threat of the Argentinian.
The match would provide an intriguing glimpse of the season ahead as Hellas remained unbeaten in the league until January, defeating Juventus, Fiorentina and Torino along the way.
Though remaining top of the table when the first defeat came, a 2-1 setback to Avelino, they were considered by most to be that stereotype of football – the unlikely midseason leaders about to stumble and fall as the heavyweights kicked things up a gear. However, the Hellas Verona of 1985 were made of sterner stuff.
Bagnoli was a coach ahead of his time, he had built a side that could comfortably switch between 4-4-2, 4-3-3, and 3-5-2 as a match progressed.
His team worked best when soaking up pressure and hitting on the counter, safe in the knowledge that the agile Claudio Garella prowled their goal line should the opposition get behind the defence. Hellas would only concede 19 goals all season.
January turned to February and then to March and still the stumble never came. Nerves were tested following a 2-1 defeat to Torino at the Bentegodi Stadium, Hellas’ home, but a draw in Milan and a win over Lazio quickly followed. A 0-0 home draw with Como left Hellas needing a point at Atlanta in their penultimate match. Finally, fans and pundits across Italy believed the miracle could happen.
It remains an amazing achievement for the unfancied side from Verona. The manager used just 17 players all season, losing only two matches. Hellas picked up the same points total as Roma and Juventus had in the previous two years when they had been crowned champions.
Hellas’ triumph also still holds a special place in many Italian football fans’ hearts. It was the only season of the controversial era where referees were randomly assigned and so was the only season many believe was fairly contested. The next year Serie A returned to the Italian FA committee pairing officials up with clubs. Juventus were crowned champions.
The Hellas team of 1985 would be swiftly broken up over the seasons after their spectacular win. The following season they finished tenth and were eliminated from the European Cup by Juventus, the reigning European champions. Briegel would leave for Sampdoria in 1986, Garella to Napoli.
By 1990, Bagnoli had moved on to Genoa as Hellas Verona were relegated to Serie B. Their title win remains the biggest shock in Italian football history. The miracle season of Hellas Verona rightly taking its place among football folklore.