Calcio Debate: The Fairytale Story Of The Flying Donkeys Of Verona

Subhankar Mondal recalls the fairytale rise of Chievo Verona, and hopes that it continues for many more years...
And you thought that Verona was the city of Romeo and Juliet, the Roman amphitheatre, the Roman ruins so meticulously conserved, the Ponte Pietra, the remnants of the Scaligeris, and the Basilica of San Zeno Maggiore.

For the uninitiated, Verona also has a football club, rather two football clubs. While one of these is struggling for survival in the Italian third tier, having slipped from the top flight down the ladder with alarming consistency, another is busy securing its position in Serie A for next season having just returned from a one year spell in Serie B.

At the end of 2001-2002, Hellas Verona spiralled down into the second division, their fans chanting 'solo contro tutti' (alone against the world), lamenting that they were being picked on, while the rest of the country heaved a huge sigh of relief that the 'ugly' club of Verona were going down. At the same time Chievo, hailing from a Veronese suburb inhabited by around 3,000 people, were winning with ease and preparing for UEFA Cup football for the first time in their history. Ceo had managed to reach Serie C1 only in 1986 and played their first ever Serie A match in 2001.

Chievo finished fifth in their debut season, having led the league for six successive weeks at one stage. Hellas, on the other hand, went down into Serie B. But surely, Chievo would plummet after that one season amidst the big boys while Hellas, historically more successful than their poorer neighbours and Scudetto winners in 1985, were going to bounce back?

Only, Hellas didn't bounce back and Chievo didn't drop down. While the Gialloblu have leapt from one branch of crisis to the other and have slipped down the ladder, Chievo are very much alive among the sharks, their one season among the Cadetti notwithstanding.

At the time, I was still a young chap, at an age when the 4-3-3, 4-3-2-1 or the 4-1-2-3 neither appeals nor matters, when football still remains a source of romantic pleasure rather than an intellectual exercise, when you watch your favourite footballer do the roulette and you think that you can do the same.

That 2001-2002 season was one of a kind. Zinedine Zidane arrived at Real Madrid and scored the 'goal of the century' against Bayer Leverkusen in the UEFA Champions League final , Ronaldo made his comeback in style for Brazil, and Livingston FC finished third in the Scottish Premier League.

But one aspect of that campaign that sticks out higher than the rest is Chievo's rise. That was the Flying Donkeys' first ever season in Serie A and they were a football bomb. I still remember Alan Green of the BBC World Service (radio) expressing his surprise patched with joy at Chievo's achievements. My memory might be playing games with me at this point but if I remember correctly, then prior to the first league match between Juventus and Chievo, Green was exclaiming how this was a top versus second clash and how the following season he might be commentating on them in the Champions League.

Chievo lost that game, and eventually finished fifth at the end of the term. The highlight of a very successful season was their victory over the mighty Inter. Many thought that it was a flash in the pan, that Chievo were going to be a one season wonder and nothing else. Frankly, I, who am a cynic by nature, thought that maybe the Chievo-tale would end in despair. But I kept on hoping against hope, that maybe Chievo, just like Livingston in Scotland, would be able to hold on for one more season, at least.

And thankfully they have been holding on (more or less) till now and are set to hold on for one more year at least. In 2002-2003 Chievo finished seventh, in 2003-2004 they were ninth, in 2004-2005 season they just about managed to stave off relegation, at the end of 2005-2006 they finished seventh again and actually qualified for the preliminary rounds of the UEFA Champions League thanks to the Calciopoli scandal that saw several teams ahead of them in the table stripped of points.

Chievo's fairytale, though, came to an end at the end of 2006-2007 when they suffered relegation to Serie B on the final day of the season. But Ceo bounced back immediately, winning the second division championship in style.

No, I would not force myself to believe that Chievo have played Galactico football all this while. Because they haven't. And they cannot. After all, they are a provincial club living off a shoestring budget, a club that relies more on TV rights than gate receipts for keeping itself afloat, a club whose record signing is Simone Perrotta and it was for a mere £1 million, a club that doesn't even own the stadium in which it plays its home matches.

But Chievo have been entertaining in their own special way. They have been graced by the likes of Franco Semioli, Matteo Brighi, Nicola Legrottaglie, Erjon Bogdani, Sergio Pellissier and Amauri. Even German legend Oliver Bierhoff played for them for a short period of time and scored a hat-trick for them too, didn't he?

In 2000-2001, when Chievo were winning games at a canter, Hellas supporters mocked them by insisting that "donkeys would fly before Chievo made it to Serie A". In the Alice in Wonderland world even the white rabbit talks and in Verona even donkeys fly as Chievo gained promotion and assumed the nickname 'The Flying Donkeys', wearing what was supposed to be a derogatory nickname as a badge of honour.

Italian football is often said to be festooned with many ills. Racism, crowd disturbance, corruption, favouritism are some of the ugly things that the (foreign) media are all too eager to highlight. But the good and the unique are often brushed under the carpet and one of those good things is the romanticism that this nation is steeped in.

This is the nation that gave the world Romeo and Juliet, the Leonardo da Vincis, the Michaelangelos and the Pope. And it has given the footballing world a certain Chievo.

Currently, Chievo are 16th in the table, eight points above the drop-zone. They may have been in danger of relegation for a good fraction of this season but they have beaten Lazio 3-0 in Rome, have forced mighty Juventus to a 3-3 draw in Turin and made AC Milan work hard to get points off them.

There was once a Veronese tale that ended in tragedy with the two lovers ending up dead. Hopefully this Veronese love story will assume a different tone.

Subhankar Mondal,