In Europe, Hellas!

As you would expect with Verona, it was a remarkable adventure, quite unlike anything seen before or since.

Richard Hough

The column of the week from Richard Hough for all the Verona-lovers speaking english.

As Hellas prepare to face Atalanta on Sunday lunchtime, a team that has made a remarkable impact on Europe in recent seasons, we take a moment to recall the last time Hellas played in Europe.

As you would expect with Hellas, it was a remarkable adventure, quite unlike anything seen before or since.

It was 16 March 1988 (almost exactly 33 years ago). Kylie Minogue’s I should be so lucky had just spent five weeks at Number 1, in his weekly radio address to the nation, U.S. President Ronald Reagan had just made the case for giving aid to the Nicaraguan rebels, and in Belfast, a shooting at a funeral resulted in the death of three mourners and sixty wounded.

In the world of football, the previous summer Peter Beardsley had become the most expensive player to move between British clubs, joining Liverpool from Newcastle for a fee of £1.9 million. Meanwhile Trevor Francis, Britain’s first million-pound player, joined Graeme Souness at Glasgow Rangers from Atalanta in deal worth just £70,000.

For Hellas Verona, these were the glory days. Of course, they had won the scudetto in 1985, and the 1987-88 season was the third time in five years they had competed in Europe.

It would also be the last.

It was a Hellas team full of character, heart and spirit, thanks in no small part to the quiet but steely leadership of charismatic coach Osvaldo Bagnoli.

Hellas had qualified for the UEFA Cup thanks to a fourth-place finish the previous season and they hoped to improve on their Europe Cup performance of two years previously, when they had been eliminated by Juventus in the second round.

English clubs were still excluded from European competition, following the shameful events at Heysel two years earlier. Scotland, though, was well represented, with Aberdeen, Celtic and Dundee United enjoying European adventures of their own.

In the first round, Hellas faced Polish outfit Pogoń Szczecin. Pre-match, Hellas players lounged around the hotel lobby in denim shirts, leather jackets and even the occasional set of shoulder pads!

By early afternoon, the open-roofed stadium was already beginning to fill up with high-spirited Hellas fans, some of whom had made the long journey by motorbike! On the road, Hellas wore the iconic yellow v-neck / polo collar Hummel shirt, with the Ricoh sponsor emblazoned across the front. These were the days when shorts were short and Hellas players strode onto the pitch with a certain swagger. Before kick-off, they even threw bunches of flowers to the travelling fans in the away curva.

A valiant 1-1 draw in the first leg, despite playing for much of the game with just ten men, was followed by a convincing 3-1 victory at the Bentegodi, thanks to an Elkjær double (including one from the spot) and a second penalty converted by Antonio Di Gennaro.

In the second round Hellas eliminated Dutch side Utrecht, again drawing 1-1 in a tense away encounter in the first leg, before securing a 2-1 victory at the Bentegodi, thanks to an 89th minute own goal by Herman Verrips.

In the third round, Hellas faced Romanian’s Sportul Studențesc of Bucharest. Twenty-six thousand packed into the Bentegodi to see Hellas secure a convincing 3-1 victory, with Silvano Fontolan, Marco Pacione and, inevitably, Preben Elkjær the goalscorers.

For the away leg, Eastern European soldiers in uniform were dispersed throughout the Romanian stadium. In freezing conditions, a pre-match blizzard only served to heighten the sense of the surreal, as local fans in ushanka-style head gear, clanging noisy cow bells clambered up the barren trees outside the stadium to catch a glimpse of the match.

As kick-off approached, the snow continued to fall, while the players tried to ‘warm up’ in a snow-covered waste ground behind the stadium. With the noisy Hellas fans creating a vibrant carnival atmosphere, football can rarely have witnessed a spectacle quite like this one! With prominent banners exclaiming: “I love pearà” or simply “PEARÀ”, I can’t think of another set of travelling fans who would express their fierce regional pride by displaying a banner extolling the virtues of the favourite local dish. On the pitch, the players wore the traditional blue kit – unsurprisingly given the conditions, they all chose long sleeves!

A 1-0 away victory on a snow-covered pitch in Bucharest, conditions that would today be deemed unplayable, sealed the tie and secured Verona’s place in the quarter finals of the UEFA Cup for the first time in the club’s history.

With Inter, Juve and Milan already eliminated, it was left to Hellas Verona to fly the flag for Italy as the tournament reached its climax. For the first time, neutrals were even mentioning Hellas Verona as genuine contenders to lift the cup.

Hellas avoided the likes of Barcelona and Español (who had eliminated Inter in the previous round), but found themselves facing an in-form Werder Bremen, who were enjoying a successful season at the top of the Bundesliga (in fact, they would go on to win the German championship that season).

On 2 March 1988, 33,435 flocked to the Bentegodi for the first leg. It was a tight, nervy affair, refereed by experienced Scotsman Bob Valentine. Bremen went one up thanks to a headed goal from a set-piece by the German giant Frank Neubarth early in the second half and an increasingly rattled Hellas were unable to find an equaliser.

When the final whistle went, an irate Elkjær tried to hit the German coach with the ball. He missed and hit the linesman instead.

In truth, Bagnoli’s Verona were perhaps too cautious, too timid against a highly effective, but hardly spectacular Bremen. They faced a massive task two weeks later to overcome the deficit in Germany.

On the return leg, on 16 March 1988, Verona gave the Germans a real scare, despite the absence through suspension of talismanic striker Preben Elkjær. In contrast to the prudence and caution of the home leg, Hellas gave everything – character, heart and soul. In heavy rain and on a playing surface that was one again unfit for such an occasion, a significant crowd included a noisy Veronese contingent, as kids travelled with their fathers for a spectacle that they would never forget.

Gunnar Sauer scored for the Germans on the half hour, while Giuseppe Volpecina equalised for the visitors early in the second half with a precise header at the back post.

With just ten minutes to go, Di Gennaro, already cautioned, received a second yellow card. Bagnoli protested, but in truth there was nothing to be done. Despite their numerical inferiority, Hellas continued to press for that vital away goal that would clinch the tie. Three consecutive corners on the 85th minute, but before you know it the referee had blown the final whistle, with scarcely a moment of supplementary time to play.

Unbeaten away from home in the competition, for Hellas the European dream was over.

As you would expect with Hellas Verona there was plenty of pride, drama, controversy, colour, wit and passion along the way. The scenes at the Bentegodi that greeted the heroes of Bremen when they returned the following Sunday were quite simply incredible – a fitting tribute to an incredible campaign.

Bremen lost 1-0 to Bayer Leverkusen in the semi-final, but it was Spanish side Español who went on to lift the UEFA Cup that season, beating Leverkusen 3-2 in a penalty shoot-out.

Hellas Verona finished in 10th place. A disappointing conclusion to such a memorable season. Just two years later they would be relegated to Serie B. Bagnoli moved on, as did most of the team he had assembled. For Hellas Verona it marked the beginning of the long years of struggle in the lower tiers of Italian football. As one lifelong fan commented to me this week, “even to my child's eyes it was clear that this was the end of an unrepeatable cycle”.

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