The column of the week from Richard Hough for all the Verona-lovers speaking english.
Hellas Verona were just about to kick-off against Cagliari in the fourth round of the Coppa Italia when the news broke that Diego Armando Maradona had died.
It is well known that Maradona’s arrival from Barcelona to Napoli heralded the most successful era in the club’s history, during which they won two historic scudettos, as well as the UEFA Cup and the Italian Super Cup. Such achievements are rightly revered, remembered and respected, most of all in Napoli itself, where Maradona continues to enjoy a God-like status.
Less well known is that Maradona’s Serie A career got off to a somewhat less auspicious start, at Verona’s Bentegodi stadium of all places.
It was 16 September 1984. The opening game of the Serie A Season. In a packed and expectant Bentegodi, all eyes were on the mercurial Argentine, as he made the first of 188 Serie A appearances for Napoli.
But it wasn’t to be the Argentine’s moment. Not yet anyway.
Wearing an unfamiliar white away shirt, the Bentegodi caught only fleeting glances of the magic that Maradona was capable of.
Osvaldo Bagnoli, Hellas Verona’s wily coach, had assigned another foreign debutant the unenviable task of marking the elusive Argentine that day. As well as effectively neutralising Maradona, former decathlete Hans-Peter Briegel, the German man of steel, opened the scoring for Verona, with a well-placed header.
For Verona it was a convincing 3-1 victory against their southern rivals – not the start that Maradona had been hoping for, and an early indication that any success would have to be hard earned. Of course, Verona would go on to achieve the impossible that season, winning a historic Scudetto, while Maradona’s Napoli would finish the season in a disappointing 8th place.
After the match, Maradona was generous in his praise for his adversaries – “A good team, without doubt,” he observed. “Bagnoli’s men mark very well. It was really difficult to touch the ball… they’re not afraid of anyone.” When asked specifically about Briegel, the Argentine complimented his “impeccable” performance.
But Maradona’s assessment was also tinged with a certain bitterness, “they wound me up,” he complained. “I can’t stand it. These Veronese continued to taunt me throughout the game.” “Maradona,” referring to himself in the third person, “doesn’t like being mocked.”
It was to become as common theme over the next couple of years as, wherever he went in the north of Italy, Maradona was subject to relentless abuse, culminating in the notorious World Cup Final in Rome in 1990, when boos and whistling drowned out the Argentine national anthem. An incandescent Maradona could be seen cursing the hostile crowd. Of course, by then Maradona had already conquered Italy, helping Napoli to break the stranglehold of the northern powerhouses of Juventus, Inter Milan and AC Milan.
In October 1985, a Maradona-inspired Napoli destroyed Verona 5-0 at the San Paolo. The highlight of the game was a long-range wonder strike on the bounce by Maradona himself, a strike so pure, so effortlessly brilliant that even Hellas midfielder Luciano Bruni offered a congratulatory high-five as Maradona passed by him on his way back to the centre circle. Napoli finished third that season, while Hellas slumped to tenth place, unable to repeat the feat of the previous championship winning season.
In fact, it wasn’t until Maradona’s third season in Italy that Napoli finally lifted the coveted championship trophy, a miraculous achievement which he went on to repeat in 1990.
So, as the world mourns a great champion, and historic rivalries are put to one side, we simply remember those glorious days when the greatest football player ever came to the Bentegodi.