HELLAS VERONA, VINCI PER NOI!
Verona: home to the greatest love story ever told. A story of trials and tribulations, ecstasy, elation, heartbreak, and hope. A story where triumph and disaster walk side by side holding hands. This though is no Shakespearian tragedy that I speak of. In this drama, there are no Montagues and Capulets. There is only the Curva Sud, the Bentegodi, the Brigate, and the bleeding of Yellow and Blue.
This is a rip-roaring sonnet, not by the hand of the Bard, but by a man declaring his adoration and at times anger towards the love of his life. This is a journey into the soul and often the abyss. There is no famed balcony to which the protagonist stands, crying requiems of love. There is the Curva Sud where the Brigate Gialloblu declare undying loyalty to their team, and where their fervour sets the Stadio Bentegodi alight and where hope and despair sit upon their shoulders for 90 minutes. If Shakespeare himself had ever witnessed such a sight, he’d have draped himself in the Yellow and Blue of Hellas Verona, declared himself a true Brigate Gialloblu, and forsaken his life. O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo? Vaffancullo!
It has been 20 years ago since writer Tim Parks published ‘A Season With Verona.’ A book that tells the unbelievable story of Hellas Verona’s 2000/01 campaign. The Atlantic Dispatch had the pleasure of catching up with Parks as he reflected on what has become one of sports literary classics.
‘Aïda, ‘Ale’, Forza Verona Alè’
Parks takes us on a remarkable journey through Italy, catapulting the reader into the rapture and roar of every single game and stadium across Serie A. It is an emotional pilgrimage, inviting us into the world of a man’s unrelenting passion for his team and the endlessly complicated emotions experienced by a fan throughout a season like no other.
It is also a book that transcends sports, gliding effortlessly and beautifully like a young Gianluigi Lentini into Italian history, politics, culture, and society before weaving back into the very heart of Hellas Verona’s fight for survival.
Through every page and chapter, you will feel either the elation of victory or the pain of defeat, and Parks is there for every mad moment of it and every cry of ‘Aïda, ‘Ale’, Forza Verona alè’. ‘When you write a novel,’ explains Parks. ‘You shape it to the tone you want it to have. But in this book, the story shifted week by week.’ Parks confesses that there were times when he didn’t know if he was writing a story of relegation or redemption.
What he was writing though was an epic adventure where at times the hairs on the back of the neck will not only be standing up but will be wrapped in the colours of Hellas Verona and manically screaming ‘HELLAS VERONA PER NOI.’
What was your abiding memory of that season?
‘Mostly it would be the excitement of the away games. In fact the feeling of being constantly excited because it was such a business going to the games every week, and quite a few training sessions too. The bus and train rides, stand out, getting together with a raucous bunch of guys, full of life and out to have a good time. And how wonderful it is to step into a new stadium and hear the home crowd roar their opposition. You feel so alive.’
How different was the book you ended up writing from what you expected?
‘I remember wondering whether a serious writer (I like to think of myself as a serious writer!) should be writing a book like that. And whether there’d be material enough. Then after the first overnight trip to Bari I knew there was too much material and there was no problem about seriousness. When you’re dealing with real people things are serious. But mostly the problem was not knowing whether you were writing a sad book, about relegation, or a miracle book, about saving yourself at the last minute. When you write a novel you shape the thing to the tone you want it to have. But in this book, the story shifted week by week. It was an interesting problem to deal with.’
In terms of your other work where does this compare. Or was this an experience that could never be comparable with anything?
All my books, novels and non-fiction, are about the individual in relation to the group, or being part of the group. No man is an island. So my books about Italy are about how the whole Italian world forms the people I describe, how they express this or that part of it, this or that side of the various polemics. A Season with Verona was no exception. Also, in all the books, there’s a strong desire to be really involved in life, really in it. And you certainly feel in it when you travel to a game with the brigate gialloblù.
‘It’s stupid to expect Verona to play in Serie A. All we do is go to games and suffer.’
As it happens Hellas Verona had a curiously good start to the 2000-01 season, losing just one of their opening six games. There was that beautiful early season optimism in the air, where all kinds of exciting possibilities exist. A dangerous concoction for any fan. It represents a time in the season when one can allow themselves to dream and when they aren’t yet weighed down by the heavy burden of doom and gloom. It is a time when the grass is a lush green, and the sky an almighty blue. When the summer sun shines on the hopeful faces of the bronzed gladiators waiting to duel on a field of dreams to win your approval.
Looking back to that season Verona happened to have a supremely gifted set of youngsters, with no fewer than three future World Cup-winning players; Mauro Camoranesi, Alberto Gilardino, and Massimo Oddo. Coupled with the absurdly talented but ultimately flawed Adrian Mutu and Martin Laursen who would later win Serie A with AC Milan.
Despite the team’s obvious talent, they would soon find themselves facing the wrath of the Bentegodi as the beauty of summer gave way to the misery of winter and the chill of relegation became a haunting reality. Verona rapidly descended towards the bottom of the table and the inevitability of relegation kissed their frozen cheeks.
‘It’s stupid to expect Verona to play in Serie A. All we do is go to games and suffer and suffer and suffer to no end. There’s no hope. That’s the truth. We’ve got to get used to there being no hope.‘Dismayed Hellas Verona fan. ‘A Season With Verona.’
The life of a football fan and their team is a particularly toxic and abusive relationship. You love them unconditionally despite enduring years of psychological at their hands, and as Parks writes: ‘The season was beginning to take on the trajectory of a love affair that had never been easy and was now turning decidedly sour.’ With the season reaching its climax, defeats against Juventus, Brescia, Reggio Calabria, Milan, and Napoli had left Verona bloodied, battered, and bruised. With three games left to play, they were second from bottom and in severe need of a miracle.
‘Fire him! Fire him, fire him, fire him. He’s ruining the team, he’s ruining my book.’Tim Parks laments Hellas Verona’s manager Attilio Perotti
However, one of the many pearls of being a fan is that just when you’ve given up hope and accepted your miserable fate, football will give you that disgusting and perverse glimmer of hope. Why? Because football is a bastard. Bastardi!
Cossato, Super-Mike, I Love You!
With Verona staring down the barrel of the gun, and their dreams not so much as up in smoke but completely on fire and armed with nothing but a water pistol, they begin the fight back of their lives. A miraculous 5-4 victory at home to Bologna was followed by a nerve-shredding visit to Parma. With time running out at the Ennio Tardini, the much-maligned Michele Cossato enters the fray and misses a glorious chance. ‘It’s too much. I have to crouch down for a moment. We’re finished. I’m really not well.’ Describes an agonised Parks as time slips away. You can hear the Brigate cry, ‘why could you not have put us out of our misery weeks ago? Dio boia! Then it happens. From the canvas, they rise and courtesy of the head of Michele Cossato they defeat Parma and live to fight another day. ‘Cossato, Super-Mike, I love you,’ roars Parks.
That result took Verona to the last game of the season, where they defeated Perugia. A victory that relegated foes Vicenza as well as Napoli and Bari. It was a result that set up a two-legged winner takes all relegation play-off against Reggio Calabria. Football? Bloody hell.
Verona prevailed in the first leg of a nail biting encounter, taking a 1-0 victory with them to the south of Italy. With destiny in their own hands and the weight of the watching nation desperate for the ‘racists’ of the north to fail, Verona fell two goals behind. Once more the familiar feeling of defeat reared its ugly head.
With 90 minutes almost up and fading away forever. An entire season would have flashed before Parks very eyes; the Zanzibar bus, railway carriages, airplanes, late nights and exhaustion, Martin Laursen’s glorious blonde hair, Giambattista Pastorello’s elegant suits, Attilio Perotti’s weak chin, corrupt referees, the Carabinieri and Luis Marsiglia. A slideshow of every moment from a season that had everything. Then in one magical moment, with the referee’s lips pursed and ready to blow for full time, the ball floats gloriously towards who else but Michele Cossato. He expertly lifts the ball over the onrushing keeper. With the goal gaping, but surrounded by defenders, Cossato leaps up to meet the ball and his destiny. For a moment, time stops and you can hear the collective beating of a thousand Veronese hearts. The net bulges. A year of heartbreak turns into happiness. Chaos ensues.
If you could go back to any moment in that season what would it be?
‘Inevitably I suppose the last ten minutes of the playoffs again Reggio Calabria FC when we saved our season two minutes from the end and all hell was let loose.
Everything was happening at once, on the pitch – desperate last-second goalmouth scrambles, plastic bottles raining down – and off the pitch where there was a major assault on the Verona fans, and then on the chairman when he headed for the tunnel, then the players as they tried to get off the pitch after the game. I was so busy looking after myself that I no doubt missed a lot of what happened. It would be fun to go back as a kind of ghost and savour all the drama in tranquillity.’
Two of the book’s central characters are the city of Verona itself and the Hellas Verona Ultras, the Brigate. Verona is perhaps viewed through opera glasses by those who don’t live in Italy. From the outside, it is seen as an idyllic paradise that inspires romance. The view from inside Italy could not be more different. There is a narrative that Verona is an uncultured hateful, xenophobic, racist, and violent city and to many the infamous Hellas Ultras, the Brigate Gialloblu personifies this. Their fierce reputation precedes them wherever they go and they often find themselves under the watchful eye of the Carabinieri.
A Season With Verona is a book steeped in dark and mischievous humour, with the Brigate at the forefront of much of this. Parks stands shoulder to shoulder with them on the Curva Sud of the Bentegodi and you’ll find a wry smile appearing across your face when he describes their taunting of the cat-eating Venetians and renditions of ‘what’s that smell, even the dogs are running, the Neapolitans are coming.’
When we join Parks in the opening chapter, he is boarding the Brigate’s supporters bus, the Zanzibar, where he finds an astonishing assortment of loveably flawed characters, as they get ready to embark on a journey the length of Italy to Bari. What ensues is nothing short of madness. ‘The driver drives, bald as a coot, on the road he crashes through tollbooths indifferent! Egghead brute! Cow of a mother that shat you,’ they will sing as a copious amount of drink is consumed, amongst the noise and confusion of police escorts, political debates, and sleep deprivation. Parks will come to embrace these occasions and reminisce about them fondly. Indeed, it was the boys of the Zanzibar bus that the book was dedicated to. For him, this is where you get the authentic experience of what it’s like to be a fan: ‘It’s a terrible thing to watch a game with people who are not eager to create the same illusions you are. Like trying to worship God with an atheist, I am tempted to tell her to fuck off,’ he writes, as he is forced to watch Verona take on Juventus from The Stadio Delle Alpi press box, surrounded by journalists and away from the all-consuming passion of the Brigate.
The truth is that I now look forward to these bus trips. I love the din, the confusion, the shambles of beer cans and bottles and abandoned newspapers and smoky air. And above all the riotous, desecrating songs.Tim Parks: A Season With Verona
The Brigate, was apparently founded at The Bar Olimpia Borgo Venezia by two sixteen-year-old boys, at a time when the economy was booming and ‘money’ became the sole basis of discrimination. Young teenagers saw this, and the ‘Brigate’ was the perfect opportunity to express themselves and find solace in Curvas and shed their social status.
The Brigate gives us an insight into what it’s like to be a true supporter: Full of passion, contradictions, humour, irony, love, and hate. They follow their team come rain or shine and Parks takes us into their world. ‘On arrival in Verona, you are restored to your beloved wife, your darling children, your challenging work, somehow fortified, ready once more to take everything around you as seriously as you possibly can.’ He reflects in the book as he returns to normality after another away trip aboard the Zanzibar.
What did you learn about yourself in that season? And how on earth did you survive the bus journeys aboard the Zanzibar?
‘Well, I learned that the bus journeys were actually fun. I learned that I was much cooler than I’d supposed I would be when stuff began to kick off. That was really quite a surprise. I remember facing down a policeman with a truncheon raised over his head. I would never have imagined I could be so calm. It was weird. To do with the adrenalin no doubt. And I learned how much fun it is just to listen to people. I tend to talk too much. But with the fans, I mainly listened.’
Born in Manchester in 1954, Parks grew up in London, studying at Cambridge and Harvard. In 1981 he moved to Italy where he has lived ever since. It wasn’t until 1985 he found himself at the Bentegodi, the year when Hellas Verona did the impossible and won Serie A. It was witnessing the magnificent bowl of a stadium for the first time and experiencing the roar and the feeling of intensity, the green grass, bright lights, the colours and real life that made him sick with Hellas fever.
‘In the stadium it was different. It is not that the people of the Curva are like me. Our backgrounds are a thousand miles and many light-years apart. It’s just that, if only because Verona can never be a big team, this is necessarily a population of underdogs.
There must have come a moment when, I unwittingly, linked my struggle to theirs, my own experience, or as I saw it, shovelling shit to Hellas Verona’s endless fight against the flood-tide of big money. In that sense, I could feel part of their community.‘Tim Parks: A Season With Verona
For you, how has football in Italy changed over the last 20 years?
‘It’s got sadder. The ridiculously strict crowd restrictions have made it harder to go to games and less fun when you get there. Without really solving any problems. TV reigns supreme. VAR has just moved dubious decisions from the referee who you could see to mysterious experts who you can’t. I understand those fans who prefer to watch games in the lower divisions where there’s a bit more reality.’
Does your love of Hellas Verona and football still remain?
‘For sure I still suffer for them. But I live in Milan now and my season ticket days are over. So it’s mainly at a distance. But when I do go and see the Curva Sud, it’s always a fantastic thrill. When you hear… HELLAS VERONA, VINCI PER NOI!’
20 years on from the publication of their greatest escape, Hellas Verona is once more in the depths of despair. They find themselves rooted to the bottom of Serie A, whilst Napoli who were relegated all those years ago, sit proudly at the top of the table. Those bloody Neapolitans. Once more they need a miracle and of course super Michele Cossato. O Michele, Michele, wherefore art thou Michele?
Thank you very much to the gentleman that is Tim Parks for his time. To find out more about Tim Parks and his latest novel, The Hero’s Way, please visit here