A Season with Verona, 20 years later


A Season with Verona, the cult classic by Tim Parks, charted the highs and lows of a year spent following Hellas Verona, an unfashionable provincial club who were struggling for survival in Serie A. Of course, the book is far more than football. It delves into the very essence of being a fan, while seamlessly exploring Italian history, politics, culture and society. This year marks the 20th anniversary of that epic season, so what better time reflect on an incredible story and a great book.

Hellas had a decent start to the 2000-01 season, losing just one of their first six games, but their form dipped badly as autumn turned to winter and they drifted ominously towards the bottom of the table. They fought back in spring and the season reached a dramatic climax that included a 5-4 victory at home to Bologna, a miraculous last-minute victory at Parma, and a win against Perugia on the last day of the season that set up a nail-biting two-legged relegation play-off against Reggina. I won’t spoil the story by revealing the result, but there was no shortage of drama.

Although a chunky book at 447 pages, A Season with Verona makes for effortless reading thanks to Parks’ engaging writing style. His detailed descriptions of particular passages of play are beguiling, and his lucid accounts of matches capture the drama, euphoria, sights, sounds and smells of the curva, the anger, the hatred, the torture and the infantile stupidity of it all, while his pithy observations (“the fan thirsts for injustice”) are disarmingly accurate.

The club

Twenty years ago, Verona alternated between relegation dogfights and nerve-shredding promotion battles. For a team with no superstars and little financial clout, they boasted a fiercely loyal and sometimes controversial fanbase. Not much has changed. The club still fluctuates between the top two tiers and their fans are still disparaged by many, but remain defiant and proud of their long history and fleeting moments of glory.

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Verona fans in February 2001



Verona fans in February 2001 Photograph: Grazia Neri/Allsport/Getty Images

The stadium

As anyone who has visited the Stadio Marcantonio Bentegodi recently will tell you, not much has changed. If the truth be told, little has changed at the Bentegodi since the monolithic brute of a stadium was revamped for Italia 90. It has a capacity of 39,211 and is equipped with an eight-lane running track that has not been used in decades.

Like many stadiums in Italy, the Bentegodi is owned by the city and leased to Verona (and Chievo) for their home matches. It is an arrangement ill-suited to the commercial needs of a modern football club. Over the years, various plans have been floated for its redevelopment, including a recent proposal to demolish the ground and rebuild a state of the art stadium on the site. To date, nothing concrete has materialised. Despite its deficiencies, the Bentegodi remains an intoxicating place to watch a football match, just as it was 20 years ago.

The Stadio Marcantonio Bentegodi in March 2001.



The Stadio Marcantonio Bentegodi in March 2001. Photograph: Adam Davy/Empics Sport

Il presidente

Giambattista Pastorello, Verona’s parsimonious president, was a divisive figure, hated by fans for his sartorial elegance, air of superiority, Vicenzan origins and, above all, his lack of investment in the club. After the abuse he suffered towards the end of the 1999-2000 season, he took a back seat for the 2000-01 campaign. Despite his reputation, Parks found him to be surprisingly accommodating in person. In a long and colourful career, Pastorello claims to have discovered Alessandro Del Piero, Gianluigi Buffon, Adrian Mutu, Mauro Camoranesi and Alberto Gilardino.

His relationship with the fans deteriorated further and he sold up in 2006. He later took over as vice-president at Genoa, helping them to secure promotion to Serie A with a young coach named Gian Piero Gasperini. In 2013, Pastorello was indicted for his role in a series of financial irregularities dating back to his time at Verona. Years of litigation followed, leaving his reputation tarnished. His involvement in the game is now limited to scouting activities and he recently had a hand in the discovery of Musa Juwara – the Gambian winger who scored in Bologna’s victory over Inter last season. Pastorello’s son Federico has followed in his father’s footsteps and is a sports agent with clients including Romelu Lukaku, Kasper Schmeichel and Antonio Candreva.

Maurizio Setti, the current president at Verona, has left the fans frustrated with his limited investment in the club. Some things never change.

The mister

Verona won the Serie B title in the 1998-99 season under a charismatic and innovative young coach called Cesare Prandelli. He kept the club up the following season thanks to a remarkable 15-game unbeaten run, which included rare victories against Juventus and Lazio. But, after clashing with the president, Prandelli left the club that summer (what a different book Parks might have written had Prandelli’s contract been extended). He went on to achieve great success elsewhere, most notably with Fiorentina and the Italy team, reaching the final of Euro 2012.

Cesare Prandelli celebrates Fiorentina’s victory over Chievo and subsequent qualification for the Champions League in May 2006.



Cesare Prandelli celebrates Fiorentina’s victory over Chievo and subsequent qualification for the Champions League in May 2006. Photograph: New Press/Getty Images

When Prandelli left in the summer of 2000, he was replaced by Attilio Perotti, a reserved journeyman coach in his fifties who had managed Verona to promotion in the 1995-96 season. Despite that previous success with the club, Perotti had never coached in Serie A before and struggled to inspire his players.

He did not impress Parks, who described him as: “Bland, too amiable. He wears glasses. His chin is weak.” When Parks found himself sitting next to Perotti on a flight, he was deflated to discover that the taciturn coach read a Ken Follett book for the duration of the journey. Perotti left Verona at the end of the 2000-01 season and went on to coach Bari, Empoli, Genoa, Piacenza and Livorno. After a career spanning five decades, he finally retired in 2014.

The players

The squad was dismantled in the summer of 2000, with Sébastien Frey, Gianluca Falsini, Fabrizio Cammarata and Alfredo Aglietti following their coach out the door. The team was almost entirely rebuilt. A host of new arrivals included Adrian Mutu, Alberto Gilardino, Emiliano Bonazzoli, Massimo Oddo and Mauro Camoranesi. They were talented young players, but they lacked experience.

The foreigner

Mutu, a young Romanian striker who had been rejected by Inter, made his first significant appearance in the book when he scored and celebrated enthusiastically in the Partita della fede (the match of faith, a friendly played in front of the Pope). He clearly hadn’t read the script, as this was a charity match that no one was supposed to win, let alone celebrate in while doing so. Mutu scored six goals for Verona that season (and 12 the next), before going on to play for Parma, Chelsea, Juventus and Fiorentina. A formidable talent on the pitch, he was difficult to manage off it and was never far from controversy, later serving bans for failing drugs tests.

Verona’s Adrian Mutu attempts to block a cross by Brescia’s Filippo Galli in April 2001.



Adrian Mutu attempts to block a cross by Brescia’s Filippo Galli in April 2001. Photograph: Grazia Neri/Allsport/Getty Images

The wonder kid

Alberto Gilardino was just 18 years old when he arrived in Verona in the summer of 2000. The striker would go on to play for Parma, Milan and Fiorentina, and become one of the most prolific goalscorers in Serie A history. He scored 188 goals in the league – as many as Alessandro Del Piero and Giuseppe Signori – and also picked up a World Cup winners’ medal along the way. Gilardino is currently coaching Siena in Serie D.

The oriundo

Born in Argentina with Italian origins, Mauro Camoranesi also enjoyed a glittering future after launching his career with Hellas in the 2000-01 season. He went on to win 55 Italy caps, lifting the World Cup alongside his old Verona teammate Gilardino in 2006.

Painting a typically vivid picture, Parks described Camoranesi like this: “Small, barrel-chested, a helmet of Indios black hair, this boy is a collision of fury and talent. He loses his temper. He shouts. You can see he’s going to be sent off before the season is out. Sometimes he’s so determined to be clever he loses the ball too, he shuffles his legs this way and that so fast that he mesmerises himself, he can’t remember what he was supposed to be doing, the way sometimes a sentence, an idea, can become so over intricate, so self-regarding in its twists and turns, it collapses in on its own conceit and already the reader is looking elsewhere.”

Mauro Camoranesi in action for Verona against Perugia in February 2001.



Mauro Camoranesi in action for Verona against Perugia in February 2001. Photograph: Grazia Neri/Allsport/Getty Images

The soldier

Massimo Oddo, another player from that squad who would win the World Cup in 2006, also deserves a mention. Verona’s inexperienced young defender was doing his military service during the 2000-01 season, which meant he spent half of his week with the team preparing for games and the other half at an army barracks cleaning guns and doing field exercises. Not a concern for today’s players, as compulsory military service in Italy was abolished in 2005.

The journalist

Matteo Fontana, who worked as the Verona correspondent for Gazzetta dello Sport at the time, was completing the final stages of his law degree at the University of Turin. Fontana was a valued source of advice and input as Parks unwrapped the history of the club. Fontana’s favourite player that season was Michele Cossato, a local lad who scored some crucial goals, including the late winner at Parma in the penultimate game of the season. One might recall a youthful Gigi Buffon between the sticks for Parma that day. That unlikely victory would propel Verona towards a relegation tie-breaker with Reggina. Twenty years on, Fontana remembers it as if it was yesterday. Fontana acknowledges that the book had a greater impact abroad than it did in Italy. It was translated into Italian under the title Questa pazza fede (This crazy faith), but the bishop of Verona famously suggested that it should be burned.

The writer

Parks still writes about life in Italy – in fact, his latest book is called Italian Life – but he no longer lives in Verona and follows the club from a distance, making only a very occasional appearance on the Curva. I spoke to him last year for the Crazy Faithful fanzine and he played down the idea of a sequel. “Fandom comes in waves,” he said. “Football is there when you need it. It was a fantastic time of my life and a fantastic experience that year when I travelled with the Brigate Gialloblù to all the games and barely did anything but live football and plan away games and make new friends and shout myself hoarse every week. I wouldn’t like to spoil it now with something that couldn’t catch that crazy energy.”

Tim Parks in June 1999.



Tim Parks in June 1999. Photograph: Sophie Bassouls/Sygma via Getty Images

That’s a pity, but I guess we’ll just have to make do with the original. A Season with Verona is still a great read. Just as captivating and just as relevant as it was two decades ago. And with a wave of optimism once again surrounding Hellas Verona, what better time to revisit that tumultuous season.

This article appeared first on The Gentleman Ultra
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