Chievo Verona 1 Atalanta 1 (17th September 2017)
I hadn’t planned on going to Verona. My intention was to go to the city of Ferrara and see SPAL v Cagliari. SPAL’s ground is quite small though, and a total absence of ticket information on the SPAL website made going there without a ticket something of a risk, so a late change of plan saw me opt for a trip to Verona instead.
I was glad I did. Verona is a really nice city chock full of old buildings – including some really old ones such as the 2000 year old arena – and was much more busy with tourists than I expected. One of the most crowded places was a small courtyard just a short way from the Piazza delle Erbe, one of Verona’s historic squares, where you find, jutting out from a 1st floor window, Juliet’s balcony where she was courted by Romeo. Of course, Romeo & Juliet is entirely fictional, so it has about as much claim to be Juliet’s balcony as the drive-thru window at a McDonalds in Walsall, but people flock to it anyway.
Unlike at SPAL, getting a ticket for a Chievo game was never going to be a problem, with Chievo’s games normally taking up just over a quarter of the Stadio Bentegodi’s 39,000 seats. In fact the only problem was finding where exactly to buy a ticket from. With unfailing ability, I yet again managed to do almost a full circuit of the stadium before finding the small hut which was the Chievo matchday ticket office. Italy has lifted some of the restriction on ticket purchases for non-Italians, meaning you only have to bring along your passport, but then your passport details have to be copied onto the ticket, and the whole process is deathly slow.
Perhaps even slower is the work of the Stadio Bentegodi maintenance crew, who haven’t yet got round to taking down some of the Italia ’90 signage that still adorns a few walls outside. It’s only been 27 years – what’s the rush?
Maybe they are just proud of their stadium’s part in the tournament. Previously it was an uncovered three-tier oval. For the world cup the third tier was doubled in size and roofed as well, although on a gloriously sunny day, the roof would be there to keep the sun off, not the rain today.
I wasn’t expecting much, to be honest. Even during Italia ’90, the Bentegodi was one of the least impressive venues, and it always looked a bit grim on TV in later years. The green seats had faded badly, and it just always looked a bit of a run-down, slightly depressing venue. Even with my low expectations, I was surprisingly impressed with the place. True, the seats were still mainly faded and dirty, but the place just feels so much bigger in person, big enough to make you feel you are in a “stadium” rather than just a “ground”. If they could replace the seats it could be quite an impressive place. If they did (and I admit there is a 0% chance of them doing so because I’d like them to) I’d hope they’d break with convention and go for tip-up seats rather than the fixed seats found everywhere in Italy. Fixed seats might be harder to break, but tip-up seats don’t tend to have 20 years of accumulated filth covering them from where people have used them as stepping stones to get from row to row in the stands.
The stadium does also have an awkward lower tier, known as the parterre, which used to be terracing, but now serves as budget seating for those who don’t mind the awful view. For Chievo games, only a small section of the parterre was in use, although to be honest, large chunks of the rest of the stadium were closed off too. The Atalanta fans might have had a whole end to themselves, but were still forced to sit right up in the upper tier extension.
I was in the €35 middle tier seats, recommended to me by the ticket office assistant as “good seats”, and they certainly were, even allowing for the view across the faded blue running track. Handily all the ticket booth personnel I’d come across spoke English on this trip, although I wasn’t so lucky when trying to ask a couple of a guys about where they got their programme from. When the language barrier went up, I tried to point to the programme one had in his hand, which caused him to clutch it to his chest, almost in fear, as if I was about to steal it off him. Luckily the other guy understood my intentions, and pointed downstairs, where they were just lying around in boxes – 24 pages and free.
While Chievo’s support understandable failed to fill their northern end of the stadium, they did their best and produced a decent amount of noise given their numbers. It’s hardly surprising their support isn’t that great. Chievo itself is a village of just 5000 people on the outskirts of Verona, and until promotion to Serie C2 (Italy’s regional 4th tier) Chievo played at a ground that would have been at home in England’s Hellenic League, with a very basic facilities. Even in the season they won promotion to Serie A for the first time, crowds struggled to average much more than 5000.
Atalanta’s decent support, on the other hand, were putting on a show of noise and colour, although with them stuck up in the clouds at the top of their end, what you could actually hear was more muted.
It was a game, as post-match summarisers would put it, “that was full of talking points”. The first was around a penalty decision. Atalanta had been taking the game to the home side, looking useful, and probably should have already been leading before being awarded a penalty for a poor-looking tackle. After an age of arguing and complaining, where the ref had seemed to be waving the players away, he suddenly changed his mind and awarded a free kick to Verona instead.
Not too long later came an even stranger call. A half-cleared ball dropped to an Atalanta forward in the area, and he fired a low shot across the keeper to put Atalanta a goal a ahead. The players celebrated, the scoreboard ticked over to “Chievo 0 Atalanta 1”, and the players lined up for the restart, only for the ref the change his mind again, yet again to big cheers, and award Chievo a free kick in the box. I was completely baffled, and no doubt I’d have been learning the Italian for “this ref is a bit of a homer, isn’t he?” if I’d been in the Atalanta end, plus a few other choice phrases of Italian, no doubt.
In the 2nd half Chievo began to impose themselves a bit more, and took the lead with a fine low strike from the edge of the box, just avoiding the Atalanta keeper at full stretch trying to keep it out. A goal up though, Chievo would slip into the mad, and maddening, tactic of sitting on the lead, rather than try to press home the advantage. Against Atalanta’s lively, if admittedly not always accurate, forward line, that would always be risky.
Then came the third “talking point” of the game. Chievo had survived a penalty shout, and had cleared the ball, and were making progress over the halfway line, when the ref suddenly blew his whistle. There was no hint of a challenge, let alone a foul, so yet again I was baffled.
Then, the guy next to me just started saying “Oh dear! Oh dear!” (in English) and the referee ran off the side of the pitch. What he was doing was looking at a TV monitor, and after watching for a few seconds, he pointed towards the Chievo end. Big cheers from the Atalanta fans – this wasn’t just a free kick – it was a penalty. That explained the two very late calls against Atalanta in the first half – Serie A has tv replays. No doubt the Italian equivalent of Dave from Dorking would be ringing up a football phone-in show to complain “TV replays are ruining football, and bad decisions are part of the game” afterwards, but all that mattered now was the penalty duly dispatched by Atalanta’s Argentine international Alejandro Gómez, to level the scores with five minutes left.
Atalanta looked the most likely winners after that, but overall were probably happy with a point. I was just happy to have come to Verona, and after the really poor game in Venice a couple of days earlier, was happy to have seen a decent one today.