Next weekend is derby weekend in Italy. Keen eyed fans of Italian football will be relishing the prospect of the Rome derby, which will hopefully cap off a wonderful return to club football on the peninsula. But scratch beneath the surface and you will discover another derby with just as much heart and passion, if a little less glamour. The derby del Veneto sees Vicenza hosting regional rivals, newly promoted to Serie B, Hellas Verona. An affair which deserves more than the fleeting glance it is bound to receive.
Local derby: “A sporting contest between rivals from the same district. Often referring to football (soccer) matches.”
The city derby is often the default when considering a local derby, when played between two teams in the same city or town it can provide a means of gaining bragging rights over the rival fans – be they friends, family, work colleagues, whatever. But a regional derby, in a sense, takes the game back to the medieval contests played out between villages and to it’s later cousin Florentine football.
In his nineteenth-century Discourse on the Game of Florentine Football, Giovanni Maria de’ Bardi defined the sport this: ‘Football is a public game of two groups of young men, on foot and unarmed, who pleasingly compete to move a medium-sized inflated ball from one end of the piazza to the other, for the sake of honour
This in a country, which at 150 years of age, can be considered to be still in its infancy, in a country where localities vehemently disassociate themselves with neighbouring towns, villages and hamlets. In Italian there is even a word for the passionate sense of local identity which has no direct translation into English – Campanilismo.
Italy is a country where Max Allegri can accuse Walter Mazzarri of not being from Livorno, despite being born in the province. A common saying in Lucca “E’ meglio avere un morto in casa che un pisano alla porta” (It’s better to have a dead body in your house than a person from Pisa at your door), even though Pisa is a mere 20 minutes drive away. Rivalries matter and the local derby gives football fans, fair-weather or not, a way of expressing the occasional vitriol toward their neighbours.
The two sides met in August in the Coppa Italia, with Hellas winning 2-1 but that was the first time in a few years. In the past ten meetings, the derby has failed to produce goals on just one occasion. A few goal-fests have been served up as well.
Across both games played in the 2002-03 season eleven goals were scored, and eight the following season – including a 2-3 Vicenza away win. In 2004-05 Vicenza led 3-1 at half time in Verona but the gialloblu rallied to win 5-3 with a whopping four unanswered goals – the fans were quite pleased.
The likes of Roberto Baggio, Massimo Ambrosini, Luca Toni, Benito Carbone and Francesco Coco have all graced the red and white shirt of Vicenza over the past 30 years. In 1978 they were even able to snatch the signature of Paolo Rossi from Juventus – quite the coup! But Vicenza have been rather indifferent over the past decade, having spent most of it in Serie B after a total of 30 seasons of Serie A football. This is a far cry from the side that won a Coppa Italia in 1997 and made it all the way to the Cup Winners’ Cup semi final the following season – losing to Chelsea.
Their travails this season sees them enter the derby having just appointed new manager Luigi Cagni, after Silvio Baldini was able to collect just 3 points from the first 8 games of the season. The team lie second bottom without a win and are firm underdogs on form on Saturday.
Hellas have just been promoted after a number of seasons languishing in the third tier, after continually choking when promotion crunch time came around. The best supported team in Verona are remembered for their surprising title win in 1985 under Osvaldo Bagnoli – a team largely without stars, except Dane Preban Elkaer perhaps pipped Torino and Inter to the title. Their fans have also developed a bit of a reputation for various reasons, few of which show them in a good light.
Just over the past few months Verona have come under fire for a few racist incidents – they were fined €7,000 for racist chants aimed at Torino forward Osarimen Ebagua. Their manager, Mandorlini, was also in trouble for leading the fans in a rendition of a song derogatory toward Southern Italians (Ti amo terrone). In the 1980s the Verona fans solidified the foundations of this North-South divide by displaying a banner in Naples that read “Vesuvio facci sognare” (Vesuvius let us dream – almost imploring the volcano which towers over Naples to erupt).
Another incident saw Hellas fans get into a fight on their way back from a game a number of Hellas and Vicenza buses met at a motorway service station – the traditional arena for scuffles between Ultra. The Vicenza fans, who were outnumbered had a banner of thiers that read “Tartan Army” stolen, and their honour sullied when the Verona fans proudly displayed the spoils of their battle on their own Curva.
Reflecting on the words of de Bardi (above), and the writing of 60s Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran:
“The civilising passage from blows to insults was no doubt necessary, but the price was high. Words will never be enough. We will always be nostalgic for violence and blood.”
The key word is ‘unarmed’. The throwback to a medieval era where quarrels were all too readily settled by bloodshed is easy to see, but the aggression must never spill over and can never be justified. The base animalistic thirst must be subdued. As Verona’s fans roar their way through Vicenza’s streets on Saturday afternoon, they will likely resemble a warring army. The atmosphere may spill over on to the pitch, and perhaps words won’t be enough, but for all concerned the hope is that the football will do the rest of the talking.
Follow Rocco on twitter (@rcammisola).
Thanks goes to Charles Ducksbury (@cducksbury) for his help while researching this piece, other sources include Tim Parks’ A Season with Verona and John Foot’s Calcio.
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