For about fifteen years, a small suburb of Verona has been famous throughout Italy and even the world — at least among football fans. This suburb is Chievo, which is located in northwest Verona and bordered by the railway line leading to Trento.
For many years, the only thing in Chievo worthy of note to a passing visitor might have been the picturesque bridge and dam on the Adige River, built between 1920 and 1923. Today, it is a pedestrian way from which one can admire the iron bulkheads of the dam, protecting the city from potential floods, and the branching off point of the Camuzzoni Canal.
Then, everything changed in 2000. That was the year in which the Chievo Verona Sports Association, known to all simply as Chievo, was promoted to the “Serie A” or first division of the Italian football league. This achievement was built upon two decades of continual and patient improvement in the minor leagues. Although no one could imagine at the time that this neighbourhood team just like any other would really do it.
Fans of Hellas Verona, the city’s main team and the only ‘provincial’ Italian football club to have won a championship in the modern era in 1985, taunted Chievo saying, “You’ll get to Serie A when donkeys fly.” When Chievo was promoted, all the Italian papers talked about a “fairy tale”. As a result, the nickname “Mussi Volanti” (Venetian for “Flying Donkeys”) caught on to describe the Chievo squad who pulled the feat off.
The “fairy tale” of Chievo has lasted since then. With the exception of one return back to Serie B which was overturned the following year with an immediate promotion, Chievo has become a stable Serie A presence. It often has to fight as an underdog, but there are years which offer much satisfaction such as beating powerhouse teams like Juventus or Inter Milan. One year Chievo even qualified for the Champions League, the top European football division.
But, if you come to Chievo expecting to breathe in an atmosphere of a neighbourhood gone mad for football, you’ll be disappointed. The truth is that the neighbourhood hasn’t changed much from the days when I was taken there as a child to see the dam and the ducks and swans inhabiting the placid waters upstream from it. Nor has it changed from when we would stroll through the beautiful park of Villa Pullè, with its the magnificent but decaying 18th century neoclassical residence, or explore the perfectly preserved Habsburg Fort in Chievo.
The centrepiece of the neighbourhood is still the small church square where the only apparent signs of Chievo’s football epic are a modest team merchandise shop and the flag hanging outside the bar on Via Berardi, which is the historic gathering place for fans. After all, it is this apparent normalcy that makes Chievo unique and it’s one of the reasons for the team’s success. The many players who have passed through emphasise that Chievo is a great place to play given the almost total lack of pressure there.
In reality, one thing in Chievo has changed. Just follow the signs for “Bottagisio” and you’ll find out what it is. What had been Chievo’s historic training field since 1957, when they still played in regional and provincial championships, is now a state-of-the-art, multidisciplinary sports centre. A series of synthetic playing fields serve as the training ground for all Chievo’s youth teams. On Saturdays and Sundays, many football fans take the beautiful bike path along the Camuzzoni Canal and stop to watch young, future talents play who may one day become real professional footballers. This is the place, after all, where Chievo’s fairy tale begins.