Italy flag‘Donkeys will fly before Chievo makes it to Serie A.’ This was a chant directed towards and poking fun at local upstarts ChievoVerona from fans of city rivals Hellas Verona. Yet after a decade of contrasting fortunes for both clubs, the underdogs are currently having the last laugh. While Verona have spent most of the 2000s attempting to reclaim a place in the top flight, Chievo have all but sustained a place in Serie A since their historic promotion in 2001, even twice competing in Europe.

For a long time guided by the Campedelli family – firstly Luigi in 1964 then his son Luca in 1992 – Chievo began their long ascent up the Italian football ladder from the regional Veneto divisions and lower professional divisions until securing promotion to Serie B in 1993-94. Rather than wilt in the competitive and harsh world of the cadetti, the Gialloblu maintained their position for five seasons. In 1999-00, a near-relegation experience saw Luigi Delneri – who would later say “the years spent in Verona will remain an unforgettable period in my memory” – hired and the rest, as they say, is history.

Chievo are without doubt the poorer cousin of city rival Hellas – the 1984-85 Scudetto winners – a fact typified by the home support. Chievo, a suburb of Verona, averaged 9649 to the Stadio Marc’Antonio Bentegodi in 2011-12. Meanwhile, Serie B outfit Verona enjoyed an average attendance of 14,084. Indeed, Chievo’s average of 12,676 the season prior was nearly matched by third tier Verona’s 10,553. Local newspapersCorriere del Veneto and Arena offer greater coverage to the traditional side in spite of the divisional discrepancy. This only adds to the Chievo story – not number one in their city but able to retain their Serie A status.

Such is the nature of football’s finances in Italy, with stadium deals keeping clubs at the mercy of the owners – for most that is the respective city councils – they make relatively little money in comparison to the television deal. That is the chief source of income. In 2009-10 – the last season under the old television selling agreement – the traditional big three clubs Juventus, Milan and Inter claimed the greatest slice of the pie – between €89 and €110 million – whilst Chievo were 17th on the list, earning €19 million. This has been amended in recent seasons to assist the smaller clubs and level the playing field somewhat.

However, as with most provincial clubs Chievo operate on a tight budget. During 2009-10, the Flying Donkeys were 18th on the wages list with a total bill of €18 million. UEFA recommends player wages to turnover be under 70% and in 2010 Chievo sat at 61%. From 2009 to 2011 Chievo made a small profit on player transfers following the tried and tested method of buying cheap and selling for a greater price. Their overall loss was a little over €1 million at the end of 2010.

Under the guidance of respected sporting director Giovanni Sartori – a former player at the club – since 1992, Chievo have unearthed some gems and brought them into the spotlight, notably during their initial Serie A run. This includes 2006 World Cup winners Simone Barone, Andrea Barzagli and Simone Perrotta. Nicola Legrottalie and Bernardo Corradi would represent Italy on numerous occasions later in their career. Sergio Pellissier joined the club in 2000 and beside a loan spell during the maiden Serie A voyage has remained loyal. German legend Oliver Bierhoff ended his career with the tiny outfit.

In 2005, team manager Marco Pancione spoke of Chievo’s ability to retain their Serie A status. “No one has a magic wand. But Chievo is a healthy club, with a quiet environment, in a nice city where players are happy to live and train. We are under no big pressure from our fans, who are a quiet bunch. Moreover, we have Luca Campedelli who lets us do our job, who knows how to do his job as President, and who surrounded himself with first-class collaborators, including a very good sporting director, Giovanni Sartori.”

Chievo ended the 2000-01 Serie B campaign third on 70 points to ensure promotion, which sparked wild scenes of celebration in Verona – “For me it’s like a dream” said President Campedelli – and looks of bewilderment throughout Italy. What they achieved a season later did little to end the puzzlement.

In Round 1 the Donkeys would take on a Fiorentina side wracked by debt and a turbulent summer, but who were still expected to beat the tiny club. Instead, Perrotta and Massimo Marazzina – who ended as club top scorer with 13 goals – stunned Fiorentina. Delneri tried to keep a lid on expectations, stating afterwards, “We can become big when we have ten, 20, 50, maybe 100 wins.”

They continued to astonish by defeating Bologna a week later, but lost their first match versus Juventus after squandering a 2-0 lead. Yet from that reversal until the beginning of December, Chievo would go on an eight match unbeaten run. This ensured the Donkeys briefly sat in first place, to which Delneri exclaimed: “Every Sunday, we are extremely motivated. It is our first year in Serie A and whichever team we are up against is stronger than us because we have just arrived. We are going through an important moment both in football and in personal terms.”

When Chievo overcame Inter 2-1 at the San Siro in mid-December thanks to Corradi and Marazzina, they would retake first place. President Campedelli remarked, “This is not a fairy tale. Chievo is where it is now because of hard work and ability. We didn’t get to Serie A as a result of some sort of miracle. We got here for good reasons and on merit.”

The inevitable slump would arrive as Chievo failed to win in ten matches to begin the second half of the season. They returned to form with a 2-1 Derby win over Verona, who triumphed in the first encounter. Chievo steadied in the final stretch and Delneri’s side finished fifth on 54 points, just one behind Milan and the Champions League. Yet not everything was a positive during the campaign as Congolese striker Jason Mayele died in March at the age of 26 in a car accident. His number 30 shirt has since been retired by the club.

Chievo managed to sustain their top-half position in 2002-03 by finishing seventh. Europe proved a step too far as they went out in the first round of the UEFA Cup against Red Star Belgrade. Two seasons later Delneri left and Chievo avoided relegation by a point as Mario Beretta struggled at the helm. Under Giuseppe Pillon they experienced something of a return to the Delneri days by finishing seventh and after the Calciopoliscandal were promoted to fourth and the Champions League.

The miracle man returned to the bench but a season that promised so much with an initial European date with Levski Sofia – that ended in elimination in the qualifying phase – was completed by relegation. Chievo made a swift return by finishing first in Serie B during 2007-08 and have since established themselves as a spirited club – one willing to fight and scrap – and more importantly, as Serie A regulars.

Their spirit was a quality on show during 2011-12. Not the most fashionable club or team by any stretch, Domenico Di Carlo was in charge of a well-drilled unit, one in which the players sacrificed and did the hard-yards for the greater mechanism of the team. Chievo lacked stars, instead relying on a group of solid and dependable players, yet it paid off.

They comfortably avoided relegation, claiming 10th position. This is despite scoring just 35 goals in 38 games. Only relegated Cesena (24 goals) and Novara (35) were as feeble in attack. Chievo are tough to break down and tactically well-drilled. Gone are the swashbuckling Delneri days when Chievo shocked Italy, but here is a club continuing to defy the odds. They may be number two in Verona, but being the underdog suits Chievo just fine.

By Luca Cetta

This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona