Tuesday, April 27, 2004

Hellas Verona are the local side. However a few years ago a local businessman bought Chievo, a team from a nearby suburb, and invested lots of money in the club. In five years they climbed from non-league status to, briefly, lead Serie A. They’re currently mid-table in the top division.

In contrast, since winning the scudetto (The Italian Championship) in 1985 Hellas have been in slow but steady decline. After Friday’s defeat it looks increasingly like they will suffer another relegation and go down to Serie C1.

Inevitably, Hellas fans don’t like Chievo. They see their supporters as fly-by-night glory hunters, whose “We’re nice people from the country just upsetting the apple cart” attitude grates. And, after now having seen both teams play – or, more precisely, having seen both team’s supporters perform – I can see why.

The 10,000 or so people who, last Friday evening, saw their failing team lose a game they should have won made more noise than I’ve heard at almost any of the hundreds of live games I’ve seen in England. In contrast, when I saw Chievo play Inter Milan during the winter the atmosphere was more like English grounds shortly after the introduction of all-seater stadiums: polite hand-clapping, early departures and more talk of nicities than football.

After the game we drove to the nearby town of Villafranca, where a beer festival was taking place inside the grounds of the medivial castle. Unfortuanately Italians know nothing of beer, and in reality it was just a bunch of pretty late-teens drinking standard lager. Having previously tried – and failed – to explain to foreigners what bitter is and why it’s so good I decided not to bother this time. People seem unable to get past the idea that it’s best served at room temperature. Anyway, the night was fun, and I was quite impressed with myself getting through six hours of socialising in Italian, with few problems.

Then on Sunday the beautiful game again showed why it is the global sport, as we headed to the park and our kick-around developed into a international festival of football, with Italy, England, Canada, Ireland, Tunisia, Bulgaria and The Congo all represented. And I can report with glee that the solitary Italian was the worst player on the pitch.

Seven reasons why football is the greatest game on the planet:

• It’s simple; a 3-year-old can understand it. Two goals, one ball, no hands.
• You don’t need any special kit to play. One ball, and two jumpers.
• It looks easy. Everybody thinks they can play.
• A goal matters. They are moments of undistilled joy. Compare with basketball, in which a basket goes in every 20 seconds. Who cares about one more?
• Football games are, mostly, decided when one person ups the level of performance; too many sports wait for moments in which one player or team makes a mistake.
• It’s the perfect non-violent outlet for our natural tribal and competitve instincts.
• Pele.

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