Virtus Verona are a club competing for oxygen in the only Italian city to sustain three professional football teams.
Existing in the shadow of established giants Hellas and pretenders Chievo, they strive to differentiate themselves through their ideology and values.
Having risen from the amateur ranks to the third tier, they currently sit in the upper part of the table, dreaming of winning promotion to Serie B. However, theirs is not a tale of wealthy benefactors or overnight success; it is a story of loyalty, commitment and endeavour.
At the helm of the club, performing the dual roles of Head Coach and President for the past 39 years has been a phenomenon named Luigi Fresco. He joined the club as a player, aged 8, in 1969 although it soon became apparent that his calling lay elsewhere. He began coaching younger age groups and, when he reached his 18th birthday, he was entrusted with the club’s youth team and made a Director of the club.
In 1982, with the club staring down the barrel of relegation to the Terza Categoria (8th tier) they turned to 21-year-old Fresco to save them. Alas, he could not. And as the club succumbed, nobody would have foreseen the miraculous journey that he and they would embark upon together over the following four decades.
“Virtus is a way of living, being together, playing sport: solidarity and values of respect”Luigi Fresco
Formed in 1921, Virtus grew out of multi-sports club based in the eastern suburb of Borgo Venezia. True to the Latin translation of their name (meaning “virtue”), the club maintain a deep-rooted attachment to their community and pride themselves on their left-leaning foundations, identifying as anti-racist, anti-fascist, anti-sexist and anti-homophobic. The club sees its purpose extending far beyond the white lines of the football pitch and their success is measured not only in victories but in the social values they hold dear.
The club operate a community trust (Vita Virtus) which is heavily involved in the integration of migrants in Verona, specialising in activities for young people and children. If proof of the club’s ethics were ever required, you need to look no further than first-team goalkeeper Shiek Sibi. The Gambian arrived in Verona via Lybia and Lampedusa and was given the opportunity to play football recreationally. It was here his talent was spotted and developed by Virtus’ coaching staff.
Nowhere are the club’s politics more in evidence than on the curva. The ultra groups see themselves as renegades; an antidote to the traditionally rightward-looking politics of the city. The tifosi feel the rivalry with Hellas Verona fiercely, even refusing to watch their own team when Virtus were forced to relocate games to the Stadio Bentegodi in 2014.
Their politics have seen them forge relationships with kindred groups across Europe; from Livorno and Marseille to St Pauli (Hamburg) and even Wrexham. Musician and Italian football aficionado Paul Heaton is known to have an affinity to the club, having donned a Virtus Fans t-shirt on prime-time BBC television.
But it would be wrong to dismiss the club as hipsters or ideologues. A profoundly pragmatic streak has underpinned their steady ascent up the footballing hierarchy. In 2013, the club incorporated the name of a commercial sponsor into their name, formally becoming Virtus Vecomp Verona. This arrangement provided the financial means to compete at a higher level and further the social objectives of the club.
Back in 1982/83, Luigi Fresco achieved promotion in his first full season and has never looked back. His remarkable tenure has seen Virtus rise six tiers, from amateur to professional ranks. They reached Serie C in 2018 only to find themselves languishing in the relegation places at the end of that season. However, Coach Fresco’s job was never under threat. President Fresco’s prudent financial stewardship ensured they were well-placed to benefit from a repechage, following the annual shake-out of insolvent clubs elsewhere in the division.
One gets the impression that Fresco is a man who never sits still for long. He spends his mornings working as an administrator at secondary school in nearby Lavagno, before heading over to the club to work in the afternoon and, typically, long into the evening too.
The key to Fresco’s success lies in his diligence and preparation. The operating model is not reliant upon unearthing rough diamonds; winger Antonio Nalini is the biggest name to emerge from the club with just a handful of Serie A appearances to his name with Crotone. There are no superstars; he works to develop the players at his disposal and supplements them by taking young players on loan from larger clubs in the Veneto region.
Last season saw Virtus consolidate in Serie C’s mid-table, but they have pushed on once again this campaign, currently residing in the play-off places. In the late-1990s, author Joe McGinniss penned an extraordinary account of small-town Castel di Sangro’s rise to Serie B. That particular castle turned out to have been built on foundations of deceit. If Virtus were to scale the heights of Serie B, it truly would be a fairytale – and in their centenary year too.
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