Martin Laursen on the day he was attacked by Reggina fans with Verona
While the glamour of Italian football may often be associated with the 1990s, if you’re after the peak Serie A season, look no further than 2000-01.
Powered by the goals of Gabriel Batistuta and Francesco Totti, Roma claimed their last Scudetto to date; both Milan clubs sacked their managers amid underwhelming seasons in a stereotypical San Siro soap opera; the likes of Alvaro Recoba and Dida were among a number of South American footballers to receive lengthy bans having been found to have used fake passports to qualify as Europeans.
And to add the icing on the cake, six teams towards the bottom of the table were separated by just two points, leading to a relegation play-off between Verona and Reggina that was characterised by stones, spit and scandal.
After Tim Parks’ superb book A Season With Verona helped to keep us sane during England’s first lockdown, when Martin Laursen was confirmed as the first guest on the new series of our 2000s podcast The Broken Metatarsal, we knew we had to ask him about that year.
Sure, he was part of a Champions League-winning squad at AC Milan and had plenty of stories to tell about his time at Aston Villa (David O’Leary: not a fan), but we needed to find out exactly what it’s like to be at the centre of the unique madness of Italian football.
Laursen moved to Verona from Silkeborg in his native Denmark in 1998 only to suffer the first of a series of serious knee injuries that would blight his career. He features quite heavily in A Season With Verona, coming across as a stoic character, wise beyond his relative inexperience – he was still just 22 at the time – and a fucking good defender to boot, earning the nickname Lionheart Laursen.
Verona finished the 2000-01 campaign in 14th place, level on 37 points with Reggina, who occupied the final relegation place. A two-legged play-off was to decide who was demoted to Serie B.
Laursen scored the only goal of the first leg as Verona triumphed 1-0 at home, but nothing could prepare them for what was to follow in their trip down south for the away leg.
The centre-back was playing in a talented albeit inexperienced squad at Verona, surrounded by future internationals Massimo Oddo, Mauro Cameronesi, Alberto Gilardino and Adrain Mutu, but within the space of just three minutes before half-time, they appeared doomed for Serie B as Reggina scored twice to take a 2-1 lead on aggregate.
With just four minutes remaining, beleaguered Verona forward Michele Cossato headed a quite remarkable away goal to save Verona, but the chaos had only just begun.
The pitchside was suddenly surrounded by what were thought to be stewards but in fact turned out to be Reggina fans waiting to attack the Verona players as they ran down the tunnel at full-time. Verona’s president Giambattista Pastorello was attacked, and Reggina owner Pasquale Foti was said to be in the tunnel joining in with some of the kicking.
You can watch it all unfold on YouTube. It is, quite frankly, fantastic. As Parks writes: ‘Sport merges into war now.’
So then, Martin, what the fuck was that like?!
“In the south of Italy they are crazy down there,” Laursen says on episode one of series three of The Broken Metatarsal. “Obviously it was a very important game to stay up in Serie A. We lost 2-1 but scored an away goal so we stayed up.
“The fans and the people around the Reggina team were obviously very disappointed and respectless. The big problem in Italy is that they don’t have as much respect as they have in England; the culture and mentality is wrong in many ways.
“They thought they could throw stones at us, that they could spit at us and whatever they were doing. But at the end of the game we just sat in the dressing room for a few hours, waiting for the police to get the people away and then we could go on the bus and in the plane and go away.
“The mentality is a bit crazy down in the south of Italy – that’s just the way it is.”
Laursen’s soothing Danish accent belies the fraught nature of the night. Even after leaving the stadium, Verona’s coach broke down on the motorway, prompting panic of sabotage and a potential attack. The night finally took a comical turn when it was determined the bus had just broken down, meaning celebrations could finally begin.
As for Foti’s flying fists in the tunnel, Laursen can’t help but laugh now.
“They were just disappointed and mad at us because we stayed up,” he says. “I remember that I just ran as quick as I could to the dressing room.
“I knew some of the players were punched by other people from Reggina. Nothing happened to me; I was just running as much as I could towards the dressing room and then I was just waiting.
“There were things happening with our president and some of the players. It was just a bad, bad thing; not good behaviour of them. That’s it.”
So then, has he ever dared to go back to Reggina since?
“I went on holiday there two years after!”
Lionhearted Laursen indeed.
Listen to the full episode of The Broken Metatarsal below or in any of the usual places to hear Laursen also discuss being part-owned by Parma, blagging a move to AC Milan, the nightmare of life under David O’Leary at Aston Villa and the good times that followed under Martin O’Neill.