The story of how Juve recovered from the depths of Serie B to emerge again as one of Europe’s heavyweights, as they gear up for the Champions’ League final.
Just 80 kilometres from Florence, often cited as one of the famous tourist spots, there lies a town named Arezzo. Endowed with castles and scenery, this small city hides some Italian traditions that needs to be experienced in person, making it apt for a day trip. The city’s football team, U. S. Arezzo, on the other hand, didn’t ever have it all sunny, now playing in Lega Pro, as supporters still find themselves reminiscing about their days in Serie B. Exactly a decade ago, their fate for the 2006-07 season was finalised after they received a 5-1 thumping from the league leaders, as U. S. Arezzo were relegated to the third division at the end of the season. But this is not about the struggle of the men in all magenta, rather it’s about the club that was home to Arezzo’s then manager Antonio Conte, for thirteen years, the club that won the Serie B after defeating Arezzo on that fine sunny afternoon.
The club that is called Juventus FC. La Fidanzata d’Italia.
What made the ‘Italy’s Fiancée’ endure such rickety stadiums in the wilderness of the lower leagues being so fatally injured and embarrassed? How did she even make her way all the way up to the top to rehabilitate the marriage and make it a habit to go to toe to toe with Spanish giants in a quest to claim European football’s most elusive prize? All thanks to a rollercoaster ride for a decade, with a story suitable enough for a blockbuster Hollywood comeback story giving the likes of Mickey Rourke and Robert Downey Jr. a run for their money.
“The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It’s a very mean and nasty place and I don’t care how tough you are it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get it and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done!”
— Rocky Balboa, Rocky Balboa
Coming from the Italian Stallion himself, the talk about winning and never giving up should count as something. For Juventus, getting sucker punched to one’s knees stands true in the form of the infamous Calciopoli scandal, often nicknamed “Moggiopoli” after their sporting director, Luciano Moggi’s involvement in coercing the league officials as per his and his associate, Antonio Giraudo’s wishes. The scandal etched a black mark in Juventus’ illustrious history, as it uncovered a network of corruption full of payoffs and proposals that no match official could refuse. The entire footballing fraternity of Italy shook up, as along with the Biancconeris, clubs like Milan, Fiorentina and Lazio were also incriminated when recordings and transcripts of phone calls between club officials and the referee designator board became available to the press and media in the summer in the summer of 2006. Juventus were stripped of their two consecutive scudettos and demoted to Serie B with nine point penalty at the start of 2006-07 season. Everything turned to red, and the club faced armageddon as chaos reigned supreme in the streets of Turin, with manager Fabio Capello leading the exodus as he joined Real Madrid soon after the debacle. Household names like Ibrahimovic, Cannavaro, Zambrotta and Thurram all chose to leave the sinking ship behind at incredibly reduced prices in search of greener pastures ahead of them, while some chose to stay behind.
From winning the World Cup final in Berlin to starting against Rimini in front of a crowd of 10,000 in just two months — such was the life for the likes of Del Piero, Buffon and Camoranesi. Coupled with the experience and gravitas of the Italians, the industry and experience of World Cup silver medalist David Trezeguet and former Ballon d’Or winner Pavel Nedvěd, and the sheer youthful exuberance of the likes of Giorgio Chiellini and Claudio Marchisio, Juventus secured Serie A promotion the next season itself with a resounding title win which delivered some much needed respite for the tortured faithful of the club in white and black.
“The really tough bit was the few years that followed, which were actually worse than the season in Serie B.”
— Simone Stenti, editor of Juventus TV
The new season arrived, and with it arrived Claudio Ranieri who would go on to lead a battered yet hungry Juventus to a respectable third-placed finish in the very first season they were promoted back to the mix. Just like the true gentleman he was, Alessandro Del Piero stood out with a remarkable 21 goals that season and even powered his Old Lady through to a second placed finish in the league the following season. All’s well and fine, right? Nope. Grandpa Ranieri was sacked over a dispute in transfer dealings, and then came the mid-table slumps under managers Ciro Ferrara, Alberto Zaccheroni and Luigi Delneri. And boy, did they struggle — two consecutive seventh-placed finishes with no light at the end of the tunnel, the coronation of which was getting humbled 4-1 at Craven Cottage on a wretched night in 2010 at the hands of a certain Roy Hodgson. The embarrassment was real, being unable to even compete in the UEFA Cup semis against Premier League mid-table strollers set a new low for Juventus. The sight of Fabio Cannavaro struggling to defend against Bobby Zamora was testament to the fact that they were damaged goods post-Calciopoli, that something needed to change to save the pride of this old club — a club which had reached four Champions League finals in the space of just eight years not too long ago.
Onto a story that needs to be told, which starts with a man — whose forgiving demeanour and silver-white hair was known to the world for propelling an entire club forward onto a higher plane of greatness with just a cigar in his mouth. His name was Marcello Lippi.
“Looking into his eyes is enough to tell you that you are dealing with somebody who is in command of himself and his professional domain. Those eyes are sometimes burning with seriousness, sometimes twinkling, sometimes warily assessing you —and always they are alive with intelligence.”
— Sir Alex Ferguson, in his book Managing My Life
Sure, he didn’t see eye-to-eye with the infamous man with a ponytail who had the world at his feet back then, which made Baggio depart the club for Fabio Capello’s Milan in 1995, but it didn’t take him long to shrug that tension of the feud off, and focus on building his team and getting them to three consecutive Champions League finals — although winning only one of them, against Louis Van Gaal’s dreaded Ajax in 1996. It goes without saying that losing two consecutive finals in the following years against Omar Hitzfeld’s well-boxed defensive unit of Borussia Dortmund, and the Los Blancos led by Fernando Hierro were huge hammer blows for the club, rendering the weaving slaloms of Del Piero and the twinkle toes of a certain French playmaker, Zinedine Zidane almost innocuous. Juventus faltered in between after he had left, with no Scudetto in sight until 2002, by which point Lippi was at the helm again, guiding them to another Champions League final, an all Italian one, only to lose to a Shevchenko penalty after some astounding goalkeeping heroics by both Dida and Buffon in the shootout. Yes, he lost finals and lost the dressing room at times, but one has to appreciate the man’s efforts to pave a winning way for the Old Lady almost instantaneously and leading them to European glory again in just his second season in charge.
A personality like his, a dauntless character who could shake the very foundations of the club to instil an air of change, was exactly what was needed back at the club after Zaccheroni’s horrid five months in charge. And the change came, in the form of newly appointed chairman of the board of directors of the club, Andrea Agnelli who introduced a clearly defined hierarchy at the club and a balanced finance which survived the recession ongoing in Italy, especially with Fiat having been affected the most. Considered as the “rightful” heir by the ultras, to guide the club in its attempt to clamber its way up to the top due to the long time association of the Agnellis with the club, he got to work on contributing to the club’s footballing side as latest by October 27th, 2010 — with the appointment of Giuseppe Marotta as Direttore Generale Area Sport, or simply the Director General, taking over the sports department of Juventus with the aim of bringing back the culture of success in Turin.
Although his Sampdoria counterpart Luigi Delneri didn’t work out for more than a year at the club, the cross-eyed Varese native took the Biancconeris from strength to strength, as he had done with his previous clubs — securing Serie A status with Venezia and taking Sampdoria to Champions League playoffs in 2009/10. With Marotta implementing his reverse moneyball strategy in the market, the inauguration of the new Juventus Stadium and Antonio Conte arriving at his old club, the faith of a fresh start had returned among the ultras. Coupled by a compulsive obsession for winning of Conte, the voracious midfielder who had tasted greatness couple of decades back was headstrong about pulling his team up from the depths of despair.
“It’s time we stopped being crap”.
— Antonio Conte in 2011
And stopped, they did in 2011/12, finishing the season unbeaten and with an old friend in a Scudetto in the bag. His mission was made simpler by Marotta’s genius who acquired the signatures of the likes of Pogba and Andrea Pirlo on a free, the stylish playmaker considered to be past his best by Milan who would go on to pull the strings from the centre of the park in black and white winning five consecutive Scudettis in the process, and getting a defensive stalwart in Andrea Barzagli and a midfield dynamo in Arturo Vidal, both from Germany. That said, it wasn’t all sun and sand for Antonio. He had to take a difficult call of deciding his old team-mate and timeless genius Alessandro Del Piero’s future at the club, and like the ballsy manager he’s shown himself to be, he was prepared to take the hard route and let him leave.
In no time, Conte transformed the once feeble decrepit spinster into a warrior Terminator, being miles ahead of any other competition in their quest for three consecutive Scudettis with his famous 3-5-2 system, giving more power to the midfield ensemble of Pirlo, Vidal, Marchisio and Pogba than one’s elbow ever gets. After reinstating their domestic superiority, Conte, wavered by the Italian FA and irritated by the Juventus board for the lack of funding, left the club in a shock move in 2014. Soon after that, Massimiliano Allegri took over the reins of the club. Although welcomed with eggs and insults at the training ground in Vinovo because of his prior affiliation with AC Milan, he slowly embarked on a journey to defeat the initial notion of him feeding off Conte’s brilliance. His contrasting sensitive approach in man-management and a change in style steered them to a first Champions League final in 12 years. And two years later, here they are, with their sixth consecutive Scudetto in a row and another Champions League final looming over their heads against that certain French playmaker’s Real Madrid. Such has been the journey of the Old Lady in the past decade, from spending a year in the boondocks to getting humiliated at the hands of a forgotten London club to utter and complete domination of domestic football; and much of the success should be credited to the management and Beppe Marotta who redrafted the art of balancing a squad by bringing in the abandoned, the tainted and the peevish.
“It’s not where you take things from — it’s where you take them to.”
— Jean-Luc Godard
Juventus know their football well, and their defending the best, with Gianluigi Buffon between the sticks aging like fine wine, as evident from the two legs of the recent Champions League quarter-final against Barcelona deeming the likes of Messi, Suarez and Neymar toothless. But what they have really excelled at over the past few years is the trade of finding a bargain. Andrea Pirlo’s move to the Juventus Stadium in the twilight of his career is considered to be the masterstroke of the past decade, along with other free signings in world’s current costliest player, Paul Pogba, and the three time Champions League winning Dani Alves, who’s aiming for his fourth this Saturday.
Juventus haven’t been afraid to spend big when the time’s right to prove themselves as an European giant — getting the likes of Paulo Dybala and Gonzalo Higuaín for something under £110 million. A decade ago, if someone had prophesied all this, he’d have been considered the city fool trying to put salt into their wounds, but in reality they are back from the hell they were made to go through and how. Whether or not their history has been tarnished forever doesn’t matter, what matters is the respect that they are deserving of due to accomplishing the near impossible task of conquering the familiar throne from the debris of the conceited sense of power. And now that they have found their voice back, the Old Lady hasn’t stopped moving forward enduring all the hits that life had in store for her. The time for rehearsals are over, because it’s time to make the Italian Stallion proud and show how winning is done.
It’s time for la vecchia signora to sing again at Cardiff, celebrating the occasion of their return to such a rarefied height, much like doing their own triumphant celebration at the entrance of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.