Circa 2006 was the year of upheaval in Italian football. The calciopoli (match-fixing scandal) overshadowed even the Azzurri’s World Cup triumph and somebody had to face the consequences. It turned out to be the Old Lady. Juventus had been stripped of their last two Serie A titles and were relegated to Serie B. The most successful club in the history of Italian football looked to be on the brink of a spectacular meltdown.
Cut to 2017, and Juventus will play the Champions League final against Real Madrid in Cardiff on June 3; their second final in three years. It has been a fascinating story of resolve, recovery and redemption.
The calciopoli coincided with the economic downturn in Italian football that would eventually head towards a mini recession. Money started to dry up. Poor marketing strategies and the inability to reach out to a global audience made a serious negative impact. With the ever-increasing popularity of the English Premier League, Serie A—it used to have all the superstars till the turn of the century—became a sideshow.
As Juventus were dropped to the second tier, some big names moved out. Fabio Cannavaro and Emerson went to Real Madrid, Lilian Thuram preferred Barcelona and Zlatan Ibrahimovic left for Inter Milan. But the team didn’t lose its backbone, because Gianluigi (Gigi) Buffon, Alessandro Del Piero and Pavel Nedved stayed.
Juventus’ return to the top tier was basically a matter of time despite the fact that they had started their Serie B campaign with a nine-point handicap, penalty to be precise because of their alleged involvement in calciopoli. But being back to Serie A, they were playing catch-up all the time. It was a huge challenge to climb up the leaderboard.
Things got off badly, with coach Didier Deschamps, a club legend, stepping down following a disagreement with the board. Claudio Ranieri came and managed to secure a Champions League spot but the team never looked title contenders on any front. Gradual decline followed and Juventus finished seventh in Serie A for consecutive seasons; 2009-10 and 2010-11. As Jose Mourinho took Inter to the Champions League glory in 2010, the Old Lady looked to be edging closer towards disintegration. Between 2008 and 2011, Juventus had hired four different managers, attesting uncertainties and volatility.
Behind the scenes, however, an astute mind had already started developing a recovery plan. Giuseppe Marotta came to the club as its CEO in 2010 and advised the purchase of two young defenders; Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli. Along with Giorgio Chiellini, the duo would eventually form a brick wall at the Juve rearguard. At the Champions League quarter finals this term, the gilded Barcelona front three of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar ran into it and got overwhelmed. There’s no surprise in Juventus conceding only thrice in 11 Champions League matches this season.
Marotta had a vision and a roadmap for the future, but he needed a talisman. The best thing that happened to Juventus in 2011-12 was Antonio Conte’s arrival as the manager. A top player in his own right, a club legend, Conte is arguably the biggest positive force in today’s football. Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich should confirm it following his best managerial appointment yet, but that’s a different story.
Conte has an aura about him. He has a swagger that could intimidate. When he speaks, players listen. Most importantly, Conte likes to win at all costs. He took Juventus to the Serie A summit in his first season at the club, their first in six years. Juventus have now all but secured their sixth Scudetti (league titles) in a row.
Conte is a true-blue Italian who prefers character over frill as far as football is concerned. He was obsessed with 3-5-2 that formed the Barzagli-Bonucci-Chiellini partnership at Juve defence. His successor, Massimiliano Allegri, is more flexible with his formations, but there’s a common thread; both prefer low risk and high effectiveness.
Conte spent brilliantly in the transfer market, brining in the quality and experience of Andrea Pirlo alongside the youth and allround ability of Arturo Vidal. Gonzalo Higuain’s £75-million arrival and Paul Pogba’s £89-million departure last summer attested Allegri’s shrewdness in transfers. In a few days Higuain would be playing the Champions League final, while Pogba gears up for the Europa League title showdown.
Juventus also benefited from becoming the first Italian football club to own a stadium. The magnificent Juventus Stadium was unveiled in September 2011 and it gave the club a big advantage over their rivals. They could take everything—from ticket sales to merchandise—to their own coffers. Other Italian clubs couldn’t do that because their stadiums are owned by the respective local municipalities.
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Finally, Gigi Buffon… In the summer of 2001 he came from Parma to Juve for £32.6 million; still a world-record for a goalkeeper’s transfer fee. Along the way he became the greatest keeper in the history of the game, standing by his club through thick and thin. That he has never won a Ballon d’Or is typical Fifa nonsense. But who cares!
A European Cup win, however, remains the only missing piece in the great man’s glittering career. Every neutral wants him to hold aloft the elusive silverware at Cardiff.