You might be able to spot him in the fog.
The word legend is thrown around all too easily these days. You’ve heard the kind of talk, people referring to their mate as a legend because of some amusing or entertaining act. This overuse of the term devalues it for everyone, and that’s a shame, because every so often an individual will emerge who is genuinely worthy of legend status. To restore some prestige to the term, if you want to know if someone is really a legend just apply this simple test: have they done anything as good as Alessandro Del Piero’s Juventus career?
Del Piero is the real deal, a bona fide legend, but next season something truly unthinkable might happen: he could be playing professional football for a club that isn’t Juventus. For someone only 5ft 8in tall, he’ll be leaving some ridiculously huge boots for the club’s next number ten to try on. We’re talking clown shoes huge. The club’s all time record goal scorer with over 700 first team appearances, Del Piero has spent almost two whole decades playing for the most successful club in Italian football. It’s the sort of career that belongs in the Stanley Matthews league of longevity.
Ex-Juventus chief Luciano Moggi says it would be a mistake to let him leave, while Milan’s coach Max Allegri thinks Juve will change their minds. As yet though, there has been no update from the club or the player, who have both stated that his current contract, which expires this summer, will not be renewed. It shouldn’t be a controversial decision to allow a 37 year old forward to leave, but like Paul Scholes at Manchester United, the ageing Del Piero has still weighed in with some vital contributions to Juventus’ title challenge. Some players never lose it.
In his youth, Del Piero faced a task that must have been daunting, even for the most assured and talented of teenage prodigies – replacing Roberto Baggio. The careers of these two stellar talents overlapped briefly when Del Piero was signed, but when Baggio moved on to Milan in 1995, the door was open for Del Piero to step forward as the club’s undisputed number ten.
Comparisons between the celebrated Baggio and the young pretender were inevitable, but although both were supremely gifted, their styles were dissimilar. For one, Del Piero did not possess quite the same explosive dribbling ability of the younger Baggio, but few did. Instead, his magic often came from moments of brilliant improvisation; scoring goals that required a combination of balance, reflexes and almost super-human coordination to execute. Volleying the ball with the outside of your boot as it drops over your shoulder is one of the hardest techniques to master, but Del Piero made it look like a tap in. We soon learnt that he could also unnerve opponents with his close control. During a 1995/96 Champions League fixture, one magical turn left Rangers’ Alex Cleland so humiliated that he took a wild hack at his chief tormentor, and was promptly shown a red card – on this occasion it was more an act of mercy for the offender than a punishment.
It was a warning for defences in Italy and in Europe of what to expect, but individual brilliance has only been part of Del Piero’s story. He has performed best when in settled teams with a clear structure and style. No coincidence that the period of Serie A dominance Juventus enjoyed in the late 90’s and early 2000’s under Marcello Lippi was based on a pathological commitment to team ethic, as well as some pretty useful supporting cast. During this spell Del Piero amassed five Serie A titles (he won two more under Fabio Capello that were stripped from the club following the Calciopoli match fixing scandal). Perhaps the only disappointment will be that of the four Champions League finals he played in, he only emerged victorious once. Success and failure are relative, after all.
But, among all the accolades and silverware, it is perhaps the lone Serie B title that most epitomises a hunger to win that has never died. This incongruous honour was achieved following the club’s relegation to Serie B for the 2006/07 season. The good times were over, and there were inevitable departures; you couldn’t imagine Zlatan sticking around for a spell in the second tier, but Del Piero did. No sooner had Juventus been demolished than he was back at work, laying the foundations for the next phase in their history. Juventus won promotion as champions at the first attempt, and Del Piero finished the season as top scorer.
If there is one doubt about his career, it is that his performances for the Italian national team didn’t hit the heights they should have. While Roberto Baggio became synonymous with moments of pure emotion in a blue shirt – that goal in 1990, and his remarkable World Cup performance in 1994 – Del Piero’s Italy career has seemed altogether quieter. However, such a highly subjective appraisal does Del Piero a disservice, because he is joint fourth in the all time leading goal scorer charts for the national team, a position he shares with none other than Roberto Baggio.
As for emotion, the dying moments of Italy’s semi-final against Germany in the 2006 World Cup had plenty. Defending a 1-0 lead in front of a partisan crowd (well, what else would you expect), Italy sprung a counter-attack, and racing forward to connect with Alberto Gilardino’s perfectly weighted reverse pass was Del Piero. Without breaking his stride, he finished the move emphatically, lifting the ball into the far corner. It was a beautiful goal scored under extreme pressure, a fitting moment for Del Piero to write his own contribution to Italy’s unlikely triumph.
And so, as this season reaches its climax, there is speculation that Del Piero will head for the MLS or perhaps the Middle East. Some fans might think it best that he retires now, having completed the final chapter of his Juventus career by helping to re-establish the club among the Italian elite. But, it would take Veruca Salt levels of ingratitude to begrudge him a swansong elsewhere considering his contribution to Italian football.
It’s a risk to get hung up on sentimentality in football, but if this does prove to be his last season in Serie A then a final Scudetto would make a wonderful finale. Regardless of where the title ends up, it will be an emotional occasion when Alex waves his final farewell to Juventus and Serie A. The passing into history of a true legend.
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