By Max Grieve
Six years ago in Bari, the directors watched on as Juventus celebrated their 29th Scudetto. Celebrations moved from beneath the stadium to the team bus, which Luciano Moggi boarded in tears. The players too, though they appeared to hide it well, must have known what was to come. Transcripts of recorded telephone conversations between Moggi and several Italian football officials had come to surface, and he realised that, in time, everything would come crashing down.
It did. Juventus were stripped of their previous two Serie A titles, and were unceremoniously thrown out of the league. Calciopoli had broken; Ibrahimovic, Thuram and Cannavaro moved on. Internazionale began a period of complete dominance, winning four of the following leagues (having been awarded the 2006 title). Deducted nine points at the beginning of their season in the dark of the second division, Juventus were unlikely to return to Serie A until 2008 at the earliest. Given the mess that the league was in, it seemed inconceivable that Italy could win the World Cup in Berlin during the summer.
It is a history that Juventus are determined to forget, and the contrast between scenes in Trieste at the weekend, and those at the Romeo Neri in Rimini some six years earlier as they began to atone for their crime, should serve as a reminder of how far they had fallen, and how high they have risen. They took to the field against Cagliari in a game with no grey area. Win, and they would take the race for the Scudetto to the final week. Lose, and they flirted with the threat of a lurking Milan. A draw would have a similar outcome. As always with Juventus, it was either black, or white.
Antonio Conte lifted three fingers on one hand, and two on the other. Across the field, Juventus players broke into restrained smiles. They did, of course, still have to finish the match. News then came through that Maicon had scored at the San Siro to end Milan’s challenge, and supporters of the Bianconeri began to climb the fences that separated the people from the players. They knew it was all over, and were on the pitch for a number of minutes before the final whistle sounded. The players streamed towards the tunnel in search of refuge from a delirious support as an elated Conte staggered across the field, drunk on the moment. Juventus had won Serie A, unbeaten with a match to spare, and everything felt right with the world.
There were five players who remained from the season below, each who had played, if they had not already always done so, an integral role in this success. For Gianlugi Buffon, Giorgio Chiellini, Paolo De Ceglie, Claudio Marchisio and Alessandro Del Piero, it was a particularly gratifying sensation. Cried a hoarse Buffon, “It was to experience an evening like this that I stayed here in 2006. It’s the greatest joy I’ve felt in my life after winning the World Cup.”
As always, controversy was lurking just beyond the field. A euphoric Buffon came down briefly to join the argument: “I won five titles on the field although they have only awarded me three of them. What can I do about it?” The club’s sporting director, Giuseppe Marotta, was typically impudent: “It’s our 30th Scudetto. We have 30 on all the champagne bottles and we have won 30 titles.” Next, he implied that Juventus would be adding another star to their badge – three for thirty; one for every ten. It will be a debate that Conte will hope will not cloud his side’s extraordinary achievements. He avoided getting involved, at least for the moment. “What number Scudetto is this?” he asked reporters. “Number one, because this is the first I’ve won as a manager.”
This represents a significant step for Juventus. Last season, a seventh place finish meant they were denied the opportunity to grace the Europa League as Palermo finished runners-up to Inter in the Coppa Italia. They will not regret it. An apparent hindrance to the domestic schedule, it is well documented that the Europa League is a competition that many clubs who qualify for it would rather do without. Conte has been calm, or certainly as calm as an Italian manager could hope to be. He refused throughout the season to discuss his team as contenders: indeed, when pressed by the media as Juventus passed the halfway-mark as leaders to state “without ifs or buts” whether his side could go the distance, he replied, “if and but. Nobody is hiding here. But I know that nobody can just get up in the morning and decide: ‘I win’.”
Now, he will seek to re-establish the Juventus empire – in Europe as well as Italy. This is a side that is playing with a decidedly more continental style, focussed on ball retention, and the kind of darting swoops and thrusts for which Barcelona are renowned. Perhaps not as creative as the all-dominating Catalan side, Juventus suffocate their opponent when they lose possession. Paolo Bandini recounts the match earlier in the season between Milan and Juventus:
[When] Silvio Berlusconi addressed Milan’s players before their game against Juventus there was only one team he really wanted to talk about. Not three weeks have passed since Milan drew 2-2 in Barcelona, and yet while most would be grateful for any result at the Camp Nou, the Milan owner had been stung by the few critics who felt his team showed insufficient ambition. “We need to play more like Barcelona,” he told the players at Milanello on Saturday. “And we must keep the ball more in the last 15 minutes.”
Juventus’s players had been visited by their own president, Andrea Agnelli, on Saturday, but where Berlusconi had invited his team to play like another, the Bianconeri were simply advised to listen to their manager.
It is a philosophy – though some would hasten to call it so – which has worked. Juventus are champions of Serie A; rightfully, clearly, deservedly. It is officially the 28th Scudetto for the Bianconeri. As ever, as might be expected, they will argue that it should be 30.
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