Roberto Bettega – The Old Lady’s Favourite Son

NO mother likes to see their son move away, and those that choose to stay at home, looking after their nearest and dearest are very much the favoured offspring; the ones most cherished. For Roberto Bettega therefore, child of Piedmont, born in Turin just after Christmas in 1950, there will always be a special place in the heart of Turin’s La Vecchia Signora.

The young Bettega was not yet a teenager when he first fell into the Old Lady’s embrace, joining the Juventus Primavera squad in 1961. Despite brief journeys away, he would remain faithful to the club, always giving his best across a half century of years of dutiful service as player and then administrator. If any player of the recent era had white and black blood in his veins, it was Roberto Bettega.

At the time of joining Juventus, Bettega was initially seen as a midfielder, but his true positional calling was becoming more than clear when he joined the first team squad for the 1968-69 season. Although all players at such a large club will inevitably face an initial period on the bench, the young striker was particularly frustrated by the inaction, and anxious to get a chance to show the club what he could do.

The end of the season saw a change of manager at the Stadio Comunale. A fifth-place finish, ten points astray of champions Fiorentina was hardly the standard required and, after five years in control of the club, Paraguayan manager Heriberto Herrera was shown the door, to be replaced by Argentine Luis Carniglia. If the eager striker thought that the change would herald an opportunity to at last play for the Bianconeri, he was to be disappointed. The new regime did herald a change in his fortunes, but only ended with a season’s loan period in Serie B, playing for Varese in neighbouring Lombardy.

It may have felt like a backwards step at the time, but it meant first team football, and the opportunity to play under Nils Liedholm, the Swedish forward, who had enjoyed such a stellar career at Milan in the fifties and early sixties. Liedholm was also making his way up the ladder, the managerial one in his case, staying for a couple of years at the Stadio Franco Ossola before moving on to bigger things. It’s difficult to definitively state the impact that the coach had on the development of the on-loan striker, but he was keen to give a strong endorsement after Bettega left to return to Turin, having notched 13 goals to take Varese to top of Serie B and promotion to the top echelon and ending as the league’s top scorer

Liedholm certainly knew a fair bit about what was needed to make up a successful Serie A striker, and considered that Bettega’s combination of athleticism and technical ability, ticked all of the boxes. “He is particularly strong in the air, and can kick the ball with either foot,” Liedholm remarked. “All he needs is to build up experience, and then he will certainly be a force to be reckoned with.” The ex-Milan player was to be proved correct. It was an assessment that Bettaga would fully justify. Another ringing endorsement came from Wales’ own Gentle Giant, John Charles, whose career would briefly cross with that of Bettega. The hero of Juve’s tifosi would endorse Liedholm’s prediction. “Number eleven but not only: modern and versatile striker, great game vision,” Charles recalled.

Whilst Bettega had been plundering goals for Varase and Liedholm – the young striker had finished as top scorer in the division, and Varese had also prospered, gaining promotion – things hadn’t been going well back at Juventus. The 1969-70 season as a whole had been hugely disappointing for Juventus, and Carniglia was not to last long in charge. When the change came, the club brought in Ercole Rabitti, another native of Turin, to steady the ship. Things did stabilise a little and a third-place finish, leading to qualification for the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup was borderline acceptable. It was fairly clear though that Rabitti was not the long-term answer and for the following season, the club turned to former Azzurri coach Armando Picchi.

The Italian has enjoyed an illustrious playing career as Libero for the ’Grande Inter’ team that had flourished under Helenio Herrera. It looked a good match for the club, but tragically, Picchi would not see out the season. In mid-February, he was diagnosed as having cancer. A brief period in hospital meant an end to his coaching career. Three months later, he had died. He was just 36 years old.

The fate of their coach inevitably had a traumatising effect on both club and squad, but his replacement, Čestmír Vycpálek, promoted from the youth team, would help to raise spirits, reenergising both the club in general, and Roberto Bettega in particular. Returning to Juve for the 1970-71 season, Bettega finally took his bow in the famous Bianconeri shirt in September 1970 during an away fixture on the island of Sicily, facing Catania. Suffice to say that he scored the winning goal. It would be his only strike until the turn of the year though.

The start of 1971 would however be somewhat different. On 17th January, he scored the first goal in a 2-1 home victory over Foggia. The following week he again netted Juve’s first goal, this time in 1-2 victory away to Fiorentina. On the last day of the month, he followed that up by scoring a hat-trick in the 5-0 victory at home to Catania, against whom he had netted his debut goal months earlier. By the end of the season, he would add a further half-dozen to his total, and had the proud record of his team never losing when he had scored. At the end of his first active season with the club Bettega had scored, a highly creditable, 13 goals in 28 matches. Juventus had finished fourth and, given the loss of Picchi, it was a creditable return.

The new manager had clearly sparked the young Bettega and better things looked on the horizon for the coming season. As things turned out, it would be a successful one for the club, but less so for the player. There was very much an upswing at the start of the season though. With a confidence blooming from the prolific few months behind him, and a manager who seemed to know how to exploit his considerable talents, Bettega scored no less than 10 goals in his first fourteen games. Early in the new year though, illness was to strike at the club once more. This time it was Bettega who was to suffer.

After scoring against Fiorentina in January 1972, he would not find the net again until September of the same year.  Struck down by a lung infection that threatened to turn into tuberculosis, he was side-lined and compelled to play no more part in the season as Juventus took the Scudetta by a point over AC Milan. It was their first title in four years, but would herald in a glorious era of triumph and trophies, and a major part of that was the success and goals of Roberto Bettega.

After a summer’s recuperation, Bettega was keen to re-join his team-mates, and returned to competitive action for the opening game of the season on the 24th September. Although he had shaken the illness off by now, the debilitating effects of the time in hospital fighting the infection inevitably had an effect on the striker, and although Juve would retain the title, it was a below par season for Bettega as he scored just 11 times across 43 games in all competitions. For a player whose game was based on athleticism as well as an estimable technical ability, it was a frustrating time, despite collecting the league title again. There was also disappointment in Europe as I Bianconeri were beaten in the European Cup Final by Ajax, who were collecting the trophy for the third successive year. Although Bettega started the game, he was substituted just after the half-time break for German striker Helmut Haller.

Retaining the title had been a major achievement, but doing so again for the 1973-74 season would surely be even harder as other clubs sought to elbow their way into the tittle race; and so it proved. Lazio pipped them to the Scudetto by two points. Bettega played in just 24 league games that season, scoring eight times. It was the end of the road for Vycpálek, who would leave the club at the end of the season to be replaced by Carlo Parola.

Another son of Turin, Parola had turned out for Juve on more than 350 occasions as a reliable defender, very much in the style of the Italian caricature. He had managed the club briefly a dozen years earlier, but now had an opportunity to take things further forward. He duly restored the Scudetto to the club, but again it was a frustrating time for Bettega. He scored ten goals in 47 games in all competitions. It seemed that when the club flourished, he didn’t, and vice-versa. As if to prove the point, in the 1975-76 season, Juve lost out to cross-city rivals Torino in the league, but Bettega had his best scoring season since his first with the club, scoring 18 times in 36 games in all competitions, with an impressive 15 coming in just 29 Serie A games.  As a Juve man though, Bettega would have craved success fro the club as well as himself, and the next managerial appointment would work that particular oracle.

Giovanni Trapattoni was very much a man of Milan. Born in the Milan province of Cusano Milanino, he had played more than 300 games for the Rossoneri in a 12-year career, primarily as a defender, but sometimes pushed into a defensive midfield role. He had then gone on to coach the youth team at the San Siro before being promoted to head up the first team in 1974, first as an interim appointment, then on a full-time basis the following year. With the departure of Parola, Juve President, Giampiero Boniperti, was determined to get the best man he could to take the club forwards. The success Trapattoni had enjoyed with Milan convinced Boniperti that this was the man his club needed. He swooped and seduced the young coach – then just 37 – away to Turin. It proved to be the shrewdest of moves and would break that ‘player succeeds / club suffers’ or vice-versa scenario with Bettega and Juventus for good. The arrival of Trapattoni would set the good times a-rolling in Turin’s Stadio Commumale for both club and Bettega.

Breaking the trend of recent years, Trapattoni would stay in the manager’s chair at Juventus for ten years, and in that time, the club enjoyed a prolonged period of dominance in Italian domestic football. It began with a league triumph in his first year; one that to no Sam all measure was attributed to the goal-scoring exploits of Roberto Bettega, who enjoyed his most prolific season with the club.

The league campaign was a long and hard battle against local rivals and reigning champions Torino. From the start of the season, the two clubs battled out for top spot. Juventus were a team in transition. Pietro Anatasi, along with Fabio Capello, had now left the club and were replaced with Roberto Boninsegna. The partnership between the incoming striker and Bettega would prove to be a fearsome tandem. Despite the manager having to bed in new players and systems however, Juve hit the ground with their wheels spinning, wining their first seven games. They also demonstrated their mettle in adversity when, in early November, trailing 2-0 to Milan in the San Siro, they fought back for a 2-3 victory, with Bettega of course netting one of the goals.

In December though, Torino put a stutter in their stride when, as the nominal away team – although both sides shared the Stadio Comunale – they defeated Trapattioni’s team 0-2, removing their 100% record and replacing it with a large dollop of doubt. As was demonstrated by their comeback win in Milan however, Trapattoni had installed a resolute mentality into his team, and the setback was overcome as I Bianconeri kept pace with their rivals exchanging top spot throughout the season. The defining matches took place at the end of April. A late Giuseppe Furino goal was enough for all the points in a 2-1 victory over Napoli, whilst the following day, Torino could only manage a goalless draw with Lazio. The results gave Juve a single point lead, and with just three games to go it proved decisive. Successive victories over Inter Milan, Roma and Sampdoria saw them over the line and although the Scudetto stayed at the Stadio Communale, it was now decked in the white and black of Juventus. It would be one of two trophies they lifted that year.

Their runners-up place in the league the previous season had granted Juventus entry to the Uefa Cup, and a chance at European glory. Strangely, the first two rounds of the competition pitted Juve against the two Manchester clubs. A single goal aggregate victory over Manchester City in the first round meant a second-round tie against United. A 1-0 defeat at Old Trafford was comfortably erased back in Turin with a three-goal victory. In the third-round, it was Shakhtar Donetsk and in the first leg in Turin, Bettega opened the scoring in a 3-0 victory that all but settled the tie. A defeat by a single goal in the second leg hardly caused a ripple.

The quarter-finals gave Trapattoni a chance of revenge. He had managed AC Milan a few years earlier, when they were surprisingly beaten by East German club Magdeburg in the European Cup Winners Cup Final. Vengeance was given its day with a 1-3 victory in Germany, and a 1-0 win at home, to put Juventus into the last four of the competition, where AEK Athens proved little problem. A 4-1 home win, with Bettega scoring a brace, and 0-1 away victory, thanks to another Bettega strike, saw Trapattoni’s team stroll to a two-legged final against Athletic Bilbao. The first leg was played in Turin and Marco Tardelli’s goal gave the home team an important 1-0 victory. It was in the second leg though that the key Juve goal was scored. Just seven minutes in, Bettega scored a priceless away goal. Despite Bilbao scoring twice to win on the night, it was Bettega’s strike that gave the trophy to Juve on the away goals rule. Whilst his form in the league had been impressive, his goals in the European run had been decisive in gaining the trophy.

Bettega finished the season with a, mightily impressive, 23 goals from 46 games across all competitions. A goal every other game in the defence-dominated Calcio and the heat of European competition put the striker at the forefront of marksmen across the globe. He and Juve were riding the crest of a wave that was washing over their rivals.

The following season saw an immediate expression of intent from Juve as they smashed Foggia 6-0 in the opening league game. It was the shape of things to come and sure enough, the league was comfortably secured with a five-point margin to take back-to-back Scuddeti for the Old Lady to place on her mantelpiece, courtesy of her favourite son as Bettega contributed a further 11 goals towards the cause. 1978 also saw World Cup year, and the success of Trapattoni and Juventus was recognised by an astonishing statistic that saw no less than nine of the club’s players wearing the Azzurri shirt in a World Cup Finals game against Hungary. Including Bettega.

Bettega had began his international career three years previously, in a match against Finland, but in 1978, he was in his prime. A couple of goals from the Juve striker had seen Italy progress to the semi-finals, where they were defeated by the Netherlands. Nevertheless, Bettega was selected as a front man for the FIFA Team of the Tournament. It was international recognition of his status as a top line striker not only at club level, but also on the world stage at the highest level of competition.

In the following couple of years, the league title slipped away as the Milan clubs, first I Rossoneri and then the I Nerazzurri snaffled the Scuddeto across to Lombardy. A Coppa Italia in the 1978-79 season was now viewed as scant reward given their previous domination of the league, but better things were to follow. Bettega continued to register regularly, scoring eleven and then 17 goals in each of those two seasons. The latter saw him securing the Capocannoniere award as Serie A’s top scorer. Strangely, it was the first and only time he would achieve that distinction.

The 1980-81 season, given that they had now gone two years without lifting the title, began in very ordinary fashion for Juve, but an accelerating level of performance saw them haul in the early leaders and take back the Scudetto. Bettega had missed a few games across the season, but still made a significant contribution to the success of the team scoring eleven times.

The following season would see Juve retain the tile, but there was tragedy ahead for their star striker. The league title earned put the club qualification for the European Cup and with confidence in the squad now on a high, there were realistic aspirations of success. A comfortable win over Celtic in the first round, with the inevitable Bettega goal, did nothing to dissuade such thoughts, and merely confirmed the value of the star striker to the club in such exalted competitions. The win saw them through to a second-round tie with Anderlecht.

Sadly for Bettega the tie would mark the beginning of the end of his long career with his home-town club. In a collision with the Belgian club’s goalkeeper, Bettega suffered a traumatic knee injury damaging ligaments in the joint. It meant not only a premature end to his club season, but also prevented him from competing for his country in the 1982 World Cup.

Juventus went on to secure the league once more, by a single point from Fiorentina, and completed a domestic double by lifting the Coppa Italia. For their injured striker though, he was robbed of what had promised to be his best season, culminating in playing a full part with the Azzurri who went on to lift the World Cup in Spain. Having only played seven league games before the injury, Bettega had already notched five goals, and across all competitions had scored eight in 14 games. It was a level of performance that suggested he would smash his previous best goal-scoring season back in 1976-77. He would be robbed of the opportunity to deliver on that promise.

It would be the 1982-83 season before Bettega, now 32 years old, could return to anything like full fitness. The injury however had not merely had a temporary effect. Here was a player whose technical ability was adorned with a rare athleticism that allowed him the time and space to deploy his skills. Any loss of mobility would reduce that capacity, and bring with it a reduction in effectiveness from that of one of the best strikers in the world, down to the ranks of the mere mortal. A collision in that European game had been like kryptonite to Bettega. He was no longer the ‘super striker’ of the previous years. Just when he looked to be having a dream season it turned into a nightmare. It would not get much better. The season he returned would be his last playing for Juventus.

In his absence, Trapattoni had rebuilt the team, and now with Michel Platini and Zbigniew Boniek in midfield and Paolo Rossi in the front line, Bettega was no longer the lead man. A second Coppa Italia came his way, and Europe offered an insignificant apologetic opportunity for a late swansong to his career in the European Cup. Although playing regularly, others now picked up the goal-scoring mantle. Bettega didn’t score in Europe until the semi-final, when he found the net in the home first leg against Widzew Łódź. Victory over the Poles took Juve to a final against Hamburg, but there would be no final hurrah for Bettega and his team-mates as a Felix Magath goal gave the Germans the trophy.

At the end of the season, ever the pragmatist, Bettega knew his time was done with top level European football and, cutting the Parton strings, took leave of his beloved Old Lady. During his career at the club, had made 326 league appearances, and scored 129 goals. In all competitions, he was just short of 500 games played and had scored a further 50 goals to add to his league total. He had been a part of teams that had secured no less than seven Scudetto titles, won the 1977 Uefa Cup, two Coppa Italias, and been a Serie A top scorer. Not only had he been one of the club’s top scorers off all time, his devotion and loyalty to the club also meant he was one of the most loved by the tifosi.

A couple of seasons playing in Canada was arguably a strange move, but for a player who probably felt that fate had dealt him a cruel hand with that knee injury, just when he appeared to be on the brink of a stellar, career-crowing season, it was probably hard to hang up his boots at the end of the 1982-83 season, understandably, still feeling a little unfulfilled, despite his glittering career. After his final season in Canada, back in Europe, Juventus lifted the European Cup amidst the turmoil and tragedy of Heysel. Bettega would have cheered for his club, but lamented the loss of life of his home-town brothers.

At the end of his time in Canada, he was to return to his beloved Juventus, this time in the guise of an administrator. In 1994, club chairman, Umberto Agnelli, invited Bettega to return to the club as vice-chairman. He would serve in the position for a dozen years, sharing in more success at the club, returning to pick up the position again for a year in 2009, before new chairman, Andrea Agnelli took control.

There are many stories of outstanding players, and just as many of one-club players who become so much a part of the club that they seem part of the furniture there – albeit very expensive and treasured furniture. There are not that many that fit into both categories. Roberto Bettega was certainly one of them though. Over the years, he picked up a number of nicknames, ‘The White Feather’ for his prematurely greying locks, and ‘Bobby Gol’ for his exploits and success in finding the back of the net are just a couple. Perhaps a more fitting accolade though, would be that of a loyal and loving son to his Momma, the Old Lady of Turin.

By Gary Thacker and artwork by Agne Ziukaite

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