Alessandro Del Piero: The Gentleman Forever Tied to his Lady

IN the summer of 2006, Juventus were in turmoil. Despite providing the core of Italy’s World Cup winning side, the Calciopoli scandal was tearing the club apart as they prepared for life in Serie B. Stars were leaving by the day, big offers were coming in for those who remained. Yet there was one man who nobody linked with a move away from Turin.

Despite his mother insisting that he should play in goal because it was safer, Alessandro Del Piero would go on to become one of the best forwards in Europe. Before joining Padova, Del Piero had travelled to Turin to have a trial but at Torino. How things could have been so very different. At the tender age of 17, he made his professional debut against Messina in Italy’s second tier.

Quickly the giants of Italian football were circling, with Fiorentina and AC Milan sniffing around one of the most promising youngsters on the peninsula. But it was Juventus who would win the race.

With Roberto Baggio up front alongside Gianluca Vialli and Fabrizio Ravanelli, Del Piero struggled to gain a foothold in Juve’s first XI. In the summer of 1994 Del Piero was shown the exit door.

The Bianconeri were willing to offer Del Piero to Parma, initially on loan with an option to buy, in order to warn off interest for their Italy star Dino Baggio. The defensive midfielder impressed as the Azzurri had reached the final in the US. Yet Dino would change his mind and move to ensure Del Piero would remain in Turin.

Injuries to Dino’s brother, Roberto, during the following season allowed Del Piero to shine. His legendary status began in that very campaign.

Fiorentina were newly promoted but given all that had happened between the two clubs in the past 20 years, it had grown to become a fierce rivalry. Surprisingly, Fiorentina raced to a 2-0 lead in Turin. As the final whistle approached though Gianluca Vialli had pulled the home side level.

Alessandro Orlando then played a hopeful ball forward over Del Piero’s shoulder and he did the rest. The Stadio delle Alpi went wild. Del Piero’s stunning volley had completed a remarkable comeback and a hero was born.

Marcello Lippi made a huge decision in the summer. Despite Roberto Baggio being the club’s top scorer in every season between 1990-94, Del Piero was singled out to be the man to lead the club going forward. Just like his brother Dino, Roberto was moved on.

Given Baggio’s famous number 10 shirt, Del Piero grew into his new status at the club. He helped form a young, fluid and energetic forward line that would fire the club to a second European Cup in 1996. At the Stadio Olimpico, full of Juventus fans, the Bianconeri beat Louis Van Gaal’s Ajax side on penalties. By the age of 22, Del Piero had won all there was to win in club football. With the world at his feet, Del Piero suffered a cruel blow.

In early November 1998, with just minutes to go against Udinese, a serious knee injury saw Del Piero stretchered off. He would not play again that season. In the following years, Juventini were hoping they would see the revival of the pre-1998 Del Piero. They never would.

The energetic, pacey forward was gone. Del Piero had to evolve. He was now more of a creator, coming deep to release the side’s main forward. It is a mark of him as a person and a player that he did so with such ease and ultimate success.

Del Piero was integral to Juventus’ march to the Champions League final in 2003. He scored an iconic goal against Real Madrid in the semi-final, which remains to this day one of the greatest nights in the club’s history. Juve’s number 10 was back among Europe’s elite.

In 2006, alongside another iconic number 10, Francesco Totti, Del Piero headed to the World Cup in Germany. Italy were not among the favourites. Many at home thought the squad was one of the poorest Italy had ever sent to a major tournament. Yet with their backs against the wall, the Azzurri came out fighting.

Helping the side tick, Del Piero was a crucial member of the front line. Although he was not firing in the goals, the experienced trequartista was proving his worth. He would provide a classic moment in Dortmund.

After Fabio Grosso had given Italy the lead deep into extra time against the hosts, Italy were sitting back. But Del Piero provided a cool finish into the top corner after a stunning counter attack to seal Italy’s place in the final in Berlin.

With four minutes to go in the final, Del Piero entered the stage at the Olympiastadion. He would go on to score in the penalty shoot-out as Italy claimed a fourth World title. It was though not to be the defining moment of Del Piero’s career.

None of the other simboli per sempre or bandiera in Italian football like Paolo Maldini or Francesco Totti, were tested like Juve’s number 10. To stay with the side, which had given him his chance to become a world star, Del Piero would have to drop down to stay with the Old Lady.

It was just to be one season in Serie B for Juventus as they returned as Champions. But it was the final confirmation of what everyone already knew. Del Piero was a Juventus icon who would stick with the club no matter what.

When the Bianconeri returned to Serie A, they struggled to compete like they did before Calciopoli. Yet showing his class, Del Piero still shone. In 2008, he scored a stunning free kick against Real Madrid in Turin. Then in the following round of fixtures, he bragged a brace at the Santiago Bernabeu, just days before his 34th birthday. It was the first time Juve had won at the Bernabeu since 1962 and Del Piero was given a standing ovation by the home fans as he left the pitch. As Del Piero was reaching the twilight of his career, he was still giving the Bianconeri moments to remember.

At the start of the 2011/12 season, Juve appointed former midfielder Antonio Conte as coach. With a new stadium, the hierarchy at the club were desperate for success.

In May, Del Piero had announced a one-year extension, which would be his last contract at the club. President Andrea Agnelli confirmed this. Yet in the following months many, including Del Piero, were not ready to let go. “The hope,” he declared, “is to stay at Juventus for as long as possible.”

It was though the abrupt nature of how the board handled the situation that left a sour taste. It should have been handled better. Del Piero had gone past Gaetano Scirea’s record of most games for Juventus. He had also become the club’s top scorer in Serie A and all competitions. Legend does not come to close to what Del Piero was in Turin. Across the world Juventus was Del Piero and Del Piero was Juventus.

Under Conte though Del Piero had to get used to being a bit time player. When called upon he had delivered, scoring against reigning champions Milan in the Coppa Italia as well as in the Derby d’Italia. Del Piero still felt he had much to give and therefore had to think about the unthinkable, playing for another side.

Del Piero’s goodbye will never be forgotten by Juventini. At the Juventus Stadium against Atalanta on the final day of the Serie A season, the Bianconeri were hoping to become only the third Italian side to go unbeaten during a league campaign.

With Juve already one up, Pinturicchio scored his 289th and final goal for the club. He curled the ball home from outside the box in a typically stylish way. On the 58th minute, Del Piero exited for the last time. The stadium rose as one. Every player on the pitch started clapping.

A huge cry of “un Capitano, c’è solo un Capitano” rang around the stadium. The crowd would not let him live it down. They beckoned him to stand as he went to sit on the bench. An impromptu lap of honour followed. The fans had lost interest in the match. The camera was now following Del Piero as he ran around the Juventus Stadium.

After the 3-1 win, it was fitting that Del Piero lifted the Serie A trophy. He had helped end Juve’s baron run and finished his career in Italy at the top. Yet he would move on. Spells in Australia at Sydney City and in India followed. It did not feel right.

When Del Piero did retire, the statistics spoke for themselves. The trophies won and the goals scored at the highest level ensure he will be remembered as one of the greatest Italian forwards. The stunning goals, the sublime assists and the way he carried himself on the pitch was impeccable. But Del Piero will be most fondly remembered for his character.

A team man, he never put himself first. He played and scored away at Bari in 2001 just days after his father died of cancer. Del Piero did not abandon a sinking ship in 2006. He always spoke of his duties as a captain. For this as much as his incredible talent, Del Piero will be regarded as one of, if not the best to ever wear the famous Black and White of Juventus.

By Richard Hinman and artwork by James O’Mara

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