THE BLOW, WHEN IT CAME, WAS DEVASTATING. Juventus, one of the world’s grandest football clubs, was plunged into squalor. Two league titles were taken away, obliterated from the record books with stunning rapidity. After 109 years of top flight domination, the Bianconeri were demoted to Serie B, that island of misfit toys and decrepit stadia.
It was a fitting punishment for a seedy scandal, but that didn’t lessen the emotive impact. The Old Lady of Turin, once a source of fascination for football acolytes around the globe, had been brought to her knees, shaking the entire ecology of Italian football. Many people didn’t know what to think or how to feel. Chaos reigned supreme.
They called it Calciopoli. Uncovered in May 2006, the scandal implicated Juventus, AC Milan, Fiorentina, Lazio and Reggina as part of a match-fixing epidemic. A network of communications between club personnel and refereeing organisations was unearthed, with the aim of selecting favourable officials for certain matches. “Phone taps of a bewildering nature and variety revealed a dark world of deception, fraud and moral and political pressure,” wrote John Foot in his definitive book Calcio. “At the centre of this corrupt system stood Luciano Moggi, sporting director of Juventus.”
The investigation found that Moggi dominated most facets of Italian football, from manipulation of transfers to the selection of referees. Even the coverage of matches on television fell under his spell, with presenters ordered to boost the image of Juve by waxing lyrical and neglecting to show unflattering instant replays.
Moggi used blackmail, bribery and threats of violence to build an empire. People who didn’t comply with his instruction were hurt. Dissenting rivals would be allocated poor match officials, while non-compliant referees would find their careers in tatters. Most obeyed the crooked rules, however, such is the power of large Italian clubs, and an underground system of gifts and rewards usually kept the little men sweet.
In Italy, big clubs have always received preferential treatment, largely due to the influence of powerful owners. Favouritism and cronyism, if not flagrant corruption, have been endemic in the Italian game for decades. When the 2002 World Cup was a disaster for the national team, supporters and the media lamented the inefficiency of Franco Carraro, head of the federation, more than any one player or coach.
The way most people saw it, Carraro failed to secure special treatment from referees, hence the early exit against hosts South Korea. “Quite simply, for the Italian football fan, the referee is always corrupt, unless proven otherwise,” writes Foot. “What remains to be discovered is how he is or has been corrupt, in favour of whom, and why. It is this thesis that dominates most discussions of Italian football.”
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In the instance of Calciopoli, mass corruption was uncovered. Moggi and Antonio Giraudo, a senior Juventus official, bombarded referees with phone calls, hoping to secure favour and effectively plot the progress of national championships like depraved Hollywood screenwriters. While other clubs were involved, the prosecution argued that Juve was the only team that set out to deliberately alter the outcome of matches. Therefore, the Old Lady received the most impactful punishment: being relegated to Serie B, stripped of league titles from 2004-05 and 2005-06, and deducted nine points after appeal.
Fiorentina and Lazio were also initially relegated, but those decisions were later reversed in favour of expulsion from European competitions. All of the teams involved were also deducted points, with fines, suspensions and home fixtures behind closed doors completing the punishments.
The Juventus board resigned in mid-May, followed shortly after by Moggi. The bespectacled mastermind was later banned from football for life and jailed, alongside many other important figures in the ring, including Giraudo. Nevertheless, in many instances, people waited years for justice.
At the time, Juventus, an illustrious jewel of world football, faced Armageddon. For so long, the iconic black and white stripes emitted an aura, a mystique. There was a palpable class to the team of Baggio and Zoff, Tardelli and Vialli, Zidane and Platini. It somehow survived a 1990s doping scandal, but Calciopoli was different. Calciopoli led Juventus to uncharted destitution in terms of public opinion.
“I watched the club I love lose all respect, credibility and pride in the space of one summer,” says Rav Gopal, editor of JuveFC.com, an independent fan site. “The overwhelming feeling at the time was one of shock. It was difficult to make sense of things. I watched the team win titles on the pitch and I don’t remember us getting any preferential treatment from referees.
“People looking in from the outside were quick to make the typical lazy assumptions. Other teams were involved, but we bore the brunt of it. The reputation of Juventus as a club was impeccable. We were the side that Alex Ferguson admired; the team that wiped the floor with the Galácticos a few seasons previously. And now we were facing up to life in Serie B. It felt unfair.”
A mass exodus followed Juve’s demotion, as a world-class squad crumbled to dust. Coach Fabio Capello left for Real Madrid. Fabio Cannavaro followed him, shortly after winning the Ballon d’Or and lifting the World Cup for Italy. Zlatan Ibrahimović and Patrick Vieira departed for Inter, Emerson moved to Madrid, Adrian Mutu joined Fiorentina, and Gianluca Zambrotta and Lilian Thuram decamped to Barcelona. Juventus didn’t just lose a raft of world-class talent, it did so at incredibly reduced prices. The club essentially lost all bargaining power when falling into Serie B. Most players didn’t want to play at such a level, and Juve had little choice but to accept minuscule transfer fees.
However, amid this tale of scandal and shame, a thread of love still emerges, as established stars like Alessandro Del Piero, Gianluigi Buffon, Pavel Nedvěd, David Trezeguet and Mauro Camoranesi remained loyal to Juventus in its hour of greatest need. These players could easily have lobbied for moves elsewhere but chose to stay and fight to restore the honour of a tainted club. The sight of World Cup winners and transcendent superstars playing in the monolithic nothingness of second tier football – merely to reward tortured fans – will live with diehards forever. As Gopal explains: “Juve kept the players that mattered, a core of five or six stars combined with various squad players who made the trip to purgatory with us.”
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The club’s first game outside the top flight occurred at Rimini, a coastal retreat not famed for its football. Nevertheless, Juve were held to a 1-1 draw, as the daunting reality of Serie B life set in. “Everything about that game was heartbreaking,” Gopal recalls. “I remember Del Piero leading the players out and all I could think was ‘Why is the pitch so small?’ Everything felt small, congested, narrow, tiny. I realised after that first game what it was going to be like: a host of teams all looking for a Juve scalp.”
The Bianconeri recovered to win their next eight games, scoring 16 and conceding just one in the process. A draw with Napoli, their main title rivals, represented another reality check, but Juve always seemed to have an extra splash of quality to ease concern. Many of the games were played in an ill-tempered fashion, with referees perhaps eager to demonstrate a tough approach to Juve. The club received no less than eight red cards throughout the season, including the first of Buffon’s career.
Whenever Juventus rolled into some sleepy town, it represented the greatest opportunity in the careers of journeymen and retreats. The first club to actually topple Juve was Mantova, a small outfit from Lombardy who ran out 1-0 victors on 13 January 2007, a dark day in the history of Turin football. A vociferous crowd at the Stadio Danilo Martelli was left in total disbelief when a shot deflected off Robert Kovač and beyond Buffon into the net. Juventus couldn’t recover and succumbed to a devastating defeat.
Without doubt, the campaign was far harder than anyone expected. Juventus drew ten matches in total, as many teams parked the bus and hoped for a famous draw. Brescia also managed to beat Juve, but defeats were few and far between, resulting in a sustained title charge despite the initial points deduction.
The stands were often sparsely populated at Stadio delle Alpi and Juventus were booed lustily for any performance that didn’t meet exorbitant expectations. On the road, hostility became commonplace as Juventus haters enjoyed their moment in the sun. Still, promotion came with three games to spare with a thumping 5-1 victory at Arezzo.
All wasn’t serene, however. The final months of Juventus’s time in Serie B were characterised by infighting between key personnel. Didier Deschamps, the coach who diligently plotted Juve’s immediate return, resigned after securing promotion amid conflict with Director of Football Alessio Secco.
Giancarlo Corradini, Deschamps’ assistant, took charge of the final two games, both of which resulted in humiliating defeats, to Bari and Spezia respectively. Meanwhile, star striker Trezeguet fell out with the senior management and showed his frustration when celebrating goals in a sullen manner. In short, the effects of demotion to Serie B began to show towards the end of an arduous season, as loyal stars felt unappreciated and the future inspired anxiety.
Upon returning to Serie A, the club was almost gripped by paralysis, not knowing whether to slowly rebuild or go all out pursuing the title. “There seemed to be no clear vision for the future,” says Gopal. “Money was wasted on players that were simply not good enough, and we were held to ransom on some of the fees because of the ineptitude of Secco.
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“The overriding feeling I had at the time was, rather than there being a change in philosophy, there simply was no philosophy. The players Juve signed after returning to Serie A were a combination of big failures along with temporary, stopgap solutions who were just there as cover.”
Claudio Ranieri managed to steer the club to a third place finish, with a return to Champions League football providing funds for a total rebuild. Frustratingly for fans, that never quite materialised, as one runners-up finish was followed by two seasons in seventh place. In some respects, languishing in mid-table was even more embarrassing than playing in the second tier for Juventus. Aside from forced demotions, the club hadn’t finished so low since 1999, causing panic from executives. A Europa League defeat to Fulham in 2010 represented a new nadir, before the road back to supremacy revealed itself.
Andrea Agnelli seized control as president and appointed Giuseppe Marotta to oversee the football department. In turn, Marotta hired Antonio Conte as manager, which proved to be an inspired decision. From the depths of despair, the former player delivered greatness back to Juve, who won the Scudetto without losing a single game in 2011-12. No team had ever done that before, as a certain lustre was restored. The new Juventus Stadium heralded a fresh start as the Old Lady travelled forth into a new age of modernisation.
Juve have now won five Serie A titles in a row, as a taste of the old hegemony returns to Turin. Only this time, Juventus have truly earned the recognition, rather than bent the rules to grasp it. Conte left in 2014 but his successor, Massimiliano Allegri, has delivered further growth, with a Champions League final appearance in 2015 proving just how far Juve have come since the dawn of Calciopoli.
Of her last 190 Serie A games, stretching back to 2011, the Old Lady has tasted defeat on just 15 occasions. The club has a startling 72.6 percent winning ratio in the past five years, which places the club among Europe’s elite once more. Turin is finally a destination for elite players again, and Italy benefits from having at least one club competing deep into European competitions.
A decade ago, none of this seemed possible. “Looking back now, I never imagined that Juve would ever return to the top of Serie A,” says Gopal. “The current golden era is testament to the hard work of the players, chairman, directors and managers who turned Juve’s fortunes around.”
Some people will remain sceptical as part of the club’s history will be forever besmirched. In reality, however, Juventus deserve respect for returning to the summit of European football in a clean and honourable manner. The reasons for their temporary demise will always revolt passionate fans, but their fortitude in conquering a familiar mountain, from the rubble of megalomania, should be applauded long into the night.
By Ryan Ferguson @RyanFergusonHQ