Illustration by Charis Tsevis
LONG BEFORE THE MODERN GAME became what it is today, an intrinsic, deep-rooted love for the lifeblood and essence of the sport was the fundamental name of the calling. Back then, players took to the pitch clad in all-black boots, shirts had over-sized collars and there were more than a few dodgy haircuts doing the rounds. But there was also a sense of genuine purity to the profession – a scaled-back beauty that now seems very much consigned to the history books.
Italy, a nation often associated with high culture, fine food and famous art, has long been at the forefront of all things cultured. And in the footballing sphere, the Azzurri have picked up an assortment of other identifying stereotypes since its official birth in the late 19th century, namely those of the uber-defensive, conventionally organised team.
Contrasting somewhat with its rich identity as a creative force in the arts, the Italians have, perhaps begrudgingly, been regarded as a champion of the defensive school. Masters in the ways of catenaccio, staunch believers in liberos and a deep-lying mindset, they’ve often been associated with a particularly austere ego.
Franco Baresi, Gaetano Scirea, Paolo Maldini, Dino Zoff – the list goes on and on; icons of the game in the boot-shaped nation have had a long history of being admired for their ability to keep other teams quiet and nullify threats.
Of course, their illustrious past didn’t start out that way. In their very first match, played in Milan on 15 May 1910, they didn’t even play in their famous blue strip, opting instead to be dressed in white. Their international opponents that day were France, whom they defeated handsomely in an eight-goal thriller with a final scoreline of 6-2. Congratulated by the fans on that notable day of delight, they received packets of cigarettes and verbal messages of thanks from the adoring crowd as payment. So, it’s far from a foundation of frugality that Italy rose.
Indeed, it’s the career of a certain free-scoring Alessandro Del Piero that is, perhaps, the biggest testament to their ability to transform, adapt and become attacking trailblazers.
Starting his football journey as a goalkeeper, it’s hard to believe that back then he was destined to become one of the greatest strikers the game has ever seen. Moving from being a disinterested custodian to an unapologetic terrorizer of them, his adaptability was one of his biggest strengths; but it’s undoubtedly his unquenchable desire that has seen him persistently outdo himself and his rivals down through the years.
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Pulling against the desires of his mother who held the belief that between the sticks was the safest position for him, he continued to push for his dream. Continuing his crusade with Padova, the striker scored his first goal as a salaried player in the white Vera-emblazoned jersey of the Biancoscudati, sporting the number 16 shirt, soon gaining a passionate following from the fans and scoring on his debut against Ternana in Serie B.
From there, with his talent clear and desire for his services mounting with both Fiorentina and AC Milan sniffing around, “Ale” was brought to Turin thanks to the intervention of club legend Giampiero Boniperti. That, in essence, was the real beginning of his world dominance. Offering him the chance to show what he could do for one of the most famous clubs in history, a fresh-faced Del Piero took the first steps towards becoming a global superstar and a national treasure.
Looking at it now, his time with the Old Lady is a real testament to his sheer love for the beautiful game. Rarely do geniuses such as himself stay with a club for as long as he did, especially in today’s modern game where money speaks volumes and romance is often forgotten.
But for 19 years, Il Pinturicchio gave everything to the black and white team, and it’s no coincidence that that is the best way to sum up his love for the club: it really was black and white. It was him and them against the rest of Europe and Italy. They believed he had what it took to make it, and he knew they were the team for him. Having invested faith in his ability at just 18 years of age, they gambled on his talents and were repaid handsomely with close to two decades of loyalty and brilliance.
A winner of eight Serie A titles (even two of the Calciopoli-scarred ones he displays proudly on his official website), one Coppa Italia, a Champions League, four Supercoppas, a Super Cup and much, much more besides, his time at the club is laden with lavish and spectacular honours.
The club’s all-time record goalscorer with 290 strikes, his effect on the Turin giants is unlikely to ever be repeated again, certainly not in the short or medium term. Not solely because of his fantastic skill, but because of the sheer longevity of his time in the industrial Italian city. While it can often be glossed over, his lengthy spell with the club remains an honourable achievement in itself. In fact, he continues to have quite the spectacular cachet among fans of the team and will always be fondly remembered for the way he defended their honour in good times and bad. He was a real champion.
Far removed from Italy’s defensive traditions, his detachment from their usual grounding is an element that has long insisted we pay his influential rise a great deal of attention. Like any great footballer, he’s not had to rely on his defining traits ahead of his track record, and that’s seen him power his way into people’s minds as a true star. Whether it was his memorable goal while still flourishing against Fiorentina back in 1994 or his superb semi-final strike against Germany en route to their World Cup win in 2006, he’s never shied away from the show-stopping moments.
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Nevertheless, his endeavours on the pitch were not without their detractions. Of course, the biggest of all will remain the Calciopoli scandal that saw two of their domestic titles rescinded due to match-fixing and corruption; dark undercurrents of the game that threatened to taint Del Piero’s thrilling achievements. Ever the puritan, he stuck with the club through thick and thin, reinstating their pedigree the only way he knew he could – by playing out of his skin as they plummeted into the depths of Italy’s second tier. And he always refused to give up those two marked Scudetti, holding them as symbols of the team’s collective efforts that can never be truly taken away from their hearts and minds.
But his fantastic displays for one of Italy’s most loved clubs could also be viewed as a shield for the entire Italian game, because without Juve rubbing shoulders with AC Milan and Inter for long, the domestic scene would’ve gone stale.
With a hefty nine-point deduction shackling them from the beginning of that season, the race was on to secure promotion from a hellish position. Shrugging off the punishment as nothing more than a minor annoyance, however, they found their way out of the doldrums to storm to their first-ever Serie B title. Along the way, Del Piero, who was one of just a handful of key performers that chose to stay, netted a remarkable 20 league goals, the tier’s top scorer. Bulleting goals past ‘keepers up and down the country, he played like a man possessed; taken control of by a more intense love for the club than ever.
Again, it was yet another apogee in his career. Arguably his defining moment, it revealed his devoted side to a much wider audience as he poured all his energy into getting the club back on track. In short, it was a Tour de Force. Having only just returned triumphantly from Germany at the World Cup, the juxtaposition of absolute elation with depressing reality must surely have been a tough pill to swallow, but the acclaimed Italian has never been one to let rough times bar him from glory, and so he soldiered on.
In truth his career is, and will always be, one of cycles. Starting off in Serie B, he returned to the very essence of his footballing roots to fight tooth and nail for his team. Time and time again, he ran circles around defenders all across the continent, making them dizzy to their very core, whether it was against Fiorentina or France. When offered the chance to have his Juventus no.10 shirt retired by the board of directors, he refused so that someone else could emulate him and breathe new life into it.
Through each of these accomplishments, the world champion has managed to continuously top up a never-ending elixir of brilliance an impressive number of times. He is a player that has always strived to perform at his best, rarely falling short of the mark. And in doing so, he’s completed a multitude of incredible feats that have ensured his place in the pantheon of greats for eternity. Prolonging his influence on the game to this day with stints at Sydney FC and the Delhi Dynamos, his class and style continue to seep through.
Having reached the very pinnacle on so many fronts, his endings are also a series of tangible beginnings in many ways. Because while it might seem a tad saccharine to suggest, it’s nigh on impossible to deny his legacy is one that will never die out.
By Trevor Murray. Follow @TrevorM90