The footballing fairy tale of Juventus cult hero Moreno Torricelli

The footballing fairy tale of Juventus cult hero Moreno Torricelli

With a minute left of the 1996 Champions League final, only one result remained beyond question. Despite a field brimming with attacking talent, Juventus’ rampaging full-back had been the undisputed man of the match. In a 90 minute display frothing with aggression and sinew, his lung-busting forays had subdued the Ajax attack almost single-handedly, his flowing black hair making him instantly recognisable. Nobody was surprised when his name was blasted from the stadium loudspeakers; what was more surprising, though, was that the 26-year-old was just four years into his professional career.

Moreno Torricelli was born into a working-class family in Erba, on 23 January 1970. Growing up in nearby Inverigo, he quickly learned the virtue of hard graft, watching his father work long hours in his job as a truck driver. Whilst his older brother studied for exams and university, the younger Torricelli eschewed books in favour of more athletic pursuits, joining junior side Thunderbolt Brianza when he was aged just eight. As he reached his teens, Serie A side Como invited him to play in a local youth championship. Despite his impressive stamina and energy, the Lariani remained unconvinced, and Torricelli’s professional career looked finished before his 16th birthday.

Undeterred, the youngster secured a job at a local furniture factory, earning a modest living as a carpenter in order to supplement his indefatigable passion for the game. When they weren’t being spent on the latest Black Sabbath cassettes, Torricelli’s meagre income augmented his travel to and from the training grounds of amateurs Folgore and Oggiono, before he eventually signed for semi-professional side Caratese as an eager 20-year-old in 1990.

The Lombardy club was managed by Roberto Antonelli, and it was the Milan legend who first spotted Torricelli’s potential as an athletic full-back.  Soon his industry and enthusiasm invited overtures from bigger clubs, with Verona and Pro Vercelli sniffing around, but his fate was sealed after Juventus legend Claudio Gentile witnessed one of his typically whole-hearted performances.  Gentile, who was halfway through a stint as sporting director of local side Calcio Lecco, was so impressed that he personally recommended Torricelli to Bianconeri boss Giovanni Trapattoni.

A little later, the Old Lady invited Torricelli to appear in a series of summer friendlies, filling in for senior squad members who were attending a tournament in the United States to promote the forthcoming World Cup. As the unknown trialist bombarded the right touchline with the abandon of a warring Apache, Giovanni Trapattoni was instantly besotted. A few days later, Torricelli received a telegram inviting him for a trial at Juve’s pre-season training camp. Flabbergasted, he asked for a month’s leave from his job in order to accept the offer, knowing little that it would be his last appearance on the factory floor.

Two friendly appearances were enough to spur Trapattoni into action, with Caratese gratefully accepting a bid of 50 million lira for Torricelli’s services. Within a month, he had gone from training with colleagues in his spare time to working with world-class footballers, but it was a transition that he faced with typical resolve and determination. His case was helped by his new team-mates, who were enamoured with his application and evident hunger in training. They welcomed him warmly, with Roberto Baggio even bestowing the playful nickname ‘Geppeto‘ as a reference to his furniture-making roots. Torricelli would carve a place in the starting line-up almost immediately, making his Serie A debut on 13 September 1992 in a scorching 4-1 victory over Atalanta.

So began a footballing romance that would last the best part of a decade. Torricelli took his chance immediately, quickly becoming an ever-present in the side, with his committed displays earning acclaim from the Juventus fans. A laid back character off the pitch, he enjoyed a natural rapport with his Milanese coach, whose tactical nous added discipline and rigour to his rampant physical gifts. As he cemented his place at right-back, the Torinese secured a fine UEFA Cup victory against Borussia Dortmund, only for domestic success to elude them.

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Vittorio Chiusano had inherited the Juventus presidency from the iconic Giampiero Boniperti in 1990, but as the Turin side struggled, their neighbours in the red half of Milan were launched into the stratosphere. Bankrolled by media mogul Silvio Berlusconi, the Milanisti had already secured European glory and seemed intent on building a renewed dynasty at the San Siro, winning three consecutive Serie A titles. With  Juventus in danger of falling further behind, the owning Agnelli family took drastic action, handing over the running of the club to a new management team under the auspices of sporting director Luciano Moggi.

Abetted by Roberto Bettega and Antonio Giraudo, Moggi relieved Trapattoni of his duties, replacing him with the sanguine and cigar-puffing Marcello Lippi. The new coach wasted no time in laying the foundations for a leaner, hungrier side, signing the likes of Didier Deschamps and Ciro Ferrara as Juventus looked to wrestle back domestic supremacy from their rivals.

For Torricelli, however, the departure from Chiusano’s more collegiate style proved difficult. The right-back found himself at odds with his new coach, whose unflinching oversight and meticulous management rankled with the squad’s established stars. It was too much for some – Roberto Baggio, the club’s top scorer, left shortly after Lippi’s arrival. For a while, it seemed as though Torricelli would follow suit after a confrontation over his penchant for cigarettes nearly became physical. Eventually he was persuaded to stay, and in doing so would make the greatest decision of his sporting life.

Under the guise of their new manager, Juventus won the Scudetto in stunning fashion, with a domestic double secured after victory over Parma in the Coppa Italia. It was the following year, however, where Lippi would take his place as perhaps the club’s greatest ever manager.

During the previous year, an irresistible Ajax had captured the European Cup in Vienna courtesy of Patrick Kluivert’s late winner against Milan. Rome was the venue for what most commentators thought would be another coronation, with Juventus widely expected to crumble under the weight of the Amsterdammer onslaught. Lippi’s side had made fair weather of their route to the final, dispatching Real Madrid and Nantes on the way to the showpiece, but they would keep their best performance for the Stadio Olimipico on 22 May. Lippi’s  charges clipped the wings of Louis van Gaal’s flying Dutchmen, with Torricelli’s heroic defending the catalyst for the club’s first European Cup triumph in 11 years.

The next season saw Juventus strengthen further, with the arrivals of Paolo Montero and Zinedine Zidane prompting consecutive silver medals in the Champions League. Faced with increasing competition from Angelo Di Livio and Gianluca Pessotto, Torricelli’s position in the team became less assured. His case was weakened further when he suffered a rupture of his anterior cruciate ligament in 1997. Nevertheless, he recovered to make a vital contribution as Juventus secured another two league titles, as well as the Intercontinental and European Super Cup.

‘Utility player’ is perhaps one of the more loaded positions in the footballing lexicon. It suggests reliability at the expense of talent, a dependable deputy rather than an undisputed starter. Torricelli was unique because, rather than being a weak link, he contributed in a variety of roles across the defence and midfield without a resulting sacrifice of quality. Whilst his appearances on the pitch declined towards the end of Lippi’s reign, the fervour and stamina of his displays remained constant, and he remained a most able lieutenant for the squad. In 1998, however, his desire for first time football led him to seek a transfer away from the Stadio Delle Alpi, with rumours rife that English club Middlesbrough were preparing a bid.

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Alberto Malesani had just been relieved of his duties at Fiorentina, with the club appointing Trapattoni as his successor at the Artemio Franchi. Faced with a choice between Teesside and Florence, Torricelli inexplicably chose the latter, jumping at the chance of a sporting reunion with the man who had done so much to kick-start his footballing career. Aided by the captures of Guillermo Amor, Jörg Heinrich and Francesco Toldo, La Viola launched a sustained assault for the title, securing third place and a qualifying spot for the group stages of the Champions League.

The sale of Gabriel Batistuta to Roma in 2000, however, heralded the beginning of a tortuous decline that put paid to Fiorentina’s sporting ambitions. Under the calamitous and erratic leadership of Vittorio Cecchi Gori, the club went bankrupt in 2001. Unable to pay their considerable debts, they were effectively liquidated a few years later.

Torricelli, despairing at the amateurish governance within the club and unwilling to spend the twilight of his career in the footballing doldrums, secured a transfer to Espanyol in January 2003.  He was solid if unspectacular in Barcelona, helping Los Periquitos stave off relegation before retiring in 2005 after a short spell in Serie B with minnows Arezzo.

With the denouement of his playing days, Torricelli began his professional coaching career in the winter of 2009, and almost succeeded in saving third-tier side Pistoiese from relegation. His brief but impressive tenure saw him appointed as coach of another Tuscan club in Figline, but his burgeoning management would soon be cut short in the most tragic of circumstances.

Cancer had already extracted a heavy cost from Torricelli, who had lost his close friend and Juventus colleague Andrea Fortunato to leukaemia in 1994, when he was aged just 23. This time it struck far closer to home, when his wife was also diagnosed with terminal illness. Tragically she died in 2010, and Torricelli withdrew from the game to concentrate on the welfare of his three children.

In recent years, Torricelli has divided his focus between raising his family and coaching the youngsters of a small town in the north-west of Italy. With its population of 500, Lillianes seems a perfect destination for a man who rose from obscurity to the greatest heights of the game, through nothing more complicated than a quiet and persistent confidence in his abilities. Even today his example remains as a beacon to young players everywhere: if you believe in yourself and make the most of your qualities, then there is truly no limit to what you can achieve on a football field.

While life may have been cruel to Moreno Torricelli on a personal level, his contribution to the history of Juventus and Fiorentina remains beyond question. He was a player who gave his heart in every game, and he has earned a rightful place amongst the greats of Italian football. His story is a true footballing fairytale.

By Christopher Weir @chrisw45

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