This feature is part of The Football Italia Years
Fans of most football clubs understand what it means to never win. It is a reality that they become accustomed to over years and decades. For this embittered majority, not winning is an essential facet of the perpetual grimness that is fandom, the constant unfulfilled hope. Juventus fans are different. So dominant are the Bianconeri, so vast is their trophy collection, that those generations of fans that grew up not watching them win multiple trophies are a genuine rarity.
For concerted stretches of Italian football history, Juventus have been the controlling force. They were the first and last team to lift a record five successive Scudetti. They have more league titles – 34 – than anyone else by far. Their consistent domestic infallibility is such that it would not be entirely unreasonable to discuss restructuring calcio’s traditional big three into two separate tiers: them, then AC Milan and Internazionale.
While fans of the club are a colourful and diverse group, sprawling across Italy’s regional divides and beyond, the Juventus perceived by the rest of the world, the non-supporters, is starkly different. To the outsider, Juventus are a coldly robotic, irrepressible, monolithically successful club, one generally devoid of the romance that is losing and, subsequently, hoping. Juventus are expectant, demanding and, ultimately, effective.
And yet the concept of defeat has not always been alien to this Turinese giant. In fact, for the best part of a decade, between the mid-1980s and the mid-1990s, the club failed to secure a single title. For eight years they didn’t win, and their grip on power faltered as Milan, inspired and organised by the innovative Arrigo Sacchi and the watchful Fabio Capello, threatened to replace them atop the hierarchy. “When you learn to lose,” Journey once sung, “You’ll know what it takes to win.”
Cheesy? Absolutely. But for Juventini who experienced the 1980s and 90s, such sentiment might just resonate. For during this time their footballing worldview briefly collapsed. They learned to lose after two decades of unabated achievement. They became acquainted with the grim realities of this beautiful game as their club endured its longest period of sustained failure since the 1940s. It couldn’t last, and it wouldn’t.
Marcello Lippi had watched all of this unfold. He had witnessed the collapse of a sporting symbol, and in the summer of 1994 he would answer the panicked call of Vittorio Chiusano, then Juventus president.
Chiusano was born in Turin and had been involved with the club in some capacity since the 1960s, first as a board member, then vice-president. A lawyer of noble stock, he eventually became club president in February 1990 and set about attempting to restore the status of his beloved, wounded Vecchia Signora. He would do so primarily through the signature of reputable individuals.
He brought back Giovanni Trapattoni, a coach who had won six out of a possible 10 championships during his first spell in charge, and built an exceptional on-paper team. He broke the world transfer record twice to sign Italian icons Roberto Baggio and Gianluca Vialli, while also sealing deals for English international David Platt and German stars Jürgen Kohler and Andreas Möller. Even the less glamorous additions, including Angelo Peruzzi, Massimo Carrera, Angelo Di Livio, Antonio Conte and Fabrizio Ravanelli, added a significant qualitative sheen to the squad. But the Scudetto continued to prove elusive.
After three seasons without and with pressure ratcheting up, Trapattoni left the club. Lippi replaced him. Success was the only option, and so began the Juventus revival.
The culture of winning
Lippi gave Italian football a new aesthetic – not on the pitch, but off it. Contrasting the harsh, glowering features of Milan’s Capello, Juve’s new coach was a man of rugged good looks. With his silver-white hair, proclivity for cigars and sharp dress sense, he was cool personified. Even Sir Alex Ferguson swooned at the sight of him: “Looking into his eyes is enough to tell you that you are dealing with somebody who is in command of himself,” the fiery Scotsman wrote in his book, Managing My Life. “Those eyes are sometimes burning with seriousness, sometimes twinkling, sometimes warily assessing you – and always they are alive with intelligence.”
Apart from his ability to reduce respected peers to cold showers, Lippi was a passionate football man. His forgiving appearance, idyllic formative experiences of playing on the beach in his birthplace of Viareggio, modest playing career and succession of survival missions in early coaching forays belied a leader of unabashed ruthlessness. Irrespective of what his CV said, his mentality was that of a winner. He was perfect for Juventus.
Committed to his discipline, Lippi was ensconced in coaching from the moment his playing days came to an end. He began immediately with Sampdoria’s youth teams before working his way up Italy’s lower leagues, all the while seeking self-improvement. Like many of those who graduate from Coverciano’s school, he was unapologetically no more than a coach, with a distinct disdain for the transfer market and its growing importance in the 90s. If his employers bought him a player, he accepted full responsibility for said player’s development regardless of his quality or suitability. However, while he worked tirelessly to build teams, he was also unafraid to interject whenever he felt the need to.
Lippi was known for maintaining close relations with his players. For the overwhelming majority, this wasn’t an issue. But for certain individuals the coach’s proximity proved troublesome. And, when the relationship between Lippi and one of his players became fractious, it didn’t always recover. He would, on numerous occasions, defy some of the greatest footballers in the world, all on the firm principle that if it didn’t suit the team, it didn’t suit him.
“With football being the way it is today, having an open dialogue with your players is crucial,” he would later tell Gianluca Vialli, who played under him at Juventus, in Vialli’s book, The Italian Job. “I speak to them often and I have to say it really does enrich me in so many ways: culturally, tactically, technically, socially … these are the things which improve a manager.”
Roberto Baggio didn’t take too well to Lippi’s form of man-management. Injuries ensured the pair’s first year together at Juventus was also their last; Lippi took the opportunity to bring through Alessandro Del Piero and Baggio was moved on to Milan in 1995. The duo would eventually be reunited at Internazionale, but the player was taken aback by the intimate nature of his coach’s demands. “Practically, he asked me to be a spy,” Baggio affirmed in his autobiography, A Goal In The Sky. “I had never done this in my entire career, and I told him very clearly, ‘Coach, I will help you in all ways, but don’t ask me to name names.’ Lippi did not take this too well.”
Christian Vieri was another to experience the less digestible aspect of the openness with which Lippi led his teams, though unlike Baggio he came through it to flourish. A tall, strong, single-minded and lethal finisher, Vieri was nonetheless susceptible to criticism. And, with Juventus drawing 0-0 at half-time in an away game against Atalanta during the 1996/97 campaign, the striker, angered by negative feedback, almost came to blows with his coach in the dressing room only to be separated by team-mates.
Vieri would take a few weeks out on the substitute’s bench before returning to the side. And, while he was sold after just one year in black and white, this had nothing to do with his relationship with Lippi – the pair saw eye to eye following their clash and would become friends in later years. Rather, Vieri was allowed to go as it was felt that the financial possibilities of selling him outweighed the need to retain him.
This was typical of Juventus’ overarching strategy as the 1990s wore on, a strategy infused with a surprising asceticism. Players were assets as much as they were footballers, and the minute their value peaked or began to drop they were considered saleable. Paulo Sousa came to understand this model personally when, in 1996, after two years of graft and precision passing, he was shuffled off to Borussia Dortmund. When later asked about the reason behind his leaving Juventus, the Portuguese remarked: “Because they didn’t believe in my quality any more. I picked up a knee problem, and they believed that I could no longer achieve the same high levels.”
Some coaches would have struggled to work in such an environment, where talent could be stripped from their squad and replaced by men in suits higher up the chain of command. Fortunately for Juventus, Lippi, the purest of coaches, was unconcerned by such a policy. He concentrated solely on training, devising, nurturing and discussing. And, in the process, he moulded one of the most gloriously efficient football teams of all time.
The science of winning
Calcio underwent real change at around the time Lippi entered coaching. Perhaps aided by the attempts of Corrado Viciani and Tommaso Maestrelli to institute Dutch-style Total Football in the 1960s and 1970s with Ternana and Lazio respectively, Italian football gradually began to wean itself off of Catenaccio, something which often dictated that the luxury of fielding one fantasista meant sacrificing the creativity of all other players.
With zonal marking coming into fashion, an increasing systematisation was seen on Italy’s pitches throughout the 1980s and 90s. Before, defence and attack had been compartmentalised; now it was incumbent upon the team as a whole to share responsibility for each established phase and everything in-between. This basic theory was ingrained within Lippi’s philosophy.
In terms of formation, he was adaptable. More emphasis was placed on the harmony of the team, mentally and tactically. In his book, A Game of Ideas: Thoughts and Passions from the Sidelines, Lippi focused on team spirit and togetherness. His emphasis on cohesion was something that underpinned his coaching career, though it shone through particularly at Juventus.
Principles of play came first, but Lippi would ensure the system suited the players available to him. Thus, when he arrived at the Stadio delle Alpi and was met with four forwards of high calibre in Del Piero, Baggio, Ravanelli and Vialli, he set about implementing a formation that could maximise the immense attacking qualities at his disposal.
Over his first two seasons with Juventus, Lippi primarily used a 4-3-3 system with a front three that comprised Vialli, Ravanelli and one of Baggio or Del Piero. The notion of starting with three out-and-out attackers was unusual, but the players paid an important tactical price for their inclusion. “We had to work harder, both mentally and physically (when you’re one of three forwards, you have to run that much more to help out the midfield),” Vialli recollected in his book.
The front three were heavily involved in Juventus’ defensive phase, ceaselessly pressing opposition back lines. And they were backed up in this respect by a midfield trident of unparalleled vigour that often featured Sousa, the voracious Conte and the intelligent Didier Deschamps. Lippi, through astute man-management and tactical scheming, was able to marry function and flair to devastating effect.
There was no stopping this Juventus machine; setbacks only seemed to galvanise the team. A 2-0 defeat away to Foggia in the sixth match of the 1994/95 Serie A season was met with a resurgence in form as six consecutive wins kept them in the title race. Even tragedy couldn’t halt their progress.
Andrea Fortunato, a talented 23-year-old left-back who had joined the club under Trapattoni’s auspices, was diagnosed with leukaemia in May 1994. He recovered initially and returned to the first team only to catch pneumonia and pass away, much too young, on 25 April 1995. Juve’s next league game came against Fiorentina four days later. And, while loathed rivals, fans and players on both sides came together to pay tribute to Fortunato before kick-off. Lippi’s side won 4-1 and went on to win their first Scudetto for eight years. The title was dedicated to Fortunato.
Juventus would fail to keep hold of the league in Lippi’s second term at the helm, but they would win Champions League through a penalty shoot-out victory over Louis van Gaal’s Ajax having already seen off Dortmund and Real Madrid.
The three striker set-up was abandoned for the 1996/97 campaign, but Lippi’s flexibility came to the fore once again. Juventus beat off heavy competition to land French playmaker Zinedine Zidane in the summer of ‘96, and the system had to change to suit the arrival of one of football’s prized artists. Out went the 4-3-3 in favour of a 4-3-1-2 that saw Zidane operate behind a strike duet made up of Del Piero and one of Vieri, Alen Bokšić and Michele Padovano.
Despite the nominal change, the themes of Lippi’s side remained the same. He wanted all players to be involved at all times, a true team cohesion meaning the attackers couldn’t merely attack. And, in his search for balance, he was helped by defensive reinforcements as gritty Uruguayan Paolo Montero, the wholehearted Mark Iuliano and the versatile Gianluca Pessotto arrived to join the resolute Ciro Ferrara, who had followed Lippi from Napoli.
While Juventus would fail to retain the Champions League in 1997, losing 3-1 to Dortmund in a final that saw Zidane stifled by sheer defensive numbers, they would seize almost every other piece of silverware they could get their hands on, including another league, the European Super Cup and the Intercontinental Cup.
Despite ushering in an astonishing period of success, Lippi was ever-calculating. Recognising the abundance of classy defenders at his disposal he turned away from a back four, experimenting with a dynamic 3-4-1-2 shape in the 1997/98 season. This alteration enabled him to use three of Montero, Ferrara, Iuliano and Moreno Torricelli, with Di Livio and Pessotto as wing-backs, while retaining Zidane’s position behind a front two, which now also featured Filippo Inzaghi.
The decision was a brave one, but it paid dividends. Juventus reached a third consecutive Champions League final, where they lost 1-0 to Real Madrid, and won a second straight Scudetto, beating an expensively assembled Inter side to the title.
The legacy of winning
A coach of constant progress, Lippi had little time for premature nostalgia, instead using trophies to sharpen his focus. In the aftermath of the 1996 Intercontinental Cup victory over River Plate, he had eschewed dewy-eyed emotion in favour of realism. “I remember turning to the bench, to [assistant coach Narciso] Pezzotti and my other staff members and saying that a new cycle starts now,” he would later reminisce. “I’m not a big fan of celebrations anyway. I prefer the day before the game to the evening after.”
This summed up Lippi’s approach throughout his time with Juventus in the 1990s. Results, far from comforting him, spurred him on to affect greater improvement. A club besotted with success had appointed a coach who knew how to achieve it but didn’t let it soften his resolve. As a tactician, a motivator and a manager of footballers, Lippi could not have been better suited to the task at hand. At times, however, dark clouds would hang over the achievements of his Juventus.
The Calciopoli scandal brought to light the dark cobweb of influence Bianconeri managing director Luciano Moggi had weaved since arriving at the club in 1994. But, as John Foot asserts in Calcio: A History of Italian Football, “The Moggi system was not omnipotent.” And, for those questioning the authenticity of Lippi’s domestic achievements during this time, it’s worth considering the fact that the aforementioned system also involved other clubs.
There were also the allegations levelled by Zdeněk Zeman in 1998, with the Czech suggesting that Juventus, as well as others, were involved in doping. Subsequently, club doctor Riccardo Agricola would be handed a 22-month suspended sentence in November 2004. However, it’s worth noting that Zeman’s comments seemed to point towards a wider issue within Italian football as opposed to some Juventus-specific problem.
Suspicion is part and parcel of winning within the paranoid world of Italian football, and Lippi’s Juventus were never quite able to fully escape the speculation. However, on top of his side’s appearing in three successive Champions League finals, perhaps the greatest indicator of his exact importance to the club’s performance in the 1990s came following his departure in February 1999 following a run of poor results. Juventus finished the 1998-99 campaign in a deeply disappointing seventh place and wouldn’t win the Scudetto again until 2002, by which point Lippi was back in charge.
While he enjoyed a second trophy-laden spell with the club, Lippi’s first era was definitively his best. It was during this time that he re-established a fast-fading force not only as the finest in Italy, but as one of the best in the world. He took a club growing unused to winning and shook it to its foundations, dragging it back into the spotlight. He took a group of players and forged a team from them. He took a team and made them a spectacular winning machine. He made them Juventus again.
By Blair Newman @TheBlairNewman