Truly one of the great love stories in the game
On the 25th March 2012, Alessandro Del Piero scored his 288th goal for Juventus. The diminutive forward wheeled off and celebrated as if he was a novice to the art of goalscoring, performing his traditional celebration; tongue out of mouth with an almost crazed look on his face, running towards a section of the adoring Juventus’ public.
Del Piero’s latest goal came in the 71st minute of a tight, well-contested affair. With Juventus leading 1-0, a win was vital for Antonio Conte’s side in order for them to maintain their push for a first Scudetto since 2003. Inter Milan’s continued threat going forward served only to augment Juventus nerves. Cue Conte, a former teammate of Del Piero, to bring the forward off the bench and deliver some calm to Juventus’ play and experience in the closing stages of the game, and maybe even a second goal to seal three vital points.
As the ball arrived at the feet of Andrea Pirlo, another highly revered Italian, who for over a decade has never lost the myriad of creative talents that he has been blessed with, anticipation in the stadium grew. Pirlo squared the ball to Arturo Vidal, and the Chilean, after composing himself, waited for the right moment before playing a beautiful through ball to Del Piero, who, with a measured swing of that old, transcendent right foot of his, caressed the ball into the net.
It wasn’t a typical goal. That’s ‘Il Pinturicchio’ doesn’t score typical goals. If you were to watch a compilation of his career goals, you’d notice the variation in them. Famed and revered for his technique on set pieces, Del Piero has also provided spectators with an array of classic finishes that have left people on the brink of running out of superlatives, and acting quick to piece them together in order to create videos for current and future generations to enjoy.
The story of Del Piero began in 1974, in Conegliano, a town of the Veneto region, in the province of Treviso. His father was an electrician, his mother a housekeeper. His brother, Stefano, briefly tasted professional football with Sampdoria, before injury curtailed his ambitions in the game. Just like with his sibling, Alessandro also desired to become a professional footballer. He began playing with his local side, San Vendemiano, before being spotted by scouts in 1988 – at the age of 13.
Those scouts were representing Padova, and soon ADP would be moving across Northern Italy to a new home. The Del Piero career wheels had been set in motion, and he had now reached the first significant milestone not just in his football career, but in his life.
He says of the move:
‘San Vedimiano is only 77 kilometres far from Padova, but for me it seemed to be a long long journey. Now when I think back, I realize that those 77 kilometers were the exact distance between the child I no longer was and the man I was becoming.’
At Padova, Del Piero worked his way through the youth set up, not only at club level, but also at national. On the 15th May 1992, ADP reached his next two major career milestones: his professional debut, and his first professional goal (the only goal in his professional career that hasn’t been scored whilst wearing the Juventus shirt) in a 5-1 win over Messina.
Del Piero’s impact at Padova hadn’t gone unnoticed elsewhere; in fact, it was quite the opposite. Serie A giants Milan and Fiorentina had registered their interest in the young star, as well as Juventus. The Turin club’s desire in signing a young Del Piero was obvious and their vision was prudent. Soon they were to complete arguably the most important signing in the club’s history.
‘On the 28th of June, 1993 I signed my future: black on white, black and white forever.’
It would be a just claim to say that Del Piero and Juventus haven’t looked back since that day in June. A beautiful relationship was formed nearly two decades ago, one that has withstood many ordeals and continued to blossom. Just like with lovers in famous literature that have engrossed readers for many years, Del Piero and Juventus’ romance is the football purist’s idea of Shakespeare.
Right from the start of his Juventus career, ADP was associating himself with extraordinary characters. In his first full season at the Stadio Delle Alpi, he would be working with luminaries in the Italian game, such as coach Marcello Lippi, Roberto Baggio, Gianluca Vialli and Fabrizio Ravanelli. It was with this talent that Juventus won their first Scudetto in nine years, as well as the Italian cup.
The following season, Juventus and Del Piero achieved their greatest feat, winning the UEFA Champions League in the Italian capital, against Ajax. The match itself was a nail biter: 1-1 after extra time, before Juve won 4-2 on penalties. Del Piero describes the win vividly, as being:
‘One of those nights, that seems to be unique and never to be repeated in one’s life, because it’s impossible to be happier.’
Del Piero’s impact on Juventus strengthened over the following years, the success would continue, both personally and for the team. His side would go onto win the Scudetto in 1997, and the following year, Del Piero enjoyed arguably his best season, returning with 21 Serie A goals, and 10 in the Champions League, as Lippi’s men tasted domestic success once again. The season’s climax didn’t go to plan however, as a 1-0 Champions League final defeat to Real Madrid in Amsterdam meant that the Turin club had lost successive finals in Europe’s premier club competition, following 1997’s defeat to Borussia Dortmund in Munich. Along with 2003’s final defeat on penalties to AC Milan, Del Piero has played in four Champions League finals, winning just one.
The mental anguish of losing in 1998 would be replaced with physical anguish in 1999, when Del Piero suffered a serious knee injury against Udinese, a moment he refers to as being ‘the watershed of my career.’ The severity of the injury would rule him out for the remainder of the season. The impact his absence had on Juve was clear – the ’97 and ’98 Serie A champions could only finish 1999 in sixth. Despite not being able to appear in the Juve shirt for so long, the fans still eulogized the man they nicknamed ‘Il Fenomeno Vero’, meaning ‘The Real Phenomenon’, an epithet they gave him when fans of Internazionale referred to another great, Ronaldo, as ‘The Phenomenon.’
Del Piero wouldn’t win the Scudetto again until 2002. Reunited with Marcello Lippi, as well as having a plethora of talent including Thuram, Buffon and Nedved to play alongside, league victory was secured after the most dramatic climax to a Serie A season.
With Inter needing only a point to be champions, they managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory after losing to Lazio 4-2, allowing Juve to overtake them with a 2-0 win away to Udinese – the setting of Del Piero’s knee injury three years earlier – with the great man scoring the second goal.
Del Piero says of this day:
‘Fifthofmay has become one word, the almost historical date to be remembered by all Juventus supporters and by me as well.’
The following season would also result in domestic success; a 27th league title, and a fifth for ADP. However, defeat in the Champions League final in Manchester to Milan marred what was an otherwise successful season for Del Piero and his team.
‘All this is sport, glorious moments and then, slaps in the face that hurt, like those failed penalties against Milan. Another Final lost.’
In 2006 Del Piero’s football career would reach the highest peak possible, and later descend to an unthinkable low. The year began in record breaking fashion – his hat-trick against Fiorentina in the Coppa Italia meant that Alessandro Del Piero became Juventus’ all time greatest goal scorer, surpassing Giampiero Boniperti’s haul of 182 goals.
Juve would go onto win another Serie A that season. Victory against Bari sealed the Scudetto, although the knowledge that the club was being investigated for match-fixing created a cloud that loomed large. Of this period and more specifically the Scudetto win, Del Piero says:
‘We already knew that the world was crumbling all around us, but we also knew that we earned the celebration, sweating hard to win on the pitch. And it has to be really clear: my team- mates and I won those scudetti, playing and fighting for them on the pitch. Full stop.’
The succeeding months really define Del Piero as the man he is: a winner, a fighter and a hero. Italy entered the 2006 World Cup in Germany as outsiders. The Azzurri were far from emphatic in making their way to the semi finals. It was in Dortmund however, against Germany, where the world would sit up and pay attention. The match itself finished 0-0 after 90 minutes, but it was a 0-0 full of drama, suspense, action and passion. In extra time, Fabio Grosso put the Italians ahead, before Del Piero – on as a second half substitute – scored a wonderful goal to clinch his side’s place in the final.
On to Berlin. In what would normally be considered a rather unspectacular match, the game’s main talking point was, of course, that headbutt. However, there was still a cup to be one, a new world champion to be found. After a 1-1 draw, the two teams had to be separated with penalties. Italy would win the shoot-out 5-3, with Del Piero scoring the fourth spot kick. So there it was. Del Piero had now won all there was to win. An already glittering career now had the addition of football’s greatest prize to it.
And then back down to earth, with more than a bump. Juve had been demoted to Serie B, with, upon appeal, a point deduction of 17. Cue a mass exodus of some of the club’s prize assets, including Vieira, Thuram and Ibrahimovic. Staying in the black and white shirt however, would be the likes of Nedved, Buffon, and of course, Del Piero.
‘My bond with Juventus is very strong. I have a love for this team that goes further than many things.’
Juventus achieved promotion back to Serie A in 2007, and since then Del Piero has continued to show his class on numerous occasions, such as winning the title of the league’s top scorer, or capocannonieri, in 2008, and by becoming Juventus’ all time top appearance maker. He currently has 714 appearances to his name. Outside of the game, he has continued to use his fame, and money, in assisting the work of cancer research; a service for which he has been recognised for in Italy.
Footballer, philanthropist, role model and family man. Connotations held by the name Alessandro Del Piero. His future in football remains uncertain; his enduring legacy is set in concrete. His career maybe drawing to a close, but what he has provided to football fans everywhere, is something that is appreciated and remembered. Italy great Arrigo Sacchi puts it perfectly, when he says of Del Piero:
‘He is the fortune of all of us and of the world sport.’
To follow David on Twitter and read more of his work, click here