Joe Leavey1 Comment

JUVENTUS, ITALY AND THE CHAMPIONS LEAGUE NARRATIVE

Joe Leavey1 Comment
JUVENTUS, ITALY AND THE CHAMPIONS LEAGUE NARRATIVE

On Saturday 8th June in Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium, Italy’s most domestically successful club, Juventus, will compete against Real Madrid in their eighth European Cup final. Despite their record 33 Serie A titles since their inception in 1897 — rivalled only by Madrid in Europe’s top five leagues — their struggles in Europe’s premier competition are clear.

La Vecchia Signora (The Old Lady) have lost in a record six finals, and have contested the deciding fixture on more occasions than Liverpool, Ajax and Manchester United, all of whom have won the competition more times than Juve. Furthermore, the tragic events of the final of the 1984-85 competition at Heysel stadium in Brussels — in which 39 supporters were killed after a combination of lax security measures, ageing infrastructure and crowd troubles led to clashes between Juventus and Liverpool fans, resulting in the collapse of a stadium wall — led many to declare the result (a 1-0 victory for Juve thanks to a Michel Platini penalty) void, meaning that many believe Juve only has one European Cup victory to its name. I Bianconeri (The White and Blacks) lost out to Barcelona in their last attempt in a comfortable 3-1 win for the Spanish side, after Juve toppled Madrid over two legs in the semi-final. No other club has lost in six finals, not even the oft-cited Benfica, who are supposedly suffering from the curse of Bela Guttmann, giving Juve an unwanted record in European club football. 

It is not primarily for their lack of success, however, that Juve have been adopted as the neutral’s favourite going into this final. Their opponents, Real Madrid, are aiming to become the first club since Arrigo Sacchi’s AC Milan in the early 1990s to retain the European Cup, and have lifted the trophy a record 11 times, whilst only losing in the final on three occasions. Madrid, under the presidency of Florentino Pérez for the second time, have built another team of Galácticos, after the first in the early noughties, spending unprecedented amounts of money on stars such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and James Rodríguez. The famous front three of Madrid — Bale, Ronaldo and Karim Benzema — will come up against the much celebrated battle-hardened backline of Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli in the centre, with Alex Sandro and Dani Alves at wing-back, a defence that has conceded only one goal from open play throughout the entire competition up to this stage. Juve’s miserly record at the back in this seasons Champions League is complemented perfectly by great attacking talent, something that is often disregarded in the widespread praise for Barzagli, Bonucci and Chiellini. Former Madridista Gonzalo Higuaín scored twice in Juve’s 2-0 away win at Monaco in the first leg of their semi-final, whilst his young compatriot Paulo Dybala was outstanding in their first leg quarter-final rout of Barcelona, grabbing two goals early on in a 3-0 victory. This combination of attacking prowess and defensive solidity has many fans tipping Juventus to continue their run into the final against Madrid. 

The David-vs-Goliath narrative that is often spun around finals featuring Madrid, something that was prevalent in their two defeats of local rivals Atletico Madrid in recent years, will surely be applied again in this case. The pantomime villains of Real, whose outstanding European pedigree, along with their unparalleled financial clout, has lead many to favour the Turin side over Zinedine Zidane’s Galácticos. However, many in Italy would hesitate to agree. Juventus, as mentioned earlier, have had unparalleled domestic success over the history of Serie A, winning 33 titles (with the most recent being won this season, their sixth in a row), 15 more than their Milanese rivals, both of whom currently sit on 18 league wins, and amounting to nearly 1/3rd of all Serie A seasons in which Juve have come out victorious. In terms of financial muscle, Juve are by far the most powerful team in the land. Backed by the founders of Fiat, the Agnelli family, since 1923, Juventus have always been able to afford the biggest stars in world football. When combined with their dominant position at the head of Italian football in terms of domestic silverware, Juve are able, much like Bayern Munich in Germany, to hoover up the best talent in Serie A. Juventus have broken the world transfer record four times, buying Omar Sivori in 1957, Pietro Anastasi in 1968 (the first £500,000 player), Roberto Baggio in 1990 and Gianluca Vialli in 1992. All but Sivori were signed from other Serie A clubs. In more modern times, Juve have spent big on players such as Gonzalo Higuain (from Napoli) and Paulo Dybala (from Palermo). 

A combination of these two factors — domestic dominance, and financial power — has led to an almost universal hatred of Juve in Italian football. John Foot, in his excellent book Calcio: A History of Italian Football writes of the practice of Gufare: to support the opponents of a rival team, better translated as againstism. This is perhaps a recognisable phenomenon amongst football fans globally, but it is taken to the extreme in Italy, so much so that the aforementioned Vialli publicly admitted that he had supported Brazil in the final of World Cup ’94, against Italy, due to his hatred of national team manager Arrigo Sacchi. Foot writes that ‘anti-Juventus feelings are particularly strong. This is a team that has won too much, and inspires jealousy and bitterness in equal measures’. There were, therefore, celebrations across Italy when Juventus were relegated to Serie B in 2006 (for the first time in their history) as punishment for the Calciopoli scandal. More shockingly, the Heysel disaster prompted fans of local rivals Torino to morbidly celebrate the deaths of the 39 Juventus supporters with banners and chants, responding to similar acts by Juventus ultra, who regularly distastefully commemorate the 1949 Superga air disaster, which killed the majority of Torino’s greatest ever side. Another reaction against Juve’s mastery over Serie A is the referral to both the team and its fans as i gobbi (the hunchbacks), which is considered to be a lucky symbol in Italy. The nickname is intended to degrade Juve’s successes by attributing them merely to luck. Foot notes that ‘in Florence you can buy stickers which read: zone anti-gobbizzata — ‘hunchback-free zone’, in reference to the moniker (the Viola’s particular hatred of Juve was compounded by the aforementioned and abrupt transfer of their beloved Baggio to Juve in 1990). 

For the majority of those tuning in for the culmination of the 62nd European Cup (and the 25th season of the Champions League) across the world, surely the prospect of a Juventus win will be preferable. They are the underdogs in terms of European pedigree, whilst Madrid have achieved almost unfair levels of success and are often, as a result, painted as the pantomime villains of club football worldwide. Furthermore, other narratives will play into Juve’s draw for the neutral fan, most notably the fact that legendary goalkeeper Gigi Buffon has never won the Champions League in his 22 year career, a trophy notable in its absence in his otherwise resplendent trophy cabinet. Despite these tales of footballing romance almost all of Italy’s football fans, other than supporters of Juve, will be backing Madrid this Saturday evening for markedly similar reasons that many across the world will chose Juve. For them a Real Madrid victory will represent, however, not a win for Goliath, but his defeat. Juventus have dominated Italian football almost since its birth, and many Italian fans will be channeling feelings of gufare when hoping that the team who have everything, in a domestic sense, will once again fall at the last hurdle in Europe’s showpiece final, a loss that would, however temporarily, reduce Juventus to the status of all the Italian sides who have suffered similar fates at the hands of La Vecchia Signora over the years.

By Joe Leavey. Full header image credit goes to skalka7.

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