“It’s a funny old thing, football”, you often hear people say. They’re right, basically, but only if the initial adjective is taken in its most inclusive of forms, i. e. odd, strange, or outright bizarre. Even ‘funnier’ still – crazier, more shameful, more rewarding, most entertaining – is the Italian variant of the game, known as Calcio.
There is of course the on- and (particularly) off-field drama which is unique to the peninsula and continuously assures tifosi that the meaning and implications of the sport go well beyond what takes place inside the stadia. This is all part of the Faustian pact that many of us sealed with Eupalla, the Goddess of Italian football conjured up by legendary writer and journalist Gianni Brera, when we took our maiden steps into the miraculous and murky world of Calcio.
This ever-present drama, of course, played its part in the story I am about to recount as well. But this, most of all, is a written rendition of that little but most remarkable piece of history that unfolded from the very end of the 2010-11 season and ended – as far as this, the first part of the narrative framework goes – on a November night in Turin, 2012.
During this time period, many of a Bianconero persuasion who signed the aforementioned pact (like Faust, little suspecting how deep the downside of this deal would be able to cut) were allowed to experience the very reason why they did so, re-discovering that the agony so often inflicted was indeed to be balanced by moments of pure, epiphanic joy once in a while.
For any casual fan or indeed, ardent supporter, of Juventus FC such as myself, the last few years have been beyond funny or bizarre. In fact, while the last 18 months have been an amazing journey following a slowly ascending and, apart for a few insignificant dips here and there, never declining rise through the different layers of the most sought after commodity of football fandom; confidence in the strength of your club. The backdrop of this rise – and the reason why it has made such a profound impact – was of course a crisis of hitherto unheard of depth.
After the wake-up call that was the defeat at the hands of Inter last Saturday, the first loss recorded by Juve in a league game in fifty matches – and only the second one to be recorded in all competition since the arrival of Antonio Conte, we should revisit the events of what turned out to be a cycle. One that hopefully is not over at that but was rather the beginning of several such runs, streaks, dreams or whatever you wish to call them.
I remember it clear as day, an early summer’s night in Copenhagen, it was a bit chilly for the season, and I had just been watching the last game of the 2010/11 season with my childhood friend (and Napoli supporter) Thorbjørn. The fixture had long been looming as a decisive one on the horizon but, as it turned out, neither side had much to play for as Napoli had already secured their place in the Champions League and the Bianconeri were only in contention for a shot at the Europa League which, frankly, few would want the club to reach given the urgency of their domestic situation.
It all ended in a 2-2 draw, in which one clearly felt that Napoli – if they had bothered – could easily have taken all three points. On my way home, riding my bike through the familiar streets of what has become my city, I tried to take stock of the situation:
“Well”, I reasoned, tentatively, “at least the lack of European football will give Antonio Conte some time to prepare properly, both pre-season and during the weeks. If everything clicks, we just might reach the Champions League next year.” I was still worried though as, for all of Conte’s obvious grinta, he was still relatively unproven, both as a top tier coach and facing adversity, coaching Atalanta for a spell, encountering both to no good end. Plus, for all their different characteristics, the ghost of the ultimately failed period under another former club legend, Ciro Ferrara, still loomed large.
“Anyway”, I mused further, still trying to dodge the red lights and come to terms with what had become a second seventh place finish in a row – the poorest back-to-back record in Bianconero history – “the mercato will prove crucial. We need more wingers if we are to adopt to Conte’s reported energy consuming 4-2-4-system…”
Little did I imagine, of course, that the game which I was heading back from would be the first in an unbeaten streak of any significant length. And had you suggested such at the time, I would not have believed you for a second. It was going to be a tough way back to the top, of that I was certain.
Then – from somewhere west of left field – came Andrea Pirlo. A player who, despite his very obvious qualities, had seemed a shadow of himself due to injury and the alleged great coaching ideas of Max Allegri (oh, how that impression would falter after the Great Milanese Wage Clear-Out was concluded, but that is quite another story…).
The arrival of the soft speaking but lethal midfield Maestro was to signal a clear-out of some magnitude in Turin too. Beppe Marotta tried to give Conte a diverse palette of players, most of them suitable, proven talent, like Arturo Vidal, Stephan Lichtsteiner and Mirko Vucinic but balanced by sought after winger Eljero Elia who never really got near the turf. There was still a bit of confusion as to how it would all pan out.
Looking back, it went rather well!
Boosted by the energy and enthusiasm of Conte and the wonderful new Juventus Stadium, the Old Lady began her newest of eras with a convincing 4-1 thrashing of Parma, the very team that defeated them in the penultimate game the season before and thus, unwittingly, became the last team to do so in 50 games.
It was not a streak at the time though and only people suffering from severe cases of very selective amnesia will be able to suppress the memories of certain games in the fall, not to mention the seemingly unending list of draws in early spring of 2012 (come on people, it’s only been nine months!) in which both personnel and tactics were debated heatedly throughout the vast Juventini diaspora. In short, while Conte was clearly building something impressive, not all was rosy. Yet the Bianconeri still did not lose games. They just didn’t. Slowly, this became fact.
As it happened, the sheer consistency of the run without defeats proved to be enough for Juve to emerge as Scudetto winners on that very emotional day in, of all places, Trieste. And, for the first time, it was only for the continuing record when the Old Lady sought a result against Atalanta at the Juventus Stadium in the last game of the season.
But even that game was only ever about one thing and one that for most transcended any one game, scudetto or streak, it was about the club and us, its fans, saying a sincere and emotional farewell to Alessandro Del Piero.
The Coppa Italia Final against Napoli could have neatly bookended the unbeaten run and, in some ways, it did as the first match to see Antonio Conte defeated since his appointment roughly one year earlier. Juve were tired and, one suspects, a bit too saturated having achieved so much more than expected already. After all, they still were undefeated in the league for over an entire season.
Oddly, or perhaps not too much so, I remember watching that game with Thorbjørn too. And, unlike the year before, feeling quite alright, even if the result was de facto worse. The slight disappointment of the Coppa defeat – and the much more profound one of not giving our Captain one last, proper send-off – slowly vanished when I rode those same streets as I did the year before, inevitably comparing the scenarios. It was a warm, early summer’s night, and I was confident, really confident. At that moment I realised how much had changed over one season and how much that change was needed.
When I got home I sat down – probably with some well-chosen stimulus at hand – breathed out to congratulate Juventus. Us, myself, with the first satisfactory season for three years, the first silverware since 2006 and the most rewarding Scudetto since, well, ever.
Soon after, we all watched Pirlo being reinstated in his rightful place as Regista King of the World at the European Championships and a beautiful Azzurri team reach the final (where the battered team would crumble to Spain in a game to forget) after obligatory great contributions from the huge contingent of Juve players. I was very proud. Proud, happy – and a bit worried. Giorgio Chiellini was injured, many squad members had been mentally and physically marked by the tournament, so few knew quite what to expect from the summer.
The mercato once again brought us all we needed except for that “Top Striker” that is almost becoming an obsession for rather good reason. Personally, I think the failure to bring in said striker was due more to a poisonous market for that exact type of player, coupled with the still very low traction of Italian football, not at all enhanced by the whole Calcio Scommesse affair.
The farcical trial surrounding Antonio Conte, ending with him punished for basically being unable to prove that a former player from his time at Siena was lying when he was making up stories about the Coach and the team. In the end a bemused world could only conclude that Conte was in no way involved in match-fixing but he was still given a four month touchline ban because…. well…. because the FIGC said so!
Consequently, the preparations for the 2012/13 season were marred by those trials and the striker rumours continuing to pour in in waves, only to evaporate one at a time until, on the last day, only a young Dane of talent and somewhat ill repute materialised in Turin, underwhelming most, infuriating some.
But the streak was still on, of course. A controversial defeat of Napoli in the Super Coppa evidenced a Juve side that was reinforced and still hungry for trophies while being capable of a fight-back with Massimo Carrera on the bench due to assistant Angelo Alessio also being given a small ban alongside Conte. Likewise, the first nine league games saw Conte’s Old Lady Mk II power through opponents with only two points dropped against a very good Fiorentina side in Florence.
At least that’s what the results suggested. Towards what would be the end of this remarkable run, there were indeed signs of breaches in the Juve armor, as the team seemed somewhat complacent at times, and had to rely on their still rather impressive fighter instinct (and in some cases, a lot of luck) to secure the results. Will had become instinct, but instinct alone is not enough.
In the Champions League, a good start against Chelsea in London was tainted by a 1-1 draw in Turin against Shakhtar Donetsk and worse still, the same result in Denmark to minnows FC Nordsjælland. Cracks were appearing, something had to give.
And so it came to pass that on the third of November, 2012 AD, the Conte-era Juventus witnessed its first ever league defeat. An in-form Nerazzurri side took advantage of the weaknesses shown by the Old Lady of late and Inter recorded a 1-3 win at Juventus Stadium, meaning that the Bianconeri also left their new fortress defeated for the first time.
Finally, everyone agreed, Conte and his men were to be truly tested and many were worried about how the team would react to this new and uncomfortable reality of having succumbed to a negative goal difference in a league game for the first time since the spring of 2011.
Judging by the reaction so far though, these worries seem as unfounded as the ones preceding Conte’s coaching debut at Juve more than a year ago. While neither FC Nordsjælland nor Pescara presented a tough test on paper, the combined score line of 10-1 and, more importantly, the re-found hunger and determination showcased in these two games bode very well for the mental soundness of this squad and its coaches.
While never a good thing in isolation, there is indeed truth to the saying that there are lessons in defeat. Maybe, just maybe, that slap in the face received at the hands of Inter was exactly what was needed to rouse Juventus and have the Old Lady utterly dominating opposition teams once more. With massively important games against Lazio, Chelsea, Milan, Torino and Shakhtar Donetsk coming up like beads on a string, every Juventino will hope that the end of this first streak under Conte simply signals the beginning of a new one…
Either way, consider it the will of Eupalla. Trust me, it’s much, much easier that way!