So many times we have gone to a match and seen a late cameo from a youth team player, coming on as a substitute as the game fades away towards the full-time whistle. Some are instantly forgettable, others score goals on what may be their only appearance for the club, instantly making them an obscure answer to a quiz question years down the line. In today’s climate of hyperbole and exaggeration, they also often have overblown reputations with little basis in reality, resulting in them getting crushed by the weight of such expectation.
Looking back to a late September day of some nineteen years ago, many could have held that same view when a scrawny 18 year-old with a huge mop of hair scored on his home debut, after coming on with Juventus leading 3-0 against Reggiana. Replacing Fabrizio Ravanelli, he netted within a minute of stepping onto the field yet he too had been touted as the ‘next big thing’, a talented wunderkind that would take Italian football by storm. Nobody among the crowd at the Stadio delle Alpi that afternoon could know that they were witnessing history, present to see the tentative first steps of the legend Alessandro Del Piero would become.
Soon came his first start, marked with a hat-trick which would only serve to enhance a rapidly-growing reputation, then a goal that made a wider audience sit up and pay attention: a sublime volley against rivals Fiorentina to announce his arrival as a genuine talent. What followed after could never have been foretold as that same youngster became an idol, leading us, his fans, on a wonderful journey of titles and records, triumphant victories and heart-breaking injury, of relegation and resurrection.
Throughout it all, he often spoke to us – through press conferences and interviews – with a remarkably captivating use of words, which made those listening feel as though he was talking to us intimately. His use of language, particularly in written statements – such as the letter which followed his decision to remain with Juventus no matter what happened in the Calciopoli trial – tugged at the heartstrings, often perfectly capturing the thoughts and feelings of all those who hold the Bianconeri dearest.
It is therefore, no surprise to find Del Piero’s newest book – written with the help of La Repubblica journalist Maurizio Crosetti and entitled ‘Giochiamo Ancora’ (‘Let’s Keep Playing’) – follow in very much the same manner. It is far from the traditional footballer’s autobiography: stories from the Juventus dressing room, shocking tales that would guarantee sales or tarnish the reputations of the man himself or any of his former teammates, are conspicuous by their absence. This, unsurprisingly, is no sensationalist ‘I am Zlatan’-style tome, although an interesting quote tells us the extent to which Del Piero transforms on the pitch, letting us see beyond the professional demeanour he usually presents:
I can speak softly, and if needed remain silent. I always try to express my style, not betray the real me and without betraying the expectation that I hear around me. But on the field, inside that green rectangle, the highest expression of my self is an animalistic energy, the adrenaline. You must be able to be physical to be the best, it is my obsession.
As debate continues to rumble on about the future of a shirt number no other Juventus player has worn since squad numbers were introduced (just think about that for a second,) it is no surprise to find the book has 10 CHAPTERS, each named for the qualities which have, much like those two cyphers, come to define Alessandro Del Piero as a player and a man:
As one flips through the pages, it quickly becomes clear this book is really just a lengthy ode to football. Not the star-studded global ‘product’ the game at the highest level has become, but to the simple game we all grew to love as children. A simple tale of a man’s love for a sport, the joy he feels while playing, the uncomplicated pleasure he takes in kicking a ball.
As if to prove the point about how touching his words can be, that first chapter sees a quote which is almost quintessential Del Piero:
Talent, of course, is beautiful. Aesthetics matter, but the best shot is always the one that leads to scoring; whether ugly or dirty does not matter, as long as it leads to goals. Talent is like living with demanding friend, someone that helps you but always asks more from you. If you have talent, you are obligated to always show it.
Del Piero tells us of the intense drive that pushes him every day, that he can “just about agree to lose to my children for fun but in my subconscious I’m already waiting for them to grow a little so I can challenge them as equals.” He tells us that “the lesson of sport is to give your best always, whether you have one minute or forever.”
This book is the definitive and truthful answer to an essay Del Piero was asked to write during his time at Elementary school, which was something we can all relate to. Set the task of answering the open-ended question “What do you want to be when you grow up?”, an already humble Del Piero was too modest to write ‘footballer’ and instead answered ‘electrician’, the trade of his father.
It is perhaps the most intimate excerpt of the entire book when our idol shares memories of his own hero, his father Gino, who sadly passed away back in February 2001. Del Piero already bared his soul to us on that winter afternoon in Bari, scoring a truly wonderful goal before eventually breaking down in tears on the shoulder of close friend Gianluca Pessotto.
At last able to verbalise his feelings, il Capitano says of his father:
At times, the phone rang in the middle of the night and he HAD to get dressed and leave quickly. At the end, he turned the lights back on for the entire village, my hero! Yes, being an electrician is an important line of work and I also would have wanted to be a chef or a truck driver… but my name is Alessandro Del Piero and I play football.
And that beautifully-worded understatement ladies and gentlemen, reinforces everything we ever believed of Del Piero in his own inimitable style, a word Alessandro defines as “our behaviour, the sum of our choices but also our renunciations, in other words what we choose not to be, rather than who we are.”
I am sure all Juventini can agree Alessandro Del Piero has chosen wisely over the last nineteen years.