ALESSANDRO DEL PIERO – Memories of a Childhood Hero

Alessandro Del Piero (Italian pronunciation: [alesˈsandro del ˈpjɛːro]) Ufficiale OMRI[2][3] (born 9 November 1974 in Conegliano, Veneto) is an Italian World Cup-winning footballer. Del Piero was named in the FIFA 100, a list of the 125 greatest living footballers selected by Pelé as a part of FIFA‘s centenary celebrations.[4] Del Piero was also voted in the list of best European players for the past 50 years in the UEFA Golden Jubilee Poll.[5] In the year 2000, Del Piero was the world’s best-paid football player from salary, bonuses, and advertising revenue.

It was May 22, 2010, and milestones were just a stone’s throw away for me. I was less than five months from leaving my mid-twenties and entering that dreaded late-twenties bracket, providing glimpses of flashbacks of teenage angst. I was also less than five months away from being married to my fiancée Andrea. It was a sunny, Saturday morning. The evening prior I arrived home from my then-job as modestly-paid, overworked prosecutor in the most heavily urbanized part of the country, all the while fielding phone calls from an oriundo friend of mine, Pasquale.

That Sunday the local New York Red Bulls were scheduled to play my — our — beloved Juventus. Pasquale had, through some way unbeknownst to myself, conjured all of his Neapolitan wisdom (i.e. he knew a guy), and learned that Juventus would be staying at the Westin Hotel in nearby Jersey City — the county seat of my jurisdiction. It seemed almost perfect.

More importantly, he also had a hold of their itinerary. The next morning they were scheduled to leave the hotel at 9:00 a.m. for a trip to Liberty Science Center. There was a nearby field where the team was supposed to conduct some stretches and a light workout. They were to spend the afternoon in and around New York City, specifically stopping at their fearless sponsors’ Nike Store. The UEFA Champions League final was set to be played that afternoon (featuring those which we don’t speak of), and the evening would end with a yacht cruise around Manhattan. We would arrive around 8:00 a.m. at the hotel lobby, to see if we could catch a glimpse (or better) of the players before they were off for the day.

“I’m at the bar right now, and Candreva is on the other side of it,” Pasquale told me from over the phone, as I stood in a dark corner of the backyard with a Corona in my right hand, Blackberry up to my ear on the left. I was impressed. He isn’t a liar, and I never suspected such. Regardless, he had successfully found out where they would be, inconspicuously arriving early to verify his intel. I imagined him wearing a fake nose, mustache and glasses, reading a newspaper with eye-holes cut out of it.

“And listen, don’t be a YO-YO!” he related to me in a harsh / threatening yet, comical-sounding way. “Don’t tell anyone what we’re doing! Andrea can come, but don’t tell anyone else! No, not Paul! Don’t be a YO-YO!” I felt badly leaving others out, but went on with my night.

Most of these calls were fielded in secrecy amongst other friends, while at my friend Bobby’s backyard. It was his birthday celebration, and beers were flowing on that beautiful, cool night. Andrea and I both knew what we had to do the next day, and so we acted accordingly. Well, somewhat better than usual at least.

My bride-to-be and I awoke that morning a little headache-y, somewhat dehydrated and most of all, hungry. Since he lived a bit farther away, Pasquale would meet us at our apartment, a mere 8 or so miles from the hotel.

“You want something from the bagel place, ‘Squale?”

“Nah, I’m good. But don’t show up bringing scarves, and wearing Juventus stuff! Don’t be a YO-YO! Be cool!”

Andrea opted for a Yankees sweatshirt. Good choice. We entered his car, and he glanced at my Taylor Ham, egg and cheese bagel sandwich and condescendingly remarked, “that looks healthy.” It was delicious.

Looking towards the backseat, I could see my fiancée’s pretty brown eyes glowing amber in the sunlight. She looked happy and she was. Nobody else I had ever dated would have wanted to make this trip — least not for this sport. She had no prior appreciation for calcio. Her Lazio-loving ex didn’t care to teach her anyway. But she was happy and into the morning. We all were.

And we drove to Jersey City.

Del Piero is the son of Gino, an electrician, and Bruna, a housekeeper.[8] He regularly played football in the backyard with two friends, Nelso and Pierpaolo, as a child. All three dreamed of becoming footballers, but only Del Piero would eventually manage to do so.[14] Alessandro’s older brother, Stefano, briefly played professional football for Sampdoria before injury curtailed his career. The family lived in the hamlet of Saccon, a rural home in San Vendemiano. While growing up, Del Piero’s family did not have much money for travelling abroad, so he considered being a lorry driver in order to see the world.[15]

It was June, 1995. Like most good Italian-American sons-of-diasporans I have family in other parts of the world (notably Latin America) and like most good first-generation sons-of-diasporans, I actually do have a relationship with them. In the midst of a summer in which a cousin of my age, Alejandro, would spend with us alone stateside, he, my father and I took a trip to Florida to meet the rest of his family for two weeks.

While there, we spent a day at Busch Gardens. We were on the Cable Car which passed over some sort of safari. My father pointed out the zebras, making a Juventus reference, and I became excited, rattling off names of players in conversation. As a good Venezuelan, Alejandro was meanwhile horrified of the fact the surveillance cameras were capturing each word and mannerism from me (I mean really, if you’re going to be watched by the Government at all times, you don’t want to embarrass yourself later when the Politburo reviews the tapes).

My father was (surprisingly) less judgmental. He started telling me about this new up-and-coming player. He had been around but developing for a couple of years, but he was the one who would be looked toward as the heir to Roberto Baggio — my idol (for lack of other alternatives) up until that point, and whom I’ve been distraught over his recent selling.

“Del Piero”, my dad said.

“Del Piero?” It sounded like someone who could have grown up in my hometown.

ALESSANDRO DEL PIERO”. I immediately thought of the irony about the first name being the same, but an altered Romance language version of my cousin’s. Before I was old enough to realize what irony meant.


★ ★ ★


2003. I was entering my senior year in college. My father called my brother and I into the kitchen that Summer. He was able to get tickets — good ones — for the Supercoppa Italiana between Juventus and AC Milan which, unlike this year’s Beijing fiasco, was scheduled to be played approximately 4 or 5 miles from my house: Giants Stadium. Admittedly, I had not been following Juve much to that point — again, by that point I was still using dial-up and internet coverage was not nearly as thorough or sophisticated as now — but I knew that the team had just won yet another Serie A title, despite losing the UEFA Champions League final to the very team they would play against that day.

Needless to say, I was excited. Alessandro Del Piero was still a fixture on the team.

Regular time was relatively uneventful, and an extra time Pirlo penalty at 106th was dramatically canceled out by David Trezeguet literally one minute later. Juventus would win on penalties — none of which, unfortunately, would be scored by the man I was truly there to see.

I remember that day being the first time I would see most of those players in person, perhaps my only time. I remember being just two rows back, near the goal, and noticing a gangly, young goalkeeper with high shorts, comically wearing number 77 on his shirt. The name above the number read “BUFFON”.

I remember lots of Italians — real ones, not just “y’know dude, I’m Eh-Tayan,” (“Italians with a Y,” as I’ll sometimes refer to them as) — having made the trip, true tifosi, passing out paraphernalia to the fans (glossy signs reading NY <3 Juve!, which I gladly took), and wearing fancy clothes on an oppressively hot day.

And I remember the 68th minute, when my hero was subbed off — much to my chagrin — under the crowd's boos.

I asked another childhood oriundo friend of mine (from my town but not “Italian with a Y”), Roberto, why they were whistling him.

“He didn’t play well.”

I didn’t get it. I never will.

Del Piero began the 2006 World Cup on the bench, appearing in two out of three group stage matches, and made his first start of the competition in a 1–0 round of 16 win over Australia on 26 June. On 4 July, Del Piero entered as a substitute near the end of regulation and scored Italy’s second goal in a 2–0 semi-final win over host Germany.[91] In the final against France, which ended 1–1 after extra time, Del Piero scored a penalty in the shootout as Italy won the tournament for the fourth time. He admitted afterwards that winning the World Cup was his childhood dream.[92]

I’ve written about the 2006 World Cup before, and my trip to Vegas where I watched the Azzurri dramatically beat Germany in extra time. Missing from that piece was my appreciation for the man who I watched as a young 23 year-old law student with the whole world in front of me, feeling on top of the world after winning a respectable sum using my soccer knowledge.

Man, I said to myself watching him being subbed on during the semi final, Del Piero, I can’t believe he’s still there. I proceeded to tell my friends how I had always idolized him. If they didn’t take my word for it, he showed all of them why.

Along with three awards in Italy for gentlemanly conduct[6][7] he has also won the Golden Foot award, which pertains to personality and playing ability. Del Piero usually plays as a supporting-striker and occasionally between the midfield and the strikers, known in Italy as the “trequartista” position. Del Piero’s playing style is regarded by critics as creative in attacking, assisting many goals as well as scoring himself, as opposed to just “goal poaching.”[8] His free-kick and penalty taking is also highly regarded.[9] Del Piero has become famous over the years for scoring from a special “Del Piero Zone”(“Gol alla Del Piero”), approaching from the left flank and curling a precise lob into the far top corner of the goal.[10]

We arrived in Jersey City, waiting patiently in the lobby. Surprisingly, none of the staff was bothering us. Little by little, players began to trickle out. Most of the who’s who were absent. A little tournament called the “World’s Cups” (or something like that) was about to start in South Africa, and the lion’s share of the superstars were conspicuously absent: Buffon, Marchisio, Cannavaro, Iaquinta, just to name a few Italians, while other internationals such as Poulsen and Felipe Melo were halfway around the world training. But I didn’t care. I met one of the heroes of the last World Cup, Fabio Grosso, and thought it was pretty neat. I was amazed by his politeness.

   “Fabio, piacere! Una foto?”


But there was one player who I was dying to meet. I wouldn’t even know what to do, I thought.

Then, just like that, the elevator doors opened up, and he walked out.

“There he is…” Pasquale muttered…

And there he was.

And more of a consummate gentleman never existed. He stopped for each and every fan, signed every autograph, stood still and smiled for every single photograph. He didn’t want to be there. Anyone could tell right away. It was the end of one of Juventus’ most difficult seasons ever and certainly, perhaps comparable to the one in Serie B, among the most difficult of his career. It was also the first time, since he broke out before Euro 1996, that Italy would be traveling to a major international tournament without him. But yet, there he was. Doing it anyway, like only a professional would.

For that one moment, I was selfishly glad that his international career was over. For that one moment.

Del Piero holds the all-time goalscoring record at Juventus.[11] On 6 April 2008, Alessandro Del Piero became the all-time highest-capped Juventus player, ahead of Juventus legend Gaetano Scirea. As of May 2012, he is in ninth place in the UEFA Champions League all-time goalscorer records[12] and joint fourth with Roberto Baggio within the Italian national team records.[13]

It was March, 2012. I was about to begin a couple more milestones, ready to bounce to a new job, and ready to trade in my side-passion — calcio-blogging — from that other website to this one here. Juventus, still undefeated and very much in the thick of the Scudetto race, was playing bitter-rivals Inter. I was now married and my wife had become very good friends with an old one of mine. Leanne, along with her boyfriend Juan, from Argentina, had come along with us to Nevada Smith to watch the game that Sunday afternoon. Juan descends from family in Milan, yet is a Juventus fan. We were meeting one of my current colleagues, Mike DG.

It is no coincidence the imprint on this win was given by the heart & soul of Juve’s changing room, the veteran symbols the team has often gravitated around and will do so for just a little while longer. With Gigi Buffon keeping his gloves hot (and his team afloat) during Juve’s most difficult moment, and Alessandro Del Piero ruthless at putting the game on ice and also scoring his first Serie A goal of the year, the Bianconeri triumphed over their rivals and sent a message to AC Milan they were still very much alive for the Scudetto race.

Briefly, final score: 2-0 Juventus victory. First it was Cáceres, then it was ADP. And just like that, the Scudetto race was still on. Another childhood friend of mine, Colin, a rabid Arsenal fan, texted me at that moment.

It’s true. He is.


★ ★ ★


The memories are far more than this. I actually found it hard to pick and choose between those mentioned above and say, my Interista 8th-grade Italian teacher who was actually praising Juventus for winning the 1996 Champions League, representing Italy well. I chose to make this piece personal, to illustrate the impact that such a classy public figure has had on one’s life, whether or not you realize it at the time. In fact, someone whose career spans for as long as his has, will undoubtedly interweave moments of his with your own memories, leading you to associate your own true milestones with his own. Almost as if you’ve grown together. And in a way, you have.

There’s something about getting older that makes things seem shorter. I was thinking about this as I reflected on yet another major international tournament come and gone, this being the first European Cup that I have a legitimate memory of without Del Piero. I always enjoyed the Euros more than the World Cup, finding it to be such a far more competitive tournament.

But, I thought to myself, the Euros are so much shorter than the World Cup.

Then I realized that it isn’t — a matter of one single week so (which by the next go-round will be a thing of the past).

The way that tourists stand 40 meters in front of the leaning tower of Pisa with their arms outstretched, posing as if they are holding up the crooked structure on their own, time has a way of causing an optical illusion with our mind’s eye.

As a child, the four weeks of the World Cup seemed as if it lasted the entire Summer. Now, a Summer seems to last a week.

Meanwhile, Alessandro Del Piero’s career at Juventus has spanned nearly two-thirds of my life.

Time is relative, as are most things. Which is why this swan song, this prolonged retirement, is going to be something which takes a lot of getting used to. Because from this moment forward, there will not be a single player who plays for this squad of mine, regardless of how long his career is, how undeniable his talent, or how great his impact will be on the pitch, that will have the opportunity to fill the gaps in my free time, my imagination, my mind, or my innocence — the latter of which had been virtually tapped out by age 19.

It’s strange watching your childhood idols go away. Because you never have another chance to have a childhood idol. Ciro Immobile can go on to score 400 goals for Juventus, earn 80 caps for the national team, and win countless trophies over the next twenty years. I will certainly be watching that entire time (God willing) if that is what happens (God willing). But most of my time will be occupied by the rest of my life, and all the responsibilities which I’ve brought upon myself, my life, my family, with the life I’ve chosen.

But by the time I’m 49, the past twenty years will feel like twenty months. If I’m lucky. The rearing of my unborn children, their adolescences, and college tuitions to worry about will undoubtedly only further complicate my life and spin the Earth more quickly on its axis.

But nothing will replace the slowest, earliest years of my life, in which time seemed to stand still during certain moments, be it a night in the Stadio Olimpico in 1996 or twice ten years later in Berlin. They’re all mine, and they’re locked tightly inside my psyche. Having an eidetic memory is a curse at times, but in this case… well, I’m not sure.

Calcio — we call it soccer — will always be synonymous with DEL PIERO for me. The guy who sounded like he could be from my neighborhood.


★ ★ ★


Thank you Ale. You’ve had a career that almost any athlete would kill for, and have won every important trophy that exists on Earth. And that sweltering morning in late May when my wife-to-be, myself, and one of my knucklehead friends stalked you at your hotel in Jersey City, you were a complete and absolute gentleman. This after one of the most disappointing seasons of your career. Followed by an equally poor one for your team. Followed by one which saw you play an ancillary role on the way towards your — no, our — Bianconeri going back on top.

And you did it all with style, grace, and class.

You are a true champion, professional, and role model.

Good Night, and Good Luck.

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