This post was guest-blogged by Weston Pagano. Follow him on Twitter (@wpazzurri).
In 2003 it was officially estimated our beloved Juventus F.C. has over 185 million supporters worldwide and a little more than 13 million in Italy alone. It doesn’t take a statistician to know only a very minuscule fraction of these people have ever, or will ever, have the wonderful opportunity of meeting the players wearing the historic vertically-striped shirt of the most successful team in all of Italy.
This is why when I had the chance to do such a thing I was not about to let it pass me by! (EDITOR’s note: our very own Mike DG joined the ranks of the select few less than a month ago, and we now all hate him)
What makes this journey all the more unlikely is the difficulty I have encountered in becoming a proud member of the 185+ million. I was raised in the United States as a painfully distant 4th generation Italian by a set of parents completely uninterested in sports. I have played calcio for as long as I can remember and even have nostalgic memories of my elementary school years, when I convinced my friends to change the language in old Playstation soccer games to Italian and play with clubs of my ancestors (I faintly recall scoring a hat-trick with Zambrotta somehow).
However, as with most new American soccer fans start out, I truly fell in love with the beautiful game after getting sucked into the glory of a World Cup, and in my case it was the unforgettable 2006 edition held in Germany 5 years ago. I followed both my homeland and motherland to the very end, watching every other match I could naturally find online and the television set, yet after the tournament ended my hunger continued. Continuing to watch whatever I could lay my hands on, I spent most of my time viewing Mexican Primera División games, yet really relished the instances when I could catch a glimpse of the Italian Serie A. I had no club to support at the time, but my eventual falling in love with the Bianconeri only exemplifies the mantra that I, out of experience, now strongly believe in: “You don’t pick your club, the club picks you”.
Fast forward to about a month ago. Due to the excruciating heat of redneck hell South Carolina, I spent much of my time inside on the internet. It is because of this that I managed to discover Juventus’s pre-season American tour schedule a mere 23 minutes after tickets went on sale. To my surprise, all of the games were not immensely far away, and so I immediately purchased tickets for the match against Chivas Guadalajara. The day my friends and I took the road I could barely contain my trepidation. Off to Raleigh we went!
The first thing we did upon arriving was find the hotel the Bianconeri were staying in. On the way we passed a road sign that read “Weston”, and I allowed myself to think the sighting of my first name meant I would be lucky. As I entered the hotel through a backdoor I felt like part of a bad spy movie, sneaking around in the large hallways hoping for any wayward sign of my heroes. We were running out of room to search in the first floor, when suddenly I heard hushed Italian voices being carried around another seemingly identical and well-furnished hotel corner. I stumbled upon a few members of the coaching staff and approached them. Holding out my folded Juve flag (the best $6 I ever spent) and a sharpie pen, I gestured for autographs.
“No players; coaches” the one nearest to me attempted to explain in broken English.
“Still; here.” I countered, equally as blunt. They passed it around and signed their names. I later realized that in my nervousness, I accidentally had them sign on the back of the flag (but it’s see-through so you can’t really tell).
“Where are the players?” I asked.
He pointed straight down and replied, “Here; 17:00.”
“Grazie.” I smiled back at him.
Almost before the words were out of my mouth, a man with a walkie-talkie appeared out of nowhere and asked me if I was staying at the hotel.
“No; I’m here to see them.” I stammered and quickly left the building.
Two hours later we were back in the hotel, but this time we were waiting in the corner of the hallway by the meeting room, armed with sharpies, a camera, and anxious determination. The first player I met was Simone Pepe.
It was impossible to hear anything over the sound of my heart pounding in my ears. I tried to remember the man before me was also human, with a heart and a pair of ears, but it was nearly impossible. It was fitting for Pepe to be the first player I met, as I also wear #7 (in honor of Del Piero during the 2006 World Cup) and often play wing, not to mention our similarity in style as I am not very skilled, but more of a hard-worker on the pitch. He smiled and went on his way, quickly to be replaced by Marco Storari who walked in behind. His hair/beard looks even better in person. Unfortunately my Italian is extremely limited (I really only know words pertaining to calcio, food, and swearing) and so speaking with both players was brief.
At this point I was confronted by another security guard of some sort who asked me the same question as the first.
“No, I was told by the coaching staff to meet them here.” I shot back; it sounded much more confident than I felt. He left.
It was at this point that Antonio Conte walked in and I experienced first-hand the presence that he carried with him. You could almost feel him enter the room. He had an intense air of importance about him; not arrogant, but firm. He was very calm as he shook my hand and took the sharpie.
Next came Luca Toni, who, frankly, was about as much of jerkbag as you would expect. Instead of signing his name legibly or adding his number for identification (as some of the others had before him), he scoffed and impatiently stabbed at the fabric with the dexterity you would expect from a blind and somewhat lethargic chimpanzee.
I managed to get autographs and pictures with Alessandro Matri and Gigi Buffon without event until security returned and told us to leave. They escorted us out through the same hallway that the team was still steadily trickling in through. After fruitlessly attempting to greet Fabio Quagliarella (I hadn’t seen he was on the phone) and Ciro Immobile (he completely ignored me) as they walked past, the man told us we were not allowed to interact with the players anymore.
This didn’t last long, however, as Alessandro Del Piero came around the corner and I could not resist but to address him. It was a true testament to his character as a wonderful individual even off the pitch as he stopped walking, looked at me and smiled. He seemed completely willing to meet with me, but did not attempt to as security forced us to continue forward. I didn’t hear it myself, but later my friend told me that in passing Del Piero even told us to have a nice day. I did what my captain told me to do. He was close enough to touch.
After I was able to recover from this amazing experience, it hit me: the game hadn’t even started yet! As much as I wanted to frame my flag right then and there, I decided it had to make it to one game before being retired and so I brought it, along with my vuvuzela, to Carter-Findley Stadium. My hotel was close by so we chose to walk. I was not surprised to notice that the vast majority of fans in and around the stadium were all wearing the red & white colors of Chivas, however I was confused when I noticed half of the Juventini I met were Hispanic.
After begrudgingly surrendering my vuvuzela to the overzealous stadium employee at the entrance, we found our seats. The few fans around me that weren’t Mexican were just fellow Americans who had seemingly stopped by purely out of curiosity. In fact at one point during the game Del Piero tripped, and the large ginger-bearded man behind me who fell into that last category cried out, jokingly, “Amateur!”. I cringed.
Before the game began I decided that between seeing Del Piero score and Juve winning, I preferred the former. While the club is larger than any one man, this was no contest in my mind: Del Piero personifies Juventus, has only little time left before his retirement, and this was a friendly after all. Still, I had no complaints when the Bianconeri pulled off a 1-0 win in the end, albeit through Fabio Quagliarella instead of Pinturicchio.
I hope this unforgettable experience inspires all of my fellow Juventinos to hold onto that inkling of hope we all harbor, for it is possible. It is possible to shake a hand that lifted a World Cup, or to take a picture with the captain of the Old Lady. While this may sound cliché, with enough perseverance you may have a better chance at it than you would think.
I hope I’m not being overly optimistic when I say that for the other Americans who support Juventus it may be only a matter of time until a tour takes the team within driving distance of you, and even if you can’t stalk an autograph out of the players, whether it be at training or their hotel, at the very least you’ll get to see them play the beautiful game in front of your own eyes, and believe me, it will still be worth it.
Many thanks to the photographer (my dad), my brother Brandon, and my good friend Jacob Morris for making the trip with me!