Juventus’s Journey Through The Ranks

What were you doing on September 9, 2006?

No I can’t remember either, but I do know the mighty Juventus pulled up in the coastal town of Rimini that afternoon, to play their first ever match outside of Italy’s top flight.

For the country’s most successful football institution it was a dark, depressing day, made worse by an ignominious start on the pitch. Less than 10,500 fans were there to see a disillusioned Juve side labour to a 1-1 draw with the local minnows; and it was an underwhelming point that left them rooted to the bottom of the division with a tally of minus eight.

The Old Lady’s mood had never been so low.

Less than nine years on from the Calciopoli match-fixing scandal that shocked Italian football – which saw Juventus relegated, deducted points and stripped of two Scudettos in a courtroom – the famous black and white shirts are back in rather more salubrious surroundings this weekend.

Fresh from securing a fourth successive Serie A title, Max Allegri’s side will strut their stuff in front of a sell out crowd inside Berlin’s Olympic Stadium, and a global television audience of more than 150 million on Saturday night.

Instead of three Serie B points being on offer, the prize this time is the chance to become champions of Europe, at the expense of the mighty Barcelona.

They’ve come a long way since that demoralising 90-minute struggle by the Adriatic Sea.

Although upset and aggrieved at a punishment that’s still regarded as contentious, Juventus gained enormous strength and unity from the shock of their demotion.

Star players Fabio Cannavaro, Lilian Thuram, Patrick Vieira and Zlatan Ibrahimovic all predictably jumped ship, but new manager Didier Deschamps convinced other stellar names to suck it and see.

Once the imperious Gianluigi Buffon, Pavel Nedved and Alessandro del Piero all agreed to give Serie B a try, the bianconeri had the show of faith they needed to bounce back quickly – and that’s exactly what happened.

A nine-point deduction was soon overcome, and with 2006 World Cup winners Buffon and Del Piero driving the good ship Juve, winning Italian football’s second tier title proved a formality in the end.

In the ensuing years the club rebuilt slowly, but it was a bumpy ride. Often finishing outside the Champions League spots, a succession of managers came and went until club legend Antonio Conte swapped Siena for a return to Turin in the summer of 2011.

This proved the turning point.

Adding Andrea Pirlo, Stephan Lichsteiner, Arturo Vidal and Martin Caceres, among others, to the squad he’d inherited, Conte smartly began to construct the foundation of a Juventus XI his successor will select on Saturday night.

Starting life at the brand new Juventus Stadium four years ago, most fans accepted that a period of acclimatization was in store. Not so. Against all the odds Conte’s men sailed to the Scudetto crown, spectacularly following Arsenal’s lead of 2004, by going ‘Invincible’ over the course of 38 unbeaten Serie A games.

A defence featuring Buffon, Chiellini, Bonucci and Lichsteiner (who injury permitting, will all play this weekend) shipped a miserly 20 goals, and the history books were rewritten.

Since then, supplemented by a sprinkling of quality additions each year, they have refused to settle for second. They are one of the all-time great teams of Italian football.

If anyone deserves a Champions League winners’ medal in Berlin, it’s goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon.

Nine years ago, aged 28, he was at the peak of his powers. Named runner-up in the Balon d’Or, selected for the World Cup’s Best XI, and regarded as the planet’s best custodian by some distance, few in Turin would have complained had he turned his nose up at the prospect of spending at least a season outside the top division.

He was too good for Serie B (by a million miles) and European football’s biggest clubs were banging his door down, offering riches and opportunities few others could resist.

Yet Buffon stayed to fight the good fight. He chose to repair the damage created by others; and fittingly he has since been richly rewarded for that loyalty. A legend forever more in Turin, he’s made an almighty and unforgettable imprint on the fabric of the club.

Now 37, you sense that the still-sensational goalkeeper may need to pull off the game of his life to thwart Barcelona’s extraordinary front line this weekend. If we know anything about football, we know that romance will count for nothing when Messi, Neymar and Suarez are in town.

Yet having come this far, neither Buffon, or his Juventus team mates, will get the heebie-jeebies worrying about it. They’re winners already. A fairytale ending would just be the icing.

Personally I hope they do it.

Rooting for the underdog is always more fun, and if anyone deserves to dance on tables this Saturday night, it’s the spirited Old Lady.

After the journey she’s been on, a knees-up would be well deserved.










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