General shock and criticism greeted Andrea Agnelli’s announcement that Alessandro Del Piero will not play for Juventus beyond this season. Fans and journalists alike condemned Agnelli for dumping Del Piero in an unceremonious fashion at the end of a club meeting. But Juventus did not become Italy’s most successful club due to sentimentality. The club’s treatment of Del Piero is consistent with how they have always dealt with their players, and indeed Pinturicchio himself.
No less a player than Roberto Baggio was promptly shown the door in 1995 when Juve saw what a young Del Piero was capable of. Del Piero justified that show of faith with strong performances and sensational goals over the next three seasons. He was one of the first superstars of the modern Champions League, and led its all-time scoring chart for a period.
The 1997-1998 season remains the zenith of Del Piero’s career. He finally stayed fit for an entire campaign and scored 32 goals in all competitions. He played the second striker role with a fluidity that has not been seen since.
His deft feints bewildered defenders and his powerful stride carried him past them. His vision and passing created as many opportunities as he took. Del Piero provided magic moments every week amid a sea of brutal challenges that typified what was then the greatest league on Earth.
The Agnellis were convinced: this was the man who would lead Juve for the next decade. Even after a disappointing display at France ’98, Del Piero began wearing the captain’s armband more regularly at the start of the following season. The catastrophic knee injury suffered that year raised questions about his ability to recover, but also highlighted Del Piero’s value to the team.
During his absence, Juventus slipped from first to sixth in the league. That May, Juve awarded Del Piero with the richest contract of that time, making him the world’s highest-paid footballer.
With the new deal inevitably came added scrutiny as Del Piero struggled to do the things that had been easy for him before his knee tear. He was just as involved in Juve’s build-up play, but for some reason the ball would not go in for him. He scored only penalties until one of the last matches of the season, when a header against Parma prompted the forward to bow to the four corners of the Delle Alpi stadium.
Then-president Umberto Agnelli allowed Del Piero that one-season grace period, but made it clear in public that Del Piero would be axed like any other player if his performance did not improve: “If Del Piero does not play well, he will go out of the lineup. Last year we coddled him, this year he will be judged along with everyone else”.
Honorary president Gianni Agnelli, who had previously given Del Piero the nickname Pinturicchio in reference to a Renaissance painter, now dubbed his star player Godot, implying that Juventus were still waiting for their talisman to return to his previous form.
The next season was challenging for Del Piero. He struggled with inconsistency, and spent periods out of the team. The death of his father in February 2001 proved to be a turning point. He channeled his emotions into a stunning solo goal against Bari to keep his team in the title race, and played a key role in the run-in when Juve pushed Roma to the end.
Juventus were encouraged enough by Del Piero’s displays to sell Zinedine Zidane. The message was clear: Juve’s newly anointed captain would now be the chief provider of artistry for his team.
Two straight league titles rewarded the decision, but Del Piero was still not the same player he was before the injury. With his acceleration and top speed diminished, he compensated by beating defenders over short distances before looking for a pass or shot. His technique and intelligence were unaffected, but his air of invincibility was gone. Even as Juve’s most prestigious and popular player, he was hardly untouchable.
Following an injury-ravaged 2003-2004 campaign, Del Piero turned 30 and doubters multiplied. Fabio Capello arrived at Juventus and promptly bought Zlatan Ibrahimovic to partner David Trezeguet. Many thought that Del Piero’s Juve career was over back then; he was the most substituted player in Italy and looked beleaguered in the Champions League.
Once again he responded, this time with a bicycle-kick assist for Trezeguet to beat Milan and win another title. He finished the season with 17 goals and a better scoring ratio than Ibrahimovic. It was enough for Juve to keep him around, but Alex clearly wasn’t thrilled to be spending so much time on the bench.
The 2005-2006 campaign was a resounding return to form for the aging captain. He scored 20 goals and provided the kind of on-field inspiration that had been absent for the better part of two years. Del Piero made history as Juve’s all-time top scorer with a hat-trick against Fiorentina, and scored a sensational free kick to effectively end Inter’s title challenge.
Del Piero was back in the good graces of the general public, but Ibra was still Capello’s man. The Swede endured a barren season in front of goal, but Capello stuck with him as a first-choice striker. Del Piero felt that he was still in top condition at 31 and deserved to play every game. It was clear that the player and manager could not work together much longer. One would have to go, and it would be hard for Juve to fire the coach who had just delivered two championships on the trot.
Then Calciopoli struck. Juve were found guilty of unfairly influencing match officials and stripped of their two most recent titles. The storied club was relegated, and their star players and manager fled the crisis in a massive fire sale.
It was the perfect situation for Del Piero, as all of his opponents and challengers left the team. Gone were Capello and Ibrahimovic, while good friends Nedved and Trezeguet remained to help guide the club through Serie B. Del Piero was able to cement his status as a club legend by loyally leading Juve back to Serie A and remaining a focal point during their rebuilding years.
If Juventus had never been busted, however, and continued to sign the world’s best players every summer, then Del Piero would likely have left a lot sooner. He would have been consigned to more of a supporting role behind younger stars. Even now, at 36 years old, he is unhappy to be a spectator. In 2006, fresh from winning the World Cup, he surely would have left Juve if they could not guarantee him regular playing time.
So the disappointment at the bluntness of Agnelli’s announcement is unfounded. Juventus and Del Piero have always had a business relationship built on performance. Over the years it has made sense for them to stay together; they have needed each other.
Now that time is coming to an end. In a way, it is better to know now so that fans can flock to the new stadium to see their hero one last time. Del Piero still possesses the guile and skill to make a difference this season. And with Juve leading the table, the team has a real chance to provide their captain with a fairytale ending after all.