Here’s to Alex
by Sean Taylor
In July 2000, I absolutely hated Alessandro Del Piero (gasp!). Yes, it was in wake of the Euro 2000 heartbreak and had it not been for his two pieces of profligacy, gli azzurri would have had an unassailable 3-0 lead in the final against France. That hatred was short-lived though, as there is something magical about this particular player that transcends the agony of defeat. In my opinion, Alessandro Del Piero is the greatest player ever to kick a football. Okay so maybe he isn’t, but he is my favourite player of all time and one of the best forwards I’ve seen with close competition from Kluivert and Henry. At the end of his career at Juventus, he has amassed one Champions League, one UEFA Super Cup, one Intercontinental Cup, eight Scudetti (yes, I included the calicopoli seasons), one Coppa Italia, four Supercoppa Italiana, one UEFA intertoto Cup and of course the infamous Serie B title. He is also a World Champion as well.
When I learned that he was being released from Juventus at the end of this season I realised this tribute was the least his accomplishments deserved. So I decided to highlight some of the highs and occasional lows of one of the greatest careers of all time.
Del Piero the Man
“Dellos” although known as a one-club man, actually came from Padova in 1993. Making an immediate impact he had two eventful seasons before winning the Champions League in 1996. The 97/98 season was one of his best as he scored 21 goals in the league and 10 goals in 10 appearances in the Champions League. Juventus lost to Real Madrid in the final at the Amsterdam Arena. At France ’98 he appeared off the bench initially then started in Italy’s last three matches, getting this assist in the match against Austria. Against Norway he showed good skill but lacked confidence in front of goal and didn’t do much in the elimination to France.
Several of the great players have had to battle with severe injuries, which added to their legendary statuses. Ronaldo was absent from the game for two years but then returned to steer Brazil to their fifth World Cup in 2002. Many people don’t know that Alessa missed virtually the entire 98/99 season due to a serious knee injury. However he was back the following year to thrill us with his spectacular creativity.
Among his requisites it must be said that his dead ball ability was unrivalled especially in his prime. Back then as a teenager while the world enthused over David Beckham and Roberto Carlos I often thought: what sort of a man was capable of a free kick like this: where the keeper is left standing and bemused? His consistent combination of power and technique from a dead ball is matched only by Juninho Pernambucano in the modern game. His confident penalty taking was also a joy to see. I have never seen him miss from the spot; yes there’s probably a miss here and there, but I’ve never seen it. And of course, his dribbling has been overlooked because of the fifa-induced stereotype that Italians can’t play attacking football.
But apart from his technical assets people still overlook his gentlemanly conduct which is just as important to the game has match-winning skill. It’s probably more relevant today with numerous players in the tabloids for issues that have nothing to do with the beautiful game. Then you have the chronic divers and exponents of gamesmanship that eternally plague the sport; particularly as FIFA and UEFA are incompetent with their sanctioning of that kind of conduct. Del Piero is one of the last gentlemen to leave the sport as he went about the task with dignity for 19 years.
There was a constant doubt about his worth to the national team; similar to Messi’s current dilemma. Alessa was the main man at Juve but just a supporting cast player with Italy most of the time. Francesco Totti was given the sorcerer-in-chief role ahead of him at Euro 2000 and Korea/Japan. But at Euro 2004 a spitting incident cost him and ultimately the team. Del Piero stepped in and dazzled against Sweden before the anal-retentive Trappatoni replaced him with Stefano Fiore. Donadoni even said that he had to prove himself in 07/08 to make it on the Euro 2008 squad. Del Piero proceeded to become the top scorer that season with 21 goals in the scudetto. Alas, Donadoni still kept him mainly on the bench in favour of Antonio Di Natale. Coaches never seemed to trust Il Pintrucchio a pattern that changed at a crucial time with the appointment of Lippi in 2004.
Glory in Berlin
I have been an azzurri supporter since France ’98. I have been on the roller-coaster with Alessa ever since. Jens Lehmann was not as intimating as Ollie Kahn but was solid enough to save Ayala and Cambiasso’s penalties in the quarterfinal shootout, as well as Riquelme’s against Villareal earlier in the season. So it goes without saying when I saw Alessa score this goal against Lehmann in the semi final in Dortmund, I choked up a bit. I felt like a proud father, sticking with my player and team even when the rest of the football world wrote them off “calciopoli” style.
There was that tense final. Even the replays for that match still keep me on the edge. Then there was that head butt and the dreaded penalty shootout which at that time Italy never won at the World Cup. We all know how that story ended with Del Piero lifting the trophy with his team mates and getting the missing trophy in his cabinet. It wasn’t his first piece of World Cup heroics though, as he bailed out the azzurri with a header glanced off his spit-curl in 2002 against Mexico.
Demotion to Serie B
The Calciopoli betting scandal proved to have dire implications for the teams involved. While Milan were allowed to stay in the top flight thus winning the Champions League that year, Juventus were dumped into Serie B. This caused an exodus of top players such as Ibra, Thuram and Gigi Zambrotta. Credit must be given not just to Alessa, but Buffon and Nedved, who all stayed with their club in the darkest hour. Del Piero became the top scorer in Serie B (obviously) and in six months’ time they were promoted to the Serie A as champions.
With a return to the CL after Euro 2008, it seemed that Juventus were on course for great things once again as Del Piero ran a mock especially against Real Madrid. A series of stellar performances and goals in the two matches in the group stage against the Spaniards rolled back the years. However elimination to Chelsea started the wave of mediocrity that saw them miss out on Europe for two straight seasons after the 09/10 season.
This year was different however as the appointment of Conte along with the acquirement of Pirlo on a free from Milan changed the entire Juventus scope. They finished the season unbeaten and won the scudetto on the second to last match day at the expense of Milan. Del Piero didn’t figure much in the goals, but it was a fitting finale to his club career as his subordinates brought that final scudetto home for him. He still even showed that he still had some left in the tank against Roma in January with an amazing finish in off the bar.
Alessa, wherever next you go we your fans will always remember the magic you brought to the beautiful game, the critics you silenced, the amazing jaw-dropping “freak-kicks” you scored and above all; remaining loyal to one club and staying humble throughout. The game has truly lost one of its last gents.
ESM Team of the Year (3): 1995–96, 1996–97, 1997–98
Most Valuable Player Intercontinental Cup: 1996
UEFA Champions League Topscorer: 1997–98
Best Loved Football Player: 2001, 2008
Golden Foot to career: 2007
Serie B – Topscorer: 2007 (20 goals)
Scirea Award to career: 2008
Oscar AIC – Italian Footballer ot the Year(2): 1998, 2008
Serie A – Top Scorer: 2008 (21 goals)
USSI Silver Ball: 2008
Globe Soccer Award: 2011
Oscar AIC – Award to Career: 201
Juventus All-Time Leading Scorer (289 goals)
Juventus All-Time Leading Scorer Champions League (44)
Juventus All-Time Leading Scorer UEFA Competitions (52)
Juventus All-Time Leading Scorer International competitions (53)
Juventus All-Time Leading Scorer in the Italian championships (208)
Juventus All-Time Leading Scorer Italian Super Cup (3)
Juventus All-Time appearances holder Serie A: (478)
Juventus All-Time appearances holder in the UEFA club competitions: (129)
Juventus All-Time appearances holder in international competitions: (130)
Juventus All-Time appearances leader (705)
Latest goal from kickoff in a FIFA World Cup match (121st minute)
Most Participations in UEFA European Championships (4) (Tied with 5 others)