If Alessandro Del Piero had been allowed to write the script for his final ever Serie A appearance for Juventus last weekend, it’s unlikely he would have changed much in their 3-1 win over Atalanta.
The legendary Italian forward ended his league career with I Bianconeri after 19 years in Turin with a goalscoring display in front of 36,000 adoring fans at their new Juventus Arena to complete an historic unbeaten season before lifting their first Scudetto in nine years.
The ovation he received from supporters, and their insistence on a long goodbye from their idol, showed the place he has in their hearts. His name is irreversibly interwoven into the La Vecchia Signora’s past. He is their all-time top scorer, record appearance holder and has spent more than half his life with the club on the way to 16 pieces of silverware.
Coach Antonio Conte spoke passionately after the forward took his final bow in front of the home fans. “I am moved by Del Piero, as he represents something indelible. He is the history of Juventus. That is thanks to the player and the man, so I can only thank him.”
In what has been a rollercoaster two decades for the club, Del Piero has remained faithful through thick and thin. The fall-out from the Calciopoli match-fixing scandal in 2006, and his insistence on remaining at the club despite enforced relegation to Serie B, ensured he would forever remain in Juve folklore and emphatically proved his connection to the club.
Juventus president Andrea Agnelli was full of praise for the departing skipper, and said he is now part of a triumvirate of icons to have graced the shirt. "When [Antonio] Conte bid his farewell, he gave Del Piero his captain band. I could speak a lot about Alessandro, about his quality as player and man,” he said.
"Three players can be considered Juventus symbols: [Giampiero] Boniperti, [Michel] Platini and certainly Del Piero. I'll always be grateful to Alessandro, like all our fans are.”
He moved to the Stadio Delle Alpi in 1993 from Padova, scoring a hat-trick in his first start against Parma, and was a member of the squad that began I Bianconeri’s return to dominance, taking their first title in eight years during his second season.
They completed a domestic double weeks later, before he went on to have arguably his greatest moment in a Juve shirt in 1996, winning the UEFA Champions League by beating Ajax in Rome. He lifted the Intercontinental Cup later that year, but suffered the disappointment of two successive European Cup final defeats, despite having won Serie A prior to both games.
Throughout his time in the north of Italy he has rarely led the line, usually deployed in a more receded forward role, but his scoring rate remains impressive, averaging two every five games across 800 appearances for club and country. He won the Capocanoniere in 1997/98 with 21 goals, and incredibly matched that league-best tally a decade later on their return from Serie B.
He earned the nickname Il Pinturicchio, after the modest renaissance painter, when former club president Gianni Agnelli jokingly put down the emerging star, saying he was an apprentice to the master that was Roberto Baggio – who he likened to the revered Raphael.
Finishing with a flourish
Despite the pressure of following his predecessor, the moniker was impressively apt as Del Piero regularly went about his play with the grace of an artist, his final goal in Serie A reflecting the poise he carried throughout his career.
He calmly carried the ball towards the edge of the box, laying it off to Emanuele Giaccherini, before dropping into space to receive the return pass, followed by a majestic stroke of his right boot to send a curling effort into the bottom left corner. It typified his preference to caress and delicately place shots towards his desired location, rarely opting for unmitigated power, with most efforts on goal opulently controlled.
He built a reputation for cutting inside from the left to curl shots in to the far top corner, a skill he mastered down to almost a fine art, and his free-kicks were devastatingly accurate.
His dead balls were to such a standard that he left even Ronaldinho in awe. "Alex is my idol," the former Brazilian international said. "He is a better free-kick specialist than I am and I have no problem in stating that. He strikes the ball in such a manner that the trajectory is strong and unpredictable. If I were a goalkeeper, I wouldn’t know where to stand."
Arguably his greatest moment came when he sealed Italy’s passage to the FIFA World Cup™ final in 2006, scoring Italy’s second to knock out hosts Germany. His subsequent penalty in the final shoot-out in their win over France may be his peak as a footballer, but his overriding legacy will always be the one he wrote with I Bianconeri.