Juventus building bridges in Serie B
In the course of a 109-year history rich with tradition and silverware, Juventus have emerged as one of the leading clubs in world football and the most successful Italian club of all time.
The Turin-based club boast a proud record of seemingly endless triumphs, but even the game's biggest names occasionally have to cope with setbacks. Juventus' compulsory relegation to Serie B last summer was a painful blow to the proud club, now obliged to battle through at least one season out of the top flight before returning to their customary terrain.
While the scandal leading to the punishment was clearly a blight on world football, the manner in which positives have stemmed from this scandal is certainly worth retelling. The current squad, which includes three members of the Italy team that won the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™ (Buffon, Camoranesi and Del Piero), two of the French runners-up (Trezeguet and Boumsong), together with a clutch of local and imported superstars (Nedved, Zalayeta, Kovac, Tudor, Bojinov, Cristiano Zanetti, Giannichedda) and youthful Italian hopefuls (Marchionni, Chiellini, Palladino, Paro, Marchisio), have been charged as a group with overcoming a nine-point penalty and guiding the fallen giants back to the top flight.
Juve's season could have become a 42-match bid to escape the depths of further despair, but instead each individual episode in the Bianconeri's campaign has turned into a festive occasion, bringing ordinary people back into close contact with the sport. Crucial leadership, both in terms of technical ability and strength of character, is provided by two Juventus legends; goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, winner of the Lev Yashin Trophy at Germany 2006, and captain Alessandro Del Piero , Juventus' all-time leading scorer and the man who sealed Germany's exit from this summer's showpiece event with the second goal in the semi-final in Dortmund.
Juventus have moved to the renovated 25,000-capacity Stadio Olimpico (formerly the Stadio Communale) for this season, while the vast 65,000-seat Stadio Delle Alpi undergoes reconstruction. The move back to the ground where the likes of Boniperti, Sivori, and Platini plied their trade under deceased former owner Gianni Agnelli has been a major factor in attracting fans back to matches in droves.
Juve have also drawn full houses wherever they have gone across Italy, from the immense Stadio San Paolo in Naples with its capacity in excess of 60,000, down to the smallest provincial grounds, where a home fixture against the Turin megastars represents the biggest event of the year. That was certainly the case on the first day of the season at the genteel spa resort of Rimini, where the club erected temporary stands for the occasion. In Crotone in Calabria, where the hospital boasts a fine view of the pitch, staff were forced to turn away hordes of folk claiming to be relatives urgently seeking to visit their loved ones on one rather special evening.
Back to their roots
The story has been the same everywhere, from regional outposts such as Frosinone, La Spezia and Arezzo, to the imposing stadiums in Bologna, Verona, Bari and Genoa, four of the host cities for the 1990 FIFA World Cup.
However, of all 22 teams in Italy's second division, one particular club stands apart as rather special. Albinoleffe, the product of a merger between Albinese and Leffe in 1998, have spent four straight seasons in Serie B, emerging as an unlikely success story and a tribute to Lombardian entrepreneurial values.
A statement by laid-back winger Mauro Camoranesi, returning from the Berlin Olympic stadium with his hair newly shorn, symbolised the mood back in mid-August. "I have no desire to play Albinoleffe," he huffed, still unwilling to accept demotion to Serie B. However, club bosses were determined to retain the superstar's services whatever the price, and the FIFA World Cup winner duly took the field on Saturday 18 November at the Stadio Atleti Azzurri d'Italia in Bergamo, home to the side Camoranesi selected to symbolise his distaste for life in the lower divisions.
The crowd witnessed a memorable match. The home side, undeterred by the fact that some 95 per cent of those present were sporting Juventus colours, had opened the scoring and also enjoyed a one-man advantage after Buffon's dismissal for a professional foul. Juventus did manage to equalise, but the outcome was in doubt right until the end.
While the Turin giants claim an estimated 10 million supporters, their opponents' twin towns, Albino and Leffe have a combined population of just 22,500. A fan club meets at the local bar nowadays, and some 1,000 season tickets were sold ahead of the campaign, a new record easily surpassing the previous best of around 700. Coach Emiliano Mondonico, closely associated with Juve's city rivals Torino and part of the side which fell to an unfortunate defeat in the 1992 UEFA Cup final against Ajax Amsterdam, is reported to harbour a strong sense of enmity towards Juventus.
A week ahead of the meeting with the Old Lady of Italian football, the Albinoleffe coach caused controversy when he waded into the stands at half-time in a home meeting with Genoa to remonstrate with a fan whose advice and opinions Mondonico clearly found unhelpful. This kind of incident would represent an unimaginable breach of protocol had it happened to involve Juventus.
At the end of the match with Juve, hundreds of fans surrounded the team buses, desperately hoping to catch sight of the Bianconeri superstars. Although the players came into view for perhaps a second apiece, affording the crowd no more than a glimpse, the tidal wave of emotion was worth the uncomfortable wait. No more than 10 metres away, Brazilian star Joelson, scorer of the opening goal, and another of the Albinoleffe players, stood and chatted with relatives and friends, apparently oblivious to the tumult in front of them.
Out on the field, there was precious little to choose between the teams, but the difference in media and public interest could hardly be greater. One of the finest aspects of football is its ability to bring together contrasting, yet equally important, worlds under one roof, and both deserve their share of public attention.