Reinventing Juventus

Juventus’s satisfaction at playing their 200th European Cup game against Bordeaux this week will be tempered by the suspicion that Italy’s best supported club* really ought to have won this competition more often than Inter, Nottingham Forest and Porto. 

One reason the Turin club is called Juventus (“youth” in Latin) is because the founders wanted to shun any suggestion of municipal parochialism and appeal to young people across Italy and the world.

But the surest way to achieve that ambition is to create a golden team that conquers Europe or revolutionises the game, in the manner of Real in the 1950s or Ajax in the 1970s.

Even though the club’s history has been illuminated by such legends as John Charles, Omar Sivori, Pietro Anastasi, Dino Zoff, Michel Platini, Roberto Baggio, Zinedine Zidane and Alessandro Del Piero, Juve have been neither all-conquering nor great innovators and have much work to do if they are to challenge Real Madrid or Manchester United as one of football’s dominant global brands.

The controversies surrounding Juventus’s domestic supremacy – they have won the scudetto and the Coppa Italia more than any other club – are so numerous and entertaining that Tobias Jones fills much of a chapter with them in his brilliant book The Dark Heart Of Italy.

In Florence, fans refer to Juve as “gobi” (hunchbacks, which are considered lucky in Italy).

It is not uncommon, calcio historian John Foot says, to see stickers proclaiming Fiorentine houses a “hunchback free zone.”

To rival fans, Juve’s pre-eminence in calcio is the fruit of a conspiracy almost as all-embracing as the P2/CIA/Masonic/Vatican consortium with complicates the life of enigmatic Venetian detective Aurelio Zen in Michael Dibdin’s thrillers.

And at the centre of all these plots, a veritable grassy knoll of football conspiracy theories, stood Juve’s former general manager Luciano Moggi, the Darth Vader of calcio.

The most convincing evidence Juve could offer in its defence was to show that its quality counted in Europe. But two European Cups, three UEFA Cups and a Cup-Winners’ Cup have not dispelled the doubts.

Juve’s match record in their first 199 European Cup games is good – W100, D49, L50 F323 A194 – but in this competition, winning really counts.

And even the two trophy wins have their associated question marks. Juve’s first triumph, in 1985, was (through no fault of their own) mired in tragedy.

The second, on penalties in 1996, should have ushered in a golden age for Marcello Lippi’s flexible, easy on the eye Juventus but led, instead, to successive defeats in the 1997 and 1998 finals.

Sometimes catastrophes, if they are big, sudden and comprehensive enough, can sow the seeds of victory. And the devastation wrought by calciopoli created space for a new club.

New president Jean-Claude Blanc (who gives a pretty frank interview about his challenge in the latest issue of Champions) calls this entity “Newventus.”

His Newventus is, he admits, very much a work in progress.

But a new coach (Ciro Ferrara, chosen on the Guardiola precedent), a new stadium (the Juventus Arena, due to open in 2011) and a new playmaking genius (Brazilian master Diego) are part of that vision.

Will this quiet revolution work? Some bad habits are easier to shed than others.

So far in Group A, Juventus have lived up to the Italian adage of doing the minimum required to win.

They have shipped only one goal, but scored just three and their football has been efficient rather than spectacular – especially in their 1-0 win away to Maccabi Haifa – and singularly bereft of the style that could romance the world.

The idea that Diego could single-handedly reinvent Juve’s image, making a team synonymous with physical power as famous for its flair and technique, always seemed a stretch.

But if midfielders Claudio Marchisio, Felipe Melo and Sebastian Giovinco fulfil their potential, the Juventus Arena becomes an atmospheric stadium worthy of champions, and Blanc invests in such stars as Rubin ace Alejandro Dominguez next summer, anything is possible.

The political challenge for Blanc and Ferrara is how they negotiate the Del Piero question.

One of Paolo Maldini’s many services to Milan was that he was largely happy, in the twilight of his career, to play the ambassador, personify the club to the world, and not fret too obviously about how many games he played.

Del Piero’s old teammate Ferrara must ensure he doesn’t alienate the club’s greatest global icon, who still looks in good nick for 35, while ensuring that Juventus’s new talent can form the core of a team that might deliver a third European crown.

When Juventus visit Bordeaux, that bright future might seem more like a mirage than a vision.

But a place in the last 16 might be the single step that kicks off Newventus’s thousand-mile journey back to the summit of European football.

* A 2009 Sport + Markt survey found that Juventus have 17.5 million fans across Europe, compared to 21.0 million for Milan and 44.2 million for Barcelona. But the club claims 14.0 million supporters in Italy which, most estimates suggest, is more than Milan. Yet more evidence of domestic domination not turned into continental competition...

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