THE advice about how to avoid the Coronavirus has been clear; stay at home. Wash your hands. Keep your distance from other people. But what to do next? As days turn into weeks and perhaps even longer, football fans have been starved of their usual distractions with Euro 2020 and the Olympics moving to next summer and domestic leagues across the continent postponed indefinitely.
The simple answer has been to turn to scouring YouTube for our favourite players, clip after clip of wonderful goals, impeccable tackles and breathtaking moments of skill that made us fall in love with a particular star. For this writer, Alessandro Del Piero is an obvious candidate, his career highlights opening up an endless online rabbit hole as one compilation rolls into the next and suddenly a few hours have passed.
For some, Del Piero is Juventus, his two decades of flawless dedication to the Old Lady making him as synonymous with the club as the black and white stripes of their home shirt. He set records for appearances (705) and goals (290) that might never be broken, but in simply reading those numbers it is easy to miss just what made him so special.
Returning to those highlight clips helps, with some of the sensational goals he scored for the Bianconeri needing multiple viewings to understand just how Del Piero managed to get the ball into the net. Did he really leap into the air to score with his heel against Torino? (Yes!). Was his back heel in the 1997 Champions League final arguably even better? (Yes!) Did he really score so many times from the left-hand edge of the penalty area that it became known as “the Del Piero Zone” in Italy? (Again, yes!)
Yet even having seen all 290 goals for Juve, another 27 for Italy and even 24 more for Sydney FC at the tail end of his stellar career, the whole story has yet to be understood because – to Juventus fans – Del Piero is about so much more than his on-field production.
Perhaps first and foremost is simply that he stayed. When the Calciopoli scandal rocked Italian football in 2006, some big names could not leave Turin fast enough; coach Fabio Capello immediately joined Real Madrid, taking Fabio Cannavaro and Emerson with him while Gianluca Zambrotta and Lilian Thuram headed to Barcelona. Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Patrick Vieira did the unthinkable and joined bitter rivals Inter Milan.
But Del Piero took a different path. “I’m proud to be a Juventino, to be a “flag bearer” as you often define me to be,” he wrote in an open letter to fans following the club’s enforced relegation that summer, “but in reality I’m just a small part of a big black and white flag that grows with the years and if you look closely your name is part of it too… To continue making this flag grow we need everybody: let’s stay united".
He would ensure they did just that, captaining the fallen giants through their lone season in Serie B and ensuring their instant promotion back to the top flight. Del Piero would finish the 2006/07 campaign as the second division’s highest goal scorer and would repeat the feat in Serie A the following season.
“A true gentleman never leaves his lady” he would remark later, and in remaining by her side, Del Piero endeared himself even more fully in the hearts of Juve supporters everywhere. As the Bianconeri toiled in mediocrity over the following years, he would be one of the only bright spots in an otherwise dour spell in the club’s history.
That all changed in the summer of 2011 however as Juventus Stadium opened, the first modern arena built in Italy and the Old Lady ensured she had the men to christen her debut season there in style. Antonio Conte was appointed coach, with Arturo Vidal, Andrea Pirlo and countless other new signings arriving to help win the first league title of the post-Calciopoli era.
They would play out the entire campaign without losing a single game, but no matter how much impact the fresh faces had, there was no denying Del Piero a starring role as La Madama rediscovered her former glories. He would score against Roma and AC Milan to help steer them to the Coppa Italia final, net a vital strike in a win over Inter and mark his 700th appearance for the club by smashing home a free kick to secure three points against Lazio.
A goal on the final day against Atalanta saw his name cheered loudly by the home crowd, but it was following his second half substitution when they truly made their feelings be known. Del Piero had tried to take a seat on the bench only for the supporters to give him a continued ovation, their chants prompting a lap of honour that overshadowed the game that was still being played.
In truth, there is no better metaphor for how much this man means to fans of Juventus than the fact they ignored a match to shower their hero with adulation one last time. There was barely a dry eye in the stadium as Del Piero made his way around the pitch, stopping to tie a bootlace in order to hide his own tears. “From tomorrow I will no longer be a Juventus player, he said afterwards, “but I’ll always be one of you.”
He was and still is. Alessandro Del Piero is a Juventus legend, and a great way to pass the time until you next need to wash your hands…