Across the Nineties and early Noughties, European football could boast of a number of club legends still strutting their stuff for their boyhood clubs. From Manchester’s Class of ’92, to Premier League rivals Gerrard and Terry, or the likes of Xavi, Iniesta and Raul in La Liga, football fans were witnessing an era of so-called ‘one-club players’ the likes of which would hardly be seen again once the TVmoneyed modern world of football evolved into its current form.
It was Italy, however, that arguably set the standard for player commitment, though recent years have seen club legends like Daniele De Rossi and Gigi Buffon depart (and in the latter’s case, return) for pastures new. But European dominance during these halcyon days of Italian football mean some names still bring a tear to the eye of any self-respecting Serie A devotee: Inter’s Zanetti, Milan’s Gattuso and Maldini, Roma’s Francisco Totti, and Juve’s Alessandro Del Piero.
“It’s not only a big part of my life, but it’s more my life,” Del Piero, now 44, says of his time with the The Old Lady. “I spent 19 years in Torino and Juventus, and was a fan before. We made together every single situation that a player can think about a club. We won everything. We made a lot of records. We went to relegation. We came back; we came back and we won again. I spent all, most of the part of my life with them, and I’m very proud about that.
“The connection that I have with the fans and with the people in Italy, not only Juventus fans, but everyone, it’s great. Especially with Juve, it’s a special connection. It’s something that I will never forget. It’s something that I have inside and for the rest of my life definitely.”
Known as one of Italy’s ‘fantistas’, Del Piero’s 19-year tenure saw the Conegliano-born centre forward make 513 appearances, score 208 goals, and win pretty much every honour available to a footballer, from the Serie A to the Champions League, and even a World Cup.
Of course, Del Piero’s World Cup win in Berlin’s Olympiastadion is remembered for another reason – the sight of his former Juve teammate Zinedine Zidane heatbutting Marco Materazzi in one of the all-time most unbelievable World Cup moments. Del Piero, who played alongside Zizou for six seasons between ’96 and ’01, says he was “surprised” the Frenchman moved into coaching.
“Now I’m not surprised that he has become a good coach because he’s a good guy,” he smiles. “He’s very professional, and that’s why I’m not surprised that he is a good coach.”
Zidane’s arrival in Turin in ’96 came just one year after Del Piero had inspired Juve to their sole Champions League victory to date. The recent acquisitions of first Cristiano Ronaldo and, this season, 19-year-old defensive wonderkid Matthias De Ligt have signalled beyond doubt that the team have another Champions League win firmly in their crosshairs, and Del Piero sees one crucial similarity between his continental conquerors and the modern team.
“Well, in 1996, we won the league the year before after nine years, it was a long period for Juventus,” he muses. “But we were just born, like a team. After that year in ‘96, we won the championship and then we won again and again, year by year. Now, we are in a situation, so Juve, they are winning a lot, and in 1996, we just changed the management one year before.”
It remains to be seen whether Maurizio Sarri can emulate Marcello Lippi’s debut win, after five seasons of Massimo Allegri’s efforts. Sarri, too, will be facing a far stronger challenge at home as well, with the rest of Serie A seeming to make ground on the runaway leaders with a series of acquisitions, including Del Piero’s old coach Antonio Conte now running the rule over cross-country rivals Internazionale.
“We won the championship together,” Del Piero nods. “We spent ten years together. We won a lot of titles. We have a great relationship. We won the Italian league for six years after the relegation, it was incredible. It was incredible because nobody beat us and it means a lot, especially in Italy, and we finished with an amazing year together.”
No hard feelings, then, for the fact that it was under Conte’s stewardship when Del Piero finally said goodbye to Juventus. Leaving behind a glittering legacy and the number 10 shirt – since worn by Carlos Tevez, Paul Pogba, and Paulo Dybala – Del Piero eschewed the interest of Liverpool to lend his status to the blossoming A-League with Sydney FC.
“What’s happened in Australia is great,” he says. “When I went there, the football became very, very popular. All the stadiums were sold out most of the time. The people love to be involved in the football. We changed the philosophy of football in that country by the way with the federation because they put a lot of effort. And after the two years, they won the Asian Cup, and then one club won the Asian Champions League, and this means a lot. When you make a lot of investment, then you have a result like that, it’s incredible. And still, the situation still good now and they enjoy the moment.”
After Sydney, Del Piero made yet another unusual move, to India, where he played ten games for Delhi Dynamos, scoring one goal. “In India, it’s just a start,” he nods. “It was just eight teams born from nothing. But a lot of people are interested to invest. They have a great involvement from the TV.
The passion that I found in India and that I found in Australia is the same passion that’s in Italy and in Europe. People love to see, watch football, and definitely that’s the difference because in one part in Europe, we were born to play football. And in these other countries, in Australia and in India, the main sport, the popular sport is not football. But it’s become soon one of the most popular.”
Having retired after his brief stint in South Asia, Del Piero now mainly appears as a pundit for Sky Italia. With contemporaries like Gattuso, Gerrard and Solskjaer now making their first moves into major management positions, and Zidane out front with his three consecutive Champions League wins, can Del Piero see a spot in the dugout in his footballing future?
“I miss football every day,” he smiles. “Yes, every day, but I don’t know. No, for the moment, I’m not looking to be a coach. Well, if you ask me this question three years ago, I would say no without comment. Now, I say no, for the moment. Probably in the future? Honestly, I don’t know! It was not an option three years ago. Now it could be an option.”