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By Thomas Ough
He took sixty seconds to leave the pitch, the whole ground shaking with applause as he turned to each corner to thank the fans, before posing for pictures at the touchline and signing autographs, oblivious to the game going on behind him. If it was any other player this would have been arrogance. This was Alessandro Del Piero though. No one could begrudge him this moment.
When Juventus were relegated to Serie B for the start of the 2006-7 season in the wake of the calciopoli betting scandal star players flooded out of the club. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Lillian Thuram and Fabio Cannavaro all waved goodbye to Turin, heading to Barcelona and Real Madrid. The days of glory seemed to be over at Italy’s biggest club. Meanwhile their Milan rivals were rubbing their hands in anticipation as a future of league title after league title seemingly beckoned.
Amidst the mass exodus there were some rays of hope though – Gigi Buffon, Italy’s number one and the most expensive goalkeeper of all time stayed, as did Czech legend Pavel Nedved, entering the twilight of his career. The name of Del Piero carried the most weight though. He had just become the club’s all-time leading goalscorer, before scoring one of the penalties that saw Italy lift the 2006 World Cup. His presence was symbolic for Juventus, not quite a one club man but embraced as such by the fan; he made over 700 appearances for the Old Lady, sticking with them even when Fabio Capello dropped him from the starting line-up. Del Piero was Juventus.
It seems strange for a man with such an illustrious career, including World Cup and Champions League triumphs, that season in Italy’s second division could be the one that defines him as a player. The hunger Del Piero displayed, though, reveals a true passion for the game – he finished the season with 21 goals and captained the Juventus side that won the league at a canter, despite the nine-point penalty levied at the start of the season. It was triumph of loyalty, a heart-warming site in an age of big spending and final pay cheques.
Flash forward five years and Del Piero has just scored a goal in his last home game for Juventus. Their new stadium reverberates with joy, their hero has scored for the last time in this black and white kit to secure an unbeaten season, the first Italian side to complete the feat since Fabio Capello’s Milan team in the 1991-2 season. The ghosts of calciopoli are behind the team, finally granting redemption for the leagues of fans still bitter at the loss of the 2005 and 2006 scudettos. And at the centre is Alessandro Del Piero, there through thick and thin since 1993, a model of professionalism and a key player.
A bit part player this season, yes, but the important bits, such as the second goal against Internazionale which killed the game off, or the free kick against Lazio that secured all three points to return Juve to the top of the table in March, or the final flourish against Atlanta as he ensured they finished the league season unbeaten.
In a final display of professionalism and humility he refused an offer to retire the number ten shirt, a shirt he inherited from Roberto Baggio in 1995. “I agree with his decision,” said teammate Andrea Pirlo “It’s unthinkable that someone will live up to his legacy soon, but I’m sure someone will, in the future.” We may have to wait a long while for a player quite so special as Alessandro Del Piero to appear in Serie A.
PHOTO// James Adams