Below zero in the stands. Minus 15 on the pitch. It was a chilling night at the Allianz as Juventus returned to action for the first time since a points deduction in the plusvalenza case relating to past player exchanges and the artificially inflated transfer values attributed to them.
Juventus have dropped like the temperature in Piedmont, falling from a place on the podium to mid-table, the Champions League as far away as the snow-capped Alps visible from the Turin city streets. Outside the ground, a banner strewn along the perimeter fencing evoked a mood of defiance. “Serie A o Serie B siamo sempre qui, solo per la Juventus FC.” Top flight or second division, the fans are always going to come here, for a club that comes above all else. Spirited in sentiment, it briefly warmed the chestnuts of the Juventus fans filing through the gates.
Sirens attracted some supporters to the underpass where the blue flashing lights of a police escort guided the team bus into the bowels of the stadium. In the cool, bracing air the shivers and goosebumps were indicative of winter as well as a club still in a state of shock. Juventus did not expect this punishment. The club had already been cleared last year and an initial appeal from Giuseppe Chine, the unrelenting prosecutor of the FIGC (Italian Football Federation), had been turned down.
His motion on Friday afternoon to reopen the case on the grounds of new evidence was considered inadmissible by Juventus’ legal team, his severe recommendation of a nine-point penalty in the event of success a source of considerable consternation. It meant Juventus’ executives, the coaching staff, players, and an entire fanbase faced an anxious wait while the Court of Appeal considered Chine’s case and the club’s defence.
The hearing and sentencing happened all in one day, a tense, dramatic and, in La Repubblica’s opinion, “rushed” day. “When they told me it might be nine points, I immediately calculated what we’d need to get into the Champions League,” Massimiliano Allegri said.
The unflappable 55-year-old coach is renowned for his mental arithmetic. Over the years, he has liked to predict the points total needed to win Serie A and use it as a guide. Reporters regularly ask him for updates depending on how the season is going. On Friday, Allegri had to revise his projection within hours as the Court of Appeal unexpectedly came down far harder on Juventus than even Chine requested. “When it turned out to be 15, I made a new calculation,” Allegri wryly commented. “To get to that we have to do something extraordinary.”
Juventus had already lost their Friday feeling a week earlier when league leaders Napoli inflicted a 5-1 defeat on them at the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona, the heaviest suffered by the club in 30 years. Seven days later, it felt like deja vu. Not 5-1 but -15 as seen through a cracked mirror. In retrospect, it is astonishing to think Juventus could have gone within four points of first place had they won in Naples. Instead, as the players warmed up on Sunday night, the gap stood at 28 to the top and 15 to the Champions League places. The headline in local sports daily Tuttosport declared: “Injustice is done.”
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As the teams lined up with the kid mascots and the TV cameras went from player to player, the fans in the Allianz Stadium booed and whistled the Serie A anthem in disgust at the club’s treatment. Just prior, Maurizio Scanavino, the club’s new chief executive, took the opportunity to distance the club from the “hate speech and threats” made by “pseudo fans” to the president of the FIGC, Gabriele Gravina, his family and Chine in the aftermath of the sentencing on Friday. As he took his seat in the executive box beside existing directors like Gianluca Pessotto and Marco Storari, the deafening noise that greeted O Generosa left no one under any illusion that, for swathes of the fanbase, Serie A and the FIGC aren’t welcome in this neighbourhood anymore.
And yet for all the hostility expressed from the Curva Scirea, the crowd was patchy as it has been all season with only 33,000 in attendance (that’s 80 per cent capacity in a small stadium that used to always sell out). In a joint communique before the game, some of the oldest ultras groups like the Vikings figuratively sharpened their axes and began to grind them on the ancien regime, which had dared take them on and break up their ranks. “This is worse than 2006,” the Facebook post read, alluding to Juventus’ relegation after Calciopoli, a scandal about power and influence and how it was brought to bear on the Italian game. “Today we’re being made to pay,” it lamented, because the old board led by Andrea Agnelli “treated our jersey like an object without a soul”.
Agnelli was not in the stands for Atalanta’s visit to the Allianz Stadium. After resigning in November along with the entire Juventus board amid the investigation into the club’s financial affairs, his mandate ignominiously ended in Naples with a 5-1 defeat. The Court of Appeal’s decision to ban Agnelli for two years did the rest. “I’m very sorry for Agnelli, (Federico) Cherubini, (Pavel) Nedved, (Maurizio) Arrivabene and (Paolo) Garimberti (who were all handed suspensions),” Allegri said. “In addition to the professional side, there’s the human side too and that comes before everything.”
Allegri could have felt sorry for himself and mused on why he turned down Real Madrid in 2021 to return here. But self-pity was not on his agenda. Born in Livorno, the location of the Italian Naval Academy, he intends to steer Juventus through troubled waters. “I am the coach of Juventus and I will stay the coach of Juventus until someone gets rid of me,” he said. “In hard times you need to be a man and do your duty. I find adversity inspiring and that has to go for everyone.” Allegri always looks for the positive. “This is an opportunity to give all we got.”
How he psychologically prepares the team is likely to be more important than any tactical adjustment he makes between now and the end of the season. “We must do our duty,” Allegri said, “because the definitive sentence is due in two months’ time (after Juventus’ appeal is heard by the Italian Olympic Committee’s Board of Guarantors) and we don’t want to find ourselves with any regrets for not doing what we should have done when it comes.”
The same tone was adopted as recently as mid-September when a humiliating loss to newly promoted Monza left Juventus eighth. Calls to sack Allegri, who typically made light of it, saying he missed hearing them in his two years out of the game, had barely died down when he embarked on an unexpected streak of eight consecutive wins. After all, winning runs is what Allegri does. When all seemed lost at AC Milan in the season Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva were sold and Pippo Inzaghi, Clarence Seedorf, and Alessandro Nesta retired, he turned things around in the second half of the season. The team lost just once in 20 games, finishing third when Serie A didn’t have a fourth Champions League spot. At Juventus in 2015-16, the team found itself more or less in the position it was at the beginning of this weekend, albeit earlier in the season, and took 79 from 84 points.
“We don’t know where we’ll be on June 5,” Allegri said, “but there’s the Europa League, the Coppa Italia and 60 points still up for grabs.” A lot to play for then.
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At training on Saturday, the club’s new chairman Gianluca Ferrero and Scanavino, the figureheads of a board that bears resemblance to a war cabinet, spoke to the players for a quarter of an hour. The club’s legal team had already issued a statement to ANSA in reaction to the points deduction, calling it a “clear injustice” and lamenting the “disparity in treatment” compared with the other eight clubs and 41 executives that were initially implicated, all of whom were cleared again. “In the face of injustice, we need to stay united and each and everyone of us has to do their job. We’ll do that by defending the club in the appropriate institutions, you can do that by picking up points on the pitch. Today more than ever you represent millions of supporters all over the world.”
The game itself did its best to live up to the tension and drama of the last few days. Juventus fell behind, took the lead, fell behind again and rescued a point in a 3-3 draw. It was jittery, mistake-ridden and worrying at times with Wojciech Szczesny and captain Danilo making costly errors. Yet they were determined, flamboyant and encouraging in others with Angel Di Maria’s back heels, Arkadiusz Milik’s volley and a redemptive equalising free-kick from Danilo.
“It’s clear that these situations affect us,” Juventus’ midfielder Manuel Locatelli admitted. “It’s pointless hiding it. We can only respond on the pitch and respect the fans. There’s nothing we can do about the rest.”
On the one hand, things could get better for Juventus. Federico Chiesa came on again against Atalanta. Paul Pogba and Dusan Vlahovic are back in full training. Maybe the Board of Guarantors will overturn the 15-point penalty on appeal. Then again it could also get worse if a separate sporting case into wage deferrals during COVID-19 opens and UEFA concludes Juventus breached licensing and Financial Fair Play regulations, to say nothing of the criminal case which will have its first hearing at the end of March.
“We absolutely mustn’t allow ourselves to be distracted by things on the outside,” Allegri insisted. “I just have to congratulate the guys (tonight) and thank them for what they did because I put myself in their shoes as well, it was more of a psychological thing, seeing yourself second in the standings, third, and then finding yourself in tenth place, psychologically it’s as if they take away what you did, so it wasn’t easy. We just have to thank the players as well as all the staff who worked these two days around the boys. We just have to continue with great pride.”
This Old Lady needs to find defiance in distress.
(Photo: Chris Ricco – Juventus FC/Juventus FC via Getty Images)
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