When the nights began to pull in around San Vendemiano, Gino Del Piero couldn’t bring himself to call out to his son Alessandro and tell him that it was time to pick up his ball and come inside. Once darkness fell, he would instead open up the garage, turn on the light, get into his FIAT 127 and park it outside. A space was left for the boy to practice in until bedtime when he’d head up to the room he shared with his brother Stefano and go to sleep under a poster of Michel Platini.

 

Alessandro was encouraged to keep playing football for as long as he wanted. Decades later the enthusiasm he has for the game remains undiminished. It seems as though he still feels the same giddy excitement as the time he unwrapped a birthday present from his father and discovered a box containing his first ever football boots, a pair of classic Adidas Littbarskis.

 

The thought of retiring, even at 37 after winning everything there is to win, hasn’t seriously crossed his mind. “I will be the first one to know when I have to stop but not yet: my passion for the game is too alive,” Del Piero told Vanity Fair. “It’s not easy to say how long I have got left,” he added in L’Équipe. “If I think about the passion that I have for football, for my job, I would say 20 years.”

 

The travesty is that Del Piero will not be allowed to carry on and finish his career at Juventus, the club of his heart.

 

This has been known for some time now. On May 5, 2011, Del Piero declared he’d signed a one-year extension and that “it will be my last contract with this shirt.” Sitting by his side as he put pen to paper, president Andrea Agnelli confirmed: “It will be Del Piero’s last season at Juve.” The never-ending story had a final chapter. And yet few, not least Del Piero, were ready to put the book down. “The hope,” he insisted, “is to stay at Juventus for as long as possible.”

 

It wasn’t to be. At a shareholders’ assembly on a cold, grey afternoon in mid-October Agnelli reiterated rather abruptly without warning and little ceremony that, yes, this would in fact be Del Piero’s final year. There was a round of applause and that, it seemed, was that.

 

The news itself wasn’t a great shock. Agnelli in mitigation had his reasons for making an announcement on that occasion. But the sensation remained that it could and should have been handled better; that perhaps it would have been more appropriate to tie it in with the memorable opening of Juventus’s new stadium. Instead, it was mentioned amid a discussion about the club making a fresh capital injection after an “intolerable” financial loss, hardly the ideal moment to pay proper tribute to one of the most valuable players in its history. “It’s like breaking up with a lover of 20 years by text message,” wrote Luigi Garlando in La Gazzetta dello Sport.

 

Reported to have not taken it well, Del Piero was diplomatic when the satirical show Striscia la Notizia caught up with him a few days later to give him the Tapiro d’Oro. “Let’s say the president reminded me of my contract expiring early,” he mused. Keen not to make anything more out of it, Del Piero left it there until later in the season when he conceded that “[Agnelli] surprised me. But a captain must never forget his duties and what he represents.”

 

Recurrent not just among i delpieriani of Juventus’s support, but Italians in general, was the feeling that Del Piero deserved something more. He was very nearly the best thing the Old Lady never had.

 

“Before joining Padova at 13. I had a trial some months earlier to go and play in Turin… but at another club, Torino!” Del Piero told France Football. “At the time they probably had the best academy in Italy. But my mother was categorical: ‘You’re only 12. You’re too young and Turin is a long way away’.”

 

Once at Padova, legend has it that a Juventus scout famously came to watch one of his games. Unimpressed, he left a quarter of an hour from the end. Del Piero then scored twice. Destiny, it seemed, would have to intervene. And it did.

 

A teenage Del Piero signed at Juventus’s headquarters in Piazza Crimea. It was 1993. Reflecting on that time, the great former player Giampiero Boniperti, then club president, wrote in his book una vita a testa alta: “I immediately took him to see the trophies. ‘Have you seen how many we have won?’ I asked. ‘I hope that you can contribute to making Juventus even greater’.”

 

Del Piero did that and more.

 

By the age of 22, he had won everything there was to win at club level. As of last week, he could count six Scudetti [or a record-equaling eight - like Beppe Furino, Ciro Ferrara, Giovanni Ferrari and Virginio Rosetta  - if you include, as he does, the two revoked by Calciopoli] a Cadetto, a Coppa Italia, four Italian Super Cups, a Champions League, an Intercontinental Cup, the European Super Cup and of course the 2006 World Cup among his major honors.

 

Over time, he surpassed the immaculate Gaetano Scirea as Juventus’s all-time leader in appearances. He eclipsed Boniperti himself as the club’s top scorer in Serie A and also in absolute with 289 goals.

 

Kids up and down the peninsula, playing in the streets and squares of Turin, Milan, Rome and Naples, have attempted, while providing their own radio commentary, to score a gol alla Del Piero – emulating the looping cushioned volley with the outside of the foot against Fiorentina, the mazy dribbles from the wing before cutting inside the box and curling a shot into the top corner against Lazio and so many others, the pivot against River Plate, the backheel against Borussia Dortmund, the free-kick against Milan, the last gasp counter in added time of extra-time against Germany and the brace that earned a standing ovation from Real Madrid fans at the Bernabeu.

 

Wherever Juventus called home throughout his career, he left his mark, finding the net at the Stadio Communale, the Delle Alpi, the Olimpico and the eponymous Juventus Arena. Del Piero is the thread that binds them all together. He is living history and from him, there are many lessons to be learned.

 

Del Piero never showed anything but respect for Juventus. It bears remembering how, after he was presented with his first shirt in the introductory press conference following his transfer from Padova, he neatly and delicately folded the black and white jersey. He didn’t toss it to one side and leave it crumpled on the floor like other new signings. He valued it, as many would his loyalty.

 

Del Piero always stood by Juventus even amid the doping allegations, the Calciopoli scandal and relegation to Serie B. He didn’t walk out like some of the others or abandon ship like Schettino. He assumed responsibility and led them out of the darkness back into the light. None of the other “simboli per sempre” – Omar Sivori, Boniperti, Roberto Bettega, Michel Platini and Dino Zoff – had their devotion to the club tested to the same degree. None of them had a day like that in Rimini on September 9, 2006 when Juventus’s first ever season in Serie B began, their shirts stripped of a Scudetto that was remembered in a tricolor wristband.

 

For that service Juventus owe Del Piero a special gratitude. The club is what it is today in large part because of him. Separating one from the other in the collective imagination is an exercise in futility. They are indistinguishable. “Throughout the world Juventus is Del Piero,” opined former coach and mentor Marcello Lippi. “When you say his name it means Juve. I don’t know what happened between him and the club.”

 

Understanding the whys and wherefores is possible. Agnelli, with all due respect for Del Piero, regardless of the rather clumsy way he has shown it, is of the opinion that the player is the past not the future of the club. Del Piero still feels he has so much more to give, not on the bench, but from the start. A bit-part player for much of this season, left on the sidelines even when Juventus’s strikers were misfiring, Del Piero proved decisive when called upon, scoring in the Coppa Italia semi-final against Milan, the Derby d’Italia with Inter, and then at home to Lazio when his winner appeared to greatly shift the momentum in the title race back in favour of his team.

 

Knowing as much, for as competitive a soul as Del Piero’s, being out of the starting XI can’t have been easy.  He has called it “the most complicated [season] of my life because a reality was placed in front of me which I had never known: the reality of playing little or not at all.”

 

In an ideal world, Del Piero would start every remaining game of his career in a Juventus shirt. The inconvenient truth is that he has to contemplate playing elsewhere. “From June 30, I am out of contract,” Del Piero acknowledged. “I don’t know what to think about my future, it’s a huge change and it frightens me a little because it’ll be like leaving home for a second time. But I am living it as though it were one of the video games that I liked as a child, a new level to overcome.”

 

And so, Sunday’s game against Atalanta was Del Piero’s last in front of his home fans. As an occasion it will certainly live long in memory.  After the Turin born and bred academy graduate Luca Marrone put Juventus ahead, who else but Del Piero should double their lead and make all but sure that his club entered the history books as only the third team after Perugia in 1978-79 and Milan in 1991-92 to go an entire season unbeaten in Serie A.

 

Receiving the ball from Emanuele Giaccherini outside of the area, the Juventus No.10 lined up his sights, and pitched a wonderfully precise swinging shot into the corner. Like no other to my mind he has a habit of scoring goals that are charged with emotion and sentiment. It’s enough to think about the step-over and dink against Bari in 2001 just days after his father lost his battle to cancer and the flick against Piacenza shortly after l’Avvocato, the great Juventus patron, Gianni Agnelli past away in 2003.

 

This time each of his teammates gathered around him in a circle. They paused for a little while to share the moment and take it all in. There was an appreciation that this was the last time it would happen here in Turin.

 

If it hadn’t already sunk in, then Del Piero’s substitution in the 57th minute brought it home. Seeing the fourth official hold up his board and Simone Pepe warming up to replace him, Del Piero stopped in his footsteps, raised his hands to the sky and waved to the stands, blowing kisses and taking a bow.

 

As he trudged off the pitch, the Atalanta players clapped and pat him on the back. A cry of “un Capitano, c’è solo un Capitano” rang out followed by “another year, Del Piero another year.” After embracing goalkeeper Gigi Buffon, he walked up the stairs to take his place in the dug out, stopping to sign the autograph of a young Juventino.

 

No sooner had he got sat down than the crowd beckoned him to stand again. Urged on by Mirko Vucinic and Claudio Marchisio, he stood up and accepted the applause, pumping his fist before embarking on an impromptu lap of honor as play continued around him. No one was watching the game. Once under the Curva, scarves and shirts were thrown, landing at Del Piero’s feet like roses tossed before an opera singer. “Grazie di Tutto,” went the next chant.

 

Back near the bench, Buffon, resting his head on his palm, looked on in wonder, shaking his head. “In the next 150 years there will not be anyone like Del Piero. I was moved,” he said afterwards. He wasn’t the only one. Cameras panned around the ground showing fans crying. Del Piero had to fight to keep his feelings inside too, pretending to tie his shoelaces “to hide my tears.” Saying goodbye is never easy.

 

Circuit completed, he descended into the dressing room at full-time, poignantly emerging last to walk the celebratory red carpet and lift the Scudetto trophy under a snowstorm of ticker tape. If he were ready to retire, then there could surely have been no better time than this given the club is back on top. But, as is abundantly clear from the title of his new book giochiamo ancora [Let’s Keep Playing], his intention is another. “I have a lifetime to be a director. I was born to play football, I am healthy and I want to continue to do so.”

 

Now all that remains is this weekend’s Coppa Italia final against Napoli. After that it’s into the unknown for the generations that have grown up with Del Piero: the prospect of a Juventus without him.

 

The closest he has ever previously come to wearing a shirt other than bianconero was at the end of his first season in Turin. It had been agreed that he’d be sent on loan to Parma. There was a meeting with their owner Calisto Tanzi, but the deal fell through after they signed Dino Baggio and felt their shopping was done. “If I’d changed jersey, everything might have taken a different path.”

 

Like a character in a Robert Frost poem he is now taking the one less travelled. “I’m a bit out of practice,” Del Piero claims. “I haven’t been on the market for 19 years.” He drew the comparison in his book with “entering Narnia.” But perhaps the real fairytale would have been for Del Piero to go through the wardrobe and find a way to finish his career at Juventus. Instead, we wish him a happy ending elsewhere.

 

Ciao Ale, Grazie di tutto.

 

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