Beauty laced by beast

Last Updated 16 May 2015, 18:26 IST

Beware the old Italian who speaks with pessimism about facing a team like Barcelona but whose eyes burn with a piercing intensity. 

“This is a step we wanted to take with all our hearts,” said Gianluigi Buffon, the captain, goalkeeper and elder statesman of Juventus, after his team knocked out of last year’s winner, Real Madrid, from the Champions League in the Santiago Bernabéu.  “But,” Buffon added, “unfortunately at the end of it we face a really outstanding Barcelona, a team in my opinion that is physically and mentally stronger than ours.”

In victory, he managed to look doleful, almost fearful.If I’m not mistaken, the Italians said something similar going into their 2006 World Cup final against France. It was in the same stadium in Berlin where the Champions League final will be held June 6. Buffon, now 37, made an incredible save in that World Cup against Zinedine Zidane before the French player was goaded into the head butt that infamously got him red carded in the final, effectively handing the title to Italy.

Another Juventus veteran, Andrea Pirlo, took the first penalty kick in the shootout that won Italy that World Cup. Pirlo, who turns 36 next week, is expected to retire after the final in Berlin in June. There is an obvious truth in the words of Buffon about facing Lionel Messi, Luis Suárez and Neymar. However, he faced down Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale in the semis, and while none of those three were in top form, it still took a penalty kick for them to score.

That match showed that teamwork and a committed defence can defeat the world’s most celebrated individuals, and that will likely remain the key in the final against Barcelona, too. And Juventus, led by its keeper, has an exceptional team ethic. It blends the veterans (not just the Italians, but others like Carlos Tevez and Patrice Evra) with hungry young talents like Álvaro Morata and Paul Pogba.

Never go back, they say. Well, Buffon and Pirlo will relish returning to the scene of their greatest triumph in Berlin. Pogba, who was colossal in midfield against Madrid even though he was just returning from a seven-week absence due to a thigh injury, set up the goal against Real when he outjumped Sergio Ramos and headed the ball down to Morata, who drove it down into the ground and beyond Iker Casillas.

Casillas, Real’s captain, aspired many years ago to be a goalkeeper like Buffon. The two have played a combined 280 games for their clubs in European competition, though it is quite possible that Casillas has now played his last for Real.

Morata grew up with Real Madrid before the club discarded him last year. So the almost apologetic look he gave, just as he did in Italy a week before, was somewhat like the appearance Buffon gave when he pleaded that Juventus was humble and just grateful to be part of the spectacle against a Spanish giant like Madrid. It is a mask, hiding the true ambition to take down the opposition, one by one. Buffon is the goalkeeper who cost Juventus $50 million back in 2001 and remained faithful to the club after it was sent down to Serie B after a match-fixing scandal in 2006.

Buffon, still the captain of the Italian national team, comes from a town in northern Italy whose motto translates as “My strength is the wheel.” And no matter what he says, he is intent on taking this unforeseen opportunity to win soccer’s most coveted prize in club play. Can it happen? Not if Barcelona is firing on all cylinders. But Juventus, known as the Old Lady, has just shown that if every man on its team shows his best and their opponents do not, then anything can happen.

That is the attraction of sports: the beauty, sometimes laced by the beast. When a young Morata stepped back into the Bernabéu, he made his way across the tunnel before the game to hug old friends on the other side.

One of those, Ramos, understood the emotion but was wary of the outcome. “In the history of football,” Ramos later said, “you get cases like Morata coming back in the day. I was hoping he would not have his best game here, but football presents these opportunities. He is a young guy who grew up here, he is a Madrid fan, but he also wanted to be in Berlin.”
Morata tried not to say anything disrespectful or even faintly vengeful. But in dedicating his goal to his family, his girlfriend and the fans who applauded him, he added: “Also to my agent, who was tough last summer.”

The agent, who negotiated his move from Madrid to Juventus, stood firm against a clause that Real wanted in the contract — a line that would have barred Morata from playing against his former team in the Champions League. That clause was deleted, and so is Real Madrid now. There remains, however, a line that says Madrid has first refusal if Juventus should agree to sell Morata at some time in the future.
In the history of soccer, these things happen.

(Published 16 May 2015, 18:26 IST)

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