The Five Billion Person Party

Notes of a wandering American soccer fan

“Expensive, unwanted, and unloved”

Posted by steigs on April 3, 2008

From Italy, comes news that Juventus, the “gray lady” of Serie A, is preparing to build a new stadium.  This might be part of the financial arms race we see in England (as well as American sports) — gotta find a way to generate more revenue, with more seating and luxury boxes etc.  Juve is in third in the league at the moment, cruising towards a return to the Champions League, a sign that it may be moving past the scandals of recent years.

But I don’t think it’s just about money.  The current Stadio delle Alpi is no jewel, hardly the temple of football that the San Siro represents.  “Expensive, unwanted, and unloved” is how the Rough Guide describes it.  I was lucky enough to see a game there back in 2000, when Zidane ruled the Juve midfield.  That tale after the jump:

Turin – November 2000 

Turin is tucked away in the northwestern corner of Italy, just below the Alps and nearly in France.  The city feels rather Hapsburgian, with long pedestrian arcades, elaborate 19th century cafes, and the former palaces of the House of Savoy.  The movement to unify Italy was led in part from this region B the Piemonte B and its rulers became the original modern kings of Italy.

This fact explains one of the matters that puzzled me when I first began watching international soccer.  Why does Italy play in blue?  Their jerseys are almost as recognizable as those of Brazil B blue and invariably skin-tight.  Yet the colors of the Italian flag are red, white and green.  The blue, it turns out, comes from the colors of the old Italian royal family, the House of Savoy.

These days Turin is home to a different power, the Fiat auto empire.  The Princes of Savoy have been replaced by the princes of the Agnelli family.  Turin is Italy=s second city when it comes to industry, even if it is far down the tourism table.  As I stroll the classy marble arcades, hopping from café to café around the central Piazza Castello, it occurs to me that even the Italian Detroit has style. 

Winter mist covers the city.  I enjoy the calm of the cafes and puzzle through the La Gazzetta dello Sport, trying to make sense of the soccer gossip and analysis.  The one famous tourist item here, the Shroud of Turin in the Cattedrale di San Giovanni, is locked away and not on display at the moment.  (In fact, it is rarely on public show, due to preservation requirements.)  Instead, I go to the Museo Egizio, an impressive collection of Egyptian artifacts, mostly picked up by the old royalty.  I have the quiet floors to myself, strolling among the mummy tombs and mysterious hieroglyphics.  As always, the death fixation of the ancient Egyptians seems very strange.  I wonder what is says about Carlo Emanuele III, the 18th century figure who began the collection.  Did he relate?  Or was he just impressed by their sheer antiquity?  Much of the rest of Europe has a taste for Roman culture and artifacts.  I suppose here in the Roman homeland one could become jaded by them and turn to one of the few cultures with even older remnants.


 

I am in Turin to catch a Juventus game.  The team has won more than 25 scudettos, far more than any other Serie A team, and two European championships.  This is a tribute to the Agnelli family=s decades-long support of the team, which has long provided a Sunday afternoon=s entertainment for the thousands of workers of the family=s main business, autos.  The guys who made all those Fiats and Ferraris?  Their team was Juventus, just as our auto-workers have the Detroit Lions.  The Italian auto plant guys, it must be said, have had much the better deal.

Today, polls suggest that as many as one-third of all Italians root for Juventus, many far from Turin.  If the Cowboys are AAmerica=s Team@ for their widespread fan support then Juventus are AItaly=s Team.@  There are always some drawn to a winner.  And others may have no local Serie A team of their own.  And just as the Cowboys do, Juventus draws passionate opposition too.

Juventus have come a long way from their 1897 founding as a youth sports club.  (Juventus, by the way, is Latin for Ayouth.@)  The Agnellis first became involved in the early 1920s and the ascent of Juventus soon followed.  Once Serie A began, Juventus burst from the gate quickly, winning five straight titles in the early 1930s.  (It made it easier to sign good players that a new Fiat was often part of the deal.)  Turin was booming with industry, drawing migrants from Italy=s south, many of whom became Juventus fans as part of adopting a new northern identity.  The Agnellis and their money brought in star after star and the Serie A titles came in regular intervals through the years.  A particular high-point was the mid-1980s when classy French midfielder Michel Platini helped them win two scudettos and their first European championship.  When the AC Milan dynasty of the early 1990s faded, Juventus took over again, winning Serie A and their second European championship in 1996.

The fact that Juventus has experienced far more success in the Italian league than in European competitions has long led to whispers that they benefit from favoritism by referees at home.  Maybe.  They have reached six European Cup finals B and lost four of them.  Hmm.  Perhaps they just have some bad luck on big cup games.  (Years later, in 2006, the Italian authorities came down hard on Juventus for match-fixing and interfering with referees B so maybe the whispers over the years were accurate.)  There have also been accusations that in the mid-1990s Juventus players were given performance-enhancing drugs.  All in all, a team that wins a lot B and gathers accusations all the way.

Unfortunately for a team with such a rich tradition, their home, the Stadio delle Alpi B Alps Stadium B is an American-style mistake, comforting proof that poor sports planning is not limited to our barons of football and baseball.  It was erected for the 1990 World Cup at the northern edge of Turin, out almost beyond the endless ranks of post-World War II grimy apartment buildings for Fiat workers.  It=s a challenge to reach by the trams which snake through central Turin at all.  No one seems to like the Stadio delle Alpi.  AExpensive, unwanted, and unloved@ is the Rough Guide verdict on the place.  On a Sunday afternoon I make the 45 minute tram journey out from the central cafes to see Juventus play lowly Verona in a Serie A game. 


 

The Stadio delle Alpi is circled by acres upon acres of parking lots, so many that the stadium itself actually appears small.  Perhaps the Agnellis want to encourage people to buy more Fiats.  I can barely see any sort of business nearby at all, let alone a bar, with the exception of…a McDonalds.  No chance to watch the endless pre-game shows with a beer here.  There are the usual souvenir stands and refreshment mobile homes.  They=re dwarfed by the parking lots stretching into the distance as well.  There aren=t even that many cars in the lots today.  It is a windy wasteland of asphalt.

It is easy to buy a ticket.  The game is an routine match-up on a chilly winter afternoon and the stadium, despite how tiny it originally appeared, holds 71,000.  Feeling daring, and a bit lonely, I get a ticket for the Juventus ultra section, back behind one goal.  On the inside, the stadium architecture is futuristic in a nostalgic way, jaunty even, with wavy curves and wires crossing overhead.  There are two tiers of seats.  I go to the lower one since the upper level ultras appear to be the most fevered.  I=m not feeling that daring.  There is no sign that anyone is paying attention to the seats specified on their ticket.  Heck, people are standing anyway.  Up above, the Juventus ultras, behind their various regional fan club banners, sing and chant and prepare the flare overture. 

The fans around me are all male and, as at the San Siro, are busy smoking and talking on their cellphones.  The main difference is that in this section the fans are standing B it=s part of the ultra culture, whatever the team.  I had worn my DC United jersey today, thinking that its white with black stripe look B it=s the road version B might blend well with the famous black and white striped jersey of Juventus, a uniform that gives them a rather NFL referee look.  However, my jacket proves necessary for warmth.  The snowy tips of the Alps are peeking just over the other end of the stadium, making it feel even more wintery.  Besides, I don=t see many people wearing replica jerseys, even here among the ultras.  The fashion sense of Italian men seems to preclude wearing such things.  Juventus scarves, on the other hand, are more common, and in keeping with the weather.

The game begins with the usual flare demonstration.  The star of this Juventus team is Platini=s heir, Zinedine Zidane, the French World Cup hero, a midfielder often named the best player in the world.  I watch him as the game begins.  He moves easily in and out of the flow of play.  Zidane has somewhat darker skin, reflecting his North African immigrant heritage, and a predatory air about him, a player capable of clinical quality play.  His skill on the ball is astonishing.  It seems to obey every hint he gives it.  The few defenders who attempt to take it away from him are left flailing and flustered.  It seems pointless to me.

Juventus controls the game from the outset.  Zidane is the playmaker, the point guard equivalent, probing the Verona defense with ever-longer passes, seeking to catch that one moment when a forward slips free of the marking.  Verona are continually on the defensive, just trying to keep Juventus away from their goal. 

The ultras above are singing and drumming, a steady soundtrack throughout the game.  The atmosphere is much less intense than the San Siro, though, and I decide that it is at least partly due to the running track circling the field.  The fans are much further from the action and the game feels more like a distant television show, an unreal spectacle.  At the San Siro (or RFK, for that matter) the stands are right up close to the field and you feel more involved in the action and a little less an audience for it.  It=s more akin to attending at a play, where you=re more conscious of the humanity of the stars.


 

Verona=s defensive tactics are successful, barely, for most of the first half.  However, just before half-time, Juventus scores on a David Trezeguet header.  Like Zidane, Trezeguet is French and less than six months ago he scored the overtime goal for France that defeated Italy for the European Championship.  Yet both he and Zidane are back playing in the Italian league and the ultras above me celebrate their success with total abandon.  No hard feelings.  Being a soccer fan in this international age can often require such compartmentalization.   

Half-time.  The concessions are modest here as well.  The fans seem more interested in a smoke than in a drink.  The guys around me are blase.  I suppose watching Zidane play every week can make one jaded, spoiled even.  It is early in the season as well and the pressure of the battle for the scudetto is still relatively modest.

The Verona coach must be a good yeller because his team comes out brighter in the second half.  They start mounting counter-attacks to relieve the Juventus pressure.  It begins to seem possible that they might even sneak a goal.  They even manage some crosses into the Juventus box, making the Juventus backline do some defending for a change.  People are getting nervous around me, the cigarettes going fast and furious.  The lead is only one goal, after all. 

Instead, a little more than 70 minutes in, Zidane bends a wicked free kick past the Verona keeper into the goal=s upper right-hand corner.  2-0, Juventus!  It is one of those magical curves only the best can produce, a banana arc in the air.  It is all the more dramatic because of the way the rush of the game comes to a halt for the kick, a moment of pause in all the movement, which heightens the focus on that single move.  The goalie had to know Zidane was going to shoot.  He still couldn=t stop it.  The fans relax around me and the songs revive overhead.  Matters are under control. 

In the dying minutes of the game, Verona does manage to pull a goal back, off a corner kick.  A bit of nervousness returns.  There is even a late Verona shot that Juventus goalie Edwin Van der Sar has to tip over the crossbar.  The anxious moments are soon over when the referee=s whistle ends the game, 2-1 to Juventus.  In the paper tomorrow, the score will look much closer than the game actually was since this was simply a dominant performance by Juventus.  (Of course, if one reads the three pages of articles on the game then a truer understanding will be found.)  

(Years later, I read in A Season with Verona by a British expat and Verona fan, Tim Parks, that there had been crowd trouble with the away fans after the game.  Six Verona fans were arrested and dozens say they were beaten by police.  I never saw any of this, or any mention of it in the Italian press at the time.) 

Afterwards I see no place to go around the stadium, aside from the McDonalds.  So I make my way to the tram stop.  By the time the tram returns me to downtown Turin night has fallen.  The basilica Superga on the hillside above the city, 2,000 feet up, appears to hang in the air, a spot-lit vision.  The Superga is also a soccer shrine, a place of sadness. 


 

You see, like Milan, Turin is a city of two teams.  Torino, the Italian name for the city, is the name of the other team.  Unlike Milan, where both teams challenge for the scudetto and compete in Europe regularly, in Turin all the glory goes to Juventus. 

It hasn=t always been this way.  In fact, there was a moment when Torino was the team in Turin and, indeed, in all of Serie A.  Right after World War II, Torino had a team that was nearly unbeatable B they won Serie A in 1946…and 1947…and 1948, often by wide margins.  They went unbeaten at home for four years.  Known as AIl Grande Torino,@ the team provided much of the Italian national team.  At one point in 1947, Torino players were 10 out of the 11 starters for Italy.  They may well have been the best team in the history of Serie A, although fans of the early 1990s AC Milan side, for one, may dispute that.  

Late in the 1949 season they were dueling with Inter for yet another scudetto and held a slight lead.  The team went to Lisbon to play a testimonial game in honor of a retiring player there.  On the return flight, in the midst of a tremendous storm, the plane crashed into the basilica above Turin, killing the entire team, with the exception of one player who stayed home due to an injury.  All told, 31 people died in the disaster.  At least a half million people attended the funeral for them in Turin.

The Torino plane crash remains Italy=s greatest sporting tragedy.  Imagine if one of those classic Yankees teams of the 1940s or 1950s had been snuffed out in a similar fashion and you have some notion of the tragic legend associated with Il Grande Torino.  Little wonder that the monument for those who died in the crash is heavily visited to this day.  The Torino team has never been the same, only winning Serie A once in the decades since and playing in Serie B as often as Serie A. 

 What must have it been like for those left behind to have the cathedral always such a visible reminder of those lost.  A reminder, I suppose, for the rest of us to not to take life for granted.  I remember the Egyptian museum and their obsession with death.  I don=t want to be like that.  I want to enjoy life, even if it means watching grown men play games all the time.  But even the games won=t let you forget the darker side of life.           

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