Old Lady falls upon hard times

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Three months ago this weekend, goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon was playing for Italy in the World Cup final in Berlin, watched by millions of television viewers. Next week he will be at Treviso in Italy’s north-east in front of a capacity crowd of 9,435.

But it will be no romantic cup tie for Buffon’s team, Juventus. This is the new reality for Italy’s most illustrious club, banished to Serie B, the second division, for its central role in the influence-peddling scandal that rocked Italian football last summer.

Worse still, despite an opening draw followed by four wins, a deduction of 17 points as part of the punishment means the once mighty club currently registers a surreal minus four points. Juventus at the bottom of the table is a sight as rare as snow during Wimbledon or England winning a penalty shootout.

It is an unprecedented indignity for the Old Lady of Turin, as the club is affectionately known, which had never been out of Italy’s top division, Serie A, in its 109-year history. Ahead of this weekend’s fixtures, the bianconeri – black and whites – stand 14 points off an automatic promotion place and 12 points below the play-off zone.

New French coach Didier Deschamps took over in July from Fabio Capello, whose hasty departure for Real Madrid still leaves a bad taste in Turin. Deschamps says of the unprecedented challenge: “The most important thing is not to look at the league table at the moment but to remain concentrated on the final objective: promotion.”

It is a tall order. The transfer vultures that circled over Turin all summer finally swooped on the disgraced club to carry off stars Emerson and Fabio Cannavaro to Real Madrid, Gianluca Zambrotta and Lilian Thuram to Barcelona, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Patrick Vieira to Inter Milan.

Fortunately, Juventus’s tradition of farming out youngsters on loan to smaller teams proved a lifeline. When crisis struck, the Old Lady was able to gather half a dozen players back beneath her skirts.

But these returnees and youth-team graduates have some enormous boots to fill. Nicola Legrottaglie and Igor Tudor, both loaned to Siena after poor seasons, are no Thuram and Emerson. In attack, cumbersome Uruguayan Marcelo Zalayeta cannot replace the fluid Adrian Mutu, although 20-year-old Bulgarian Valeri Bojinov has made a bright start in replacing Ibrahimovic.

Deschamps’ attacking options can be supplemented by the raids of Czech midfield veteran Pavel Nedved, yet it is in defence where the fall-out from the scandal has left his troops most degraded. Alessandro Birindelli, 32, and 22-year-old Giorgio Chiellini cannot hope to emulate two of the World Cup’s outstanding players, centre-back Cannavaro and the galloping wing-back Zambrotta.

This year’s Serie B is especially competitive with Genoa, Napoli, Bologna and Brescia all chasing a return to Serie A. Juventus, although weakened, still boast three of Italy’s World Cup winners: Buffon, midfielder Mauro Camoranesi and club totem Alessandro Del Piero, the veteran forward. And this week 11 players were away on international duties for their respective countries.

Deschamps, himself a former Juve star midfielder in the 1990s, says: “Players of that calibre do form a great base to start from. We can build around that and insert new elements such as the young players we are bringing through.”

The decision of the small band of “loyalists” to stick with the club owes much to a mixture of tough talking and poker-like negotiations by Jean-Claude Blanc, the debonair French troubleshooter brought in when the disgraced board of directors was forced out.

Blanc’s pedigree includes being commercial director of both the French Open tennis tournament and cycling’s Tour de France, and being marketing chief at the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, France.

But it was still a surprise how he played a weak hand extremely well in the transfer market. “I simply said to the players: ‘look, we need you’. I told them, ‘we will respect your contract, we won’t cut your salary because of going into Serie B. But we expect you to honour your commitment to us.’ ”

Astonishingly, in a sport where disgruntled players usually ignore contracts, it worked. “I really respect them as men, as human beings, for what they did,” says Blanc earnestly. “It was asking a lot of people whose careers are relatively short, to be out of the Champions League for at least two seasons. Together, I think we can write a great chapter in the story of the new Juventus.”

The move back into the club’s former downtown home – the Stadio Olimpico – was already planned before the scandal, meaning a 25,000-seat capacity instead of the 70,000 at the detested Stadio delle Alpi. But Serie B is still a culture shock. Each weekend is like a cup tie as little clubs such as AlbinoLeffe, which only recently shed amateur status, pitch themselves against the fallen footballing aristocrats.

Deschamps admits that knowing so little about their opponents is an added difficulty for his players. Against Crotone, a southern side, captain Del Piero’s individual salary outweighed his opponents’ entire wage bill. At Rimini, capacity 8,200, home fans bought season tickets just to be certain of witnessing the biggest single match in the club’s history.

During last summer’s crisis when the club saw its share price lose half its value in three days, Blanc and new president Giovanni Cobolli Gigli knew they had to sell some of the Old Lady’s jewellery.

The club predicted a €70m fall in revenue in the first year alone, reaching €130m over two years. Drastic cuts in the salary bill meant offloading eight star players, ripping the heart out of a championship-winning side. But it raked in almost €60m in transfers to counter sharply falling revenues.

“Lots of top European clubs came calling, expecting big bargains, but they went away empty-handed,” says Blanc.

Meltdown on the pitch could easily have been overshadowed by financial disaster off it. That it did not owes much to the idea of the “Newventus” propagated by the new management team.

The club’s main sponsor, Tamoil, opted to end a five-year shirts deal worth €110m after just one year but talks are continuing over a possible new four-year arrangement. A satellite television deal worth €94.5m with Sky from 2005-2007 is also being adjusted to reflect that Juve’s opponents are now Rimini rather than Real Madrid in the Champions League.

“But our sponsors have stayed loyal,” says Blanc. “They share our aim. They recognise that they have an interest in providing sufficient resources for us to be able to achieve what we all want, to compete on the international stage, the Champions League.”

November should produce the final ruling on the club’s appeal against the points deduction. Any further cut in the original 30-point penalty would make Deschamps and Blanc more hopeful of soon escorting the Old Lady back to her traditional home among Italian football’s aristocrats.

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