Tainted wins and broken dreams: Juventus and the curse of the European Cup
It should have lifted Juventus to a peak, but instead left Alessandro Del Piero and so many of his team-mates feeling lower than ever. “I know I played badly,” the attacker said after Juve had lost the 1998 Champions League final to Real Madrid, their second successive defeat in the competition’s showpiece. “This cup is starting to feel cursed.”
Juventus certainly haven’t been blessed in the European Cup, and it is one of the sub-plots to their rematch with Madrid in this season’s semi-final. The Italian champions have not just under-performed in the Champions League for the past few years. That has been the case for pretty much their entire history in European competition.
Given that Juve have won more league titles than anyone else in the continent’s top five leagues except Real, they have also competed in the European Cup more times than everyone except the Madrid giants, Ajax, Bayern Munich, Benfica and Dynamo Kyiv. Of those, only Kyiv have won the competition on fewer occasions.
Really, Juve’s domestic history indicates they should have a Champions League record that is at least the equal of this season’s other semi-finalists in Bayern and Barcelona, but that is far from the case. Juventus are joint ninth in the list of champions, with just two victories - a return hardly befitting of the blue-chip clubs.
The only thing they match Bayern in is runners-up finishes, as Juventus have lost the joint highest number of finals, at five along with the Germans and Benfica. That still feels all the more damning for the Italians, though, given that the Portuguese obviously come from a weaker league while Bayern have compensated by the fact they’re the third most successful side in the competition’s history with five triumphs.
By contrast, Serie A's greatest winners seem to transform into their greatest losers when it comes to the continent. Their initial forays into the European Cup would almost set a tone. Despite possessing two of the greatest players in the world in Omar Sivori and John Charles, they went out in the preliminary rounds in 1958-59 and 1960-61. The first of those involved a 7-0 thrashing away to Wiener Sports Club.
Even worse, Juventus’ two actual wins are tainted, by both incomparable tragedy and a number of unanswered questions.
They finally lifted their first European Cup by beating Liverpool in the 1985 final, but it seemed utterly hollow given that it came amid the disaster of Heysel, in which 39 people lost their lives. Striker Paolo Rossi later said “that trophy has no meaning for me”.
It’s a view that prevails and it’s little surprise that, when they beat Ajax on penalties in 1996, it was treated like the first time. As chief executive and former forward Roberto Bettega said of that victory in Rome, “This is for real. We could never celebrate winning in 1985. We have waited a long time for this.”
Except, the wait still goes on for fair answers to questions about how “real” that second official trophy actually was. During that season, Walter Smith - whose Rangers team had been beaten by Juve - expressed amazement at the physicality of the Italians.
“Did you see the thighs on the likes of [Fabrizio] Ravanelli?” Smith asked journalist Hugh McIlvanney. “You are looking at players who are far, far stronger in terms of muscle development than anything we’ve got. We have always assumed we would have to struggle to compete with the technique of the best continental teams but that we would have a physical advantage over them.”
He wasn’t the only one to express surprise, but others did so with more suspicion. Zdenek Zeman had said in 1998 that football needed to “come out of the pharmacy” and pointed directly at the Turin club, prompting a criminal investigation by public prosecutor Raffaele Guariniello - himself a Juventus fan.
The inquiry removed more than 100 medicines and concoctions from the club - but not EPO - and, in November 2004, led to a suspended jail sentence for club doctor Riccardo Agricola. He would win on appeal, which was itself appealed by Italian prosecutors, but the latter only failed because of the statute of limitations.
The case is generally deemed to have a fudged and hugely unsatisfactory outcome, especially given there are unsatisfactory answer to so many big questions. Why, for example, did Juventus’ own records show some of their key players had a hematocrit value consistent with EPO? That has still not been sufficiently explained.
Either way, it is reflective of the blinkered attitude to such issues in football that the Juventus team of that time is still so widely lauded without even a hint of a caveat in so many of the compliments towards them. Big questions remain.
Of course, none of this means the current team bear any responsibility to redeem the club from their past - but they do have a rare opportunity. It would be gloriously ironic for the club if, after so many years of failure when they should have been at their peak, Juventus actually went and won the trophy when they are considered almost a triviality in this season's competition.
Italian football has not often been at such a low ebb, but it does mean that any success would be all the greater. They can overturn a curse.
Miguel Delaney - @MiguelDelaney