Aidan Smith: Calcio is back in business

Carlos Tevez is into a Champions League final with Juve, while Alessandro Del Piero, below, was a winner in 1996 and a beaten finalist in 2003. Picture: Getty
Carlos Tevez is into a Champions League final with Juve, while Alessandro Del Piero, below, was a winner in 1996 and a beaten finalist in 2003. Picture: Getty
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A FEW years ago a fellow hack bid this office “Arrivederci”. She was off to live in Italy on her big, fat book advance.

For those left behind, there was the consoling thought that, because our former colleague would almost certainly meet a swarthy fellow wearing shoes without socks and claiming to own a yacht – “Si, the biggest one in the beautiful harbour” – the book wouldn’t get written and therefore struggle to be a rip-roaring success.

Maybe the Italian game will make sense by the time I’m 93

Well, it did and it was. I haven’t read it (naturally) but believe the subject to be the special properties of Italy’s diet – something in the olive oil, perhaps – which enables her people to live long lives. For me, this produced another consoling thought, which went along the lines of: “I bloody know this about the Italians. Look at Alessandro Del Piero. Look at Filippo Inzaghi. They haunted my football-watching for years and years. I could have written that book. I coulda been a contender.”

Sir Alex Ferguson once said of Inzaghi: “That lad must have been born offside.” Fair point, Fergie, but surely the really interesting thing about Inzaghi and Del Piero – and Paolo Maldini and Alessandro Nesta – is that they were all born just before the fall of the Roman Empire and played right through until the last game of the Serie A season just ended.

Or it seemed that way. Every big tournament, club or international, you’d see Maldini and Nesta, suavely organising the catenaccio. To paraphrase Carly Simon, they walked into the Italian penalty-box like they were walking on to a yacht (“Si, the biggest one in the beautiful harbour”). Meanwhile, up front you’d find Del Piero, cool and clever and clearly the inspiration behind Robert Downey Jr’s entire look. And even further up front, directly under the opposition crossbar, you couldn’t fail to spot Inzaghi who looked like he’d claimed this prime spot several days previously and, flask by his picnic chair, was waiting for Armani’s flagship store to commence its biggest-ever solde.

Handsome, always there, at least in the early rounds, ageless – that’s been Italian football these past few years. Also fairly irrelevant, having been usurped by Spanish football (sexier with bigger stars) and the German version (more energetic and exciting). But calcio is back in business. On Saturday, a Serie A team competes for the Champions League again and, what’s more, Juventus are coached by an Italian (2010’s Inter Milan were of Jose Mourinho design). Juve’s story is fascinating – incredibly sad, too.

This is the 30th anniversary of Heysel, that shocking night when 39 people – all but seven of them Juventus fans – were crushed to death following a charge by Liverpool supporters before the European Cup final in Brussels. Football didn’t know how to deal with the disaster right away and, excruciatingly, let the game go ahead with a 9.40pm kick-off, so the injured being treated at a nearby hospital could hear the noise made by those who stayed to watch surely the most ghoulish match there has ever been.

And for many years, indeed right up until last weekend say some, Juventus didn’t know how to deal with the aftermath. Heysel was almost taboo, complained the victims’ families.

The club distanced themselves from the tragedy. “The number 39 was hidden, a number of shame, used by rival fans to insult,” according to survivor Simone Stenti, who escaped the crush through a hole in a crumbling stadium not fit for purpose. But during the 39th minute of the league match against Napoli, you couldn’t mistake the number on a giant banner with the word Rispetto – respect – underneath and right round Juve’s ground white cards carrying the names of the victims.

The emotional argument for wanting Juventus to beat Barcelona in Berlin on Saturday is a compelling one – but so is the football one.

Coach Massimiliano Allegri has packed his side with personality. Street-fighters like Carlos Tevez and the urgent Chilean Arturo Vidal. Cast-offs like the selfsame Tevez and Real Madrid reject Alvaro Morata, scorer in both semi-final legs against – who else? – Real. The guy with the sensational Roman nose, Giorgio Chiellini. And of course a couple of really, really old yins.

I cannot believe that Gianluigi Buffon is 37. I’d have put him at more like 54 and, even after all this time, he still can’t get hold of a shirt that fits him in the arms. Andrea Pirlo is 36, which is also staggering because he seems to have been dictating the tempo in key games in the manner of the great La Scala conductor Claudio Abbado since, well, my introduction to the Italian game which was also my introduction to football – Celtic’s European Cup triumph. But the records appear to show he didn’t join Inter until 2008.

At first I didn’t get Pirlo. He gave the impression of being just another Italian playmaker with fabulous hair – though not as fabulous as Gianni Rivera from the 1970 World Cup whose slightly bouffant, side-parted style still adorns the walls of traditional men’s hairdressers as the exemplar of debonair. I wasn’t impressed when, in 2005, Pirlo pinged a couple of free-kicks past different Scotland goalies in the same match, although this was at the height of my frustration with basically static, virtually quarter-back midfielders appearing to take over football, led by the dreadful David Beckham.

It’s difficult, I think, for a Scot weaned on crash-bang-wallop to fully appreciate the slower, subtler rhythms of Italian football. Just as we rush our food and they can extend lunch over three hours discussing politics, family, hair and yachts, the two cultures are fundamentally different. But I’m starting to get Pirlo now. He may have done a “Panenka” for that penalty against England because in terms of run-up and power that was all he could manage at his age – so what? I like his solemnity, his serenity. I also like this quote from his book, referring to Antonio Cassano: “He says he’s slept with 700 women in his time, but he doesn’t get picked for Italy any more. Deep down, can he really be happy? I certainly wouldn’t be.”

Maybe Pirlo and the Italian game will make perfect sense by the time I’m 93, when I’m sure he’ll still be playing. Meanwhile, what exactly do they do with that olive oil – drink it neat, marinate their lustrous locks in it, rub it on their kicking feet? I’ve just got the idea for a great book …