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Golden Boy to Godot & back again

After several tormented years Alex Del Piero has finally found his form. With the departure of Zinedine Zidane, even more hopes now rest on his slim shoulders. Susy Campanale writes this open letter on behalf of the fan who never gave up on him.

Lippi and Del Piero, the two key men in Juve's success in the mid-90s

Dear Alex, I know you don't like that name anymore and prefer to be called Ale, but you first appeared to me as Alex and I can't let that image go. The sight of you volleying in an impossible ball against Fiorentina to finally overturn the 2-0 deficit for a 3-2 victory, is perhaps my fondest memory of watching Football Italia on Channel 4.

It's moments like that which remind me why football is called the beautiful game. But I'm afraid you've lost sight of that beauty, clouded by the insults, scandals and pettiness of it all. I saw you on my television screen Alex, telling us all how you like to kiss football in that silly advert. I thought it ironic that they'd chosen you as you seem not to enjoy playing this sport anymore. I can't say I blame you if you don't, after all over the past few years you've been pelted with stones from all sides.

"They all talked about creatine, referees doing us favours, all of it unsubstantiated," you said. "When you're at the top it's obvious that the pressure increases, but you can't let it get to you. All you can do is concentrate on the game." It as as if the 1998 World Cup, Euro 2000 and everything in between was somehow all your fault. I never stopped defending you, not even when the crowd around me was baying for your blood. In France you were pitted against Roberto Baggio, a man still blessed with an aura of infallibility in Italian eyes. I think if he weren't a Buddhist they'd probably try to make him Pope. Coming back from an injury, how were you ever going to win that battle? Now you have an even more impossible task, fighting a ghost. In 1997 you and Ronaldo were considered the world's best players, bar none. Your injury was no less serious than his, but your comeback is still developing, his lasted just seven minutes.

We still don't know how long it will take the Inter star to get back to his old self, or indeed if he ever shall. People still remember him as Il Fenomeno, but now your image is of the man who fired an easy shot wide in the Euro 2000 Final. To paraphrase a Hollywood agent upon hearing of James Dean's death, Ronaldo's injury was "a great career move."

Back in 1997 you were known as Pinturicchio and Baggio was Caravaggio, the student to his master painter. Like all artists you go through different stages of your career but it's indelibly linked to your life. Creativity cannot be taught, it comes out of your soul. That's why the pointlessness of kicking a ball for a living must have struck you when for so many months your father, Gino, battled against an incurable illness. All this talent, all this money and adoration, but it can't buy you back what matters the most.

I saw it in your eyes when you went to go past players, Alex, you were doing it because you had to. Some of the Press referred to you as an empty shell, perhaps the most accurate description of all. When going through an emotional crisis even the easiest things become impossible. It's like reading a book and discovering you've reached the bottom of the page, but can't remember how you got there. With football you can't just start the page again, the moment has passed and you'll never get it back.

Ale scored a record breaking 10 goals in 10 matches in the Champions League campaign in 1997/98

It was Juventus Honorary President Gianni Agnelli who dubbed you Pinturicchio, and it was he who also gave you the ominous title of Godot. Anyone who has read Samuel Beckett's play 'Waiting for Godot' could see all the subtleties in that moniker. Two men wait by the dusty roadside for Godot, not knowing what he looks like or why they should need him. The worrying part is that the audience and characters begin to doubt his very existence, but they keep on waiting because they don't know what else to do. No one knew how long it would take you to recover fully from your injury, Alex, so there was no big name replacement brought in and the pressure interpreted the character of Godot as representing Got, others Death. Which were you meant to be, Juve's saviour or the proof that it was time to move on?

When the Bianconeri sealed an option for Bari's 17-year-old Antonio Cassano, my thoughts moved to the latter interpretation of your new epithet. You even said that you considered giving up. "I am convinced that I can return to what I was before, and I want to do it at Juventus," you said back in January. "If this should not happen soon then we'll have to discuss it. Basically, if I am unable to express myself in the way I would like on the pitch, then I and the club will be able to make a decision on my future. At the end of the season I will consider the positive and negative aspects of staying here."

After the Bianconeri's end of season performance when Juve came close to Lo Scudetto with you at the helm, Del Piero is one of the few names not on the transfer list. "If no one is talking about me then that means the club wants to keep me here," you claimed. "My relationship with Juve is very strong and my confirmation is given." It's quite a change from only a few short months ago. "At that time I had put myself open to that possibility [of leaving Juventus] and it was right at that stage to do so. However, it all fell into place and therefore the problem was resolved."

You began to enjoy yourself once more, just as you did in the early days when you'd perform magnificent tricks on the field just for the fun of it. How many stranded defenders did you leave in your wake, curling the ball round your foot as if it were under a magic spell? Cassano has that pure schoolyard indulgence in the game, but it's not too late for you to recapture it. The ball is not your enemy.

You said that was what made Giovanni Trapattoni such a joy to work with and his enthusiastic influence since taking over the Nazionale has surely rubbed off on you, Alex. "Many things have happened and matured since Trap left Juventus, but after eight years I found the same person with the same charisma and desire for football. Italy has to win games, giving the fans a good show and enjoying ourselves in the process. We can't always get all three things right - sometimes you can't achieve any of them." When the entertainment factor falters, it's the fantasista like you that gets the blame.

How fickle the fans are, eh Alex? A few months ago anything you did, even the most spectacular move in football history, would have been met with derision. The tifosi even booed you all the way through an Italian friendly match. Now you're back on top of the world and they're queuing up to pour praise upon you, even if it wasn't anything particularly special. I've seen the Juventus fans move from chanting 'Del Piero's the best thing there ever was' to hanging skeletons on the gate with a sign marked 'No more nepotism,' all in the space of seven days.

Lippi returned to Juve and linked up with Del Piero again

I read an interview on how you emerged from your long period of crisis. "It was something that happened slowly, on the pitch and off it, with a whole series of things that happened to me. The real turning point was the game at Bari where I played well and scored a difficult and important goal. Being hugged by my teammates, knowing that they were as happy as if they had scored it themselves, showed me that the situation had finally changed."

When you went out on the pitch as a substitute that day, everyone could see there was something different in your movements, like a giant weight had been lifted from your shoulders. Your father had been hospitalized that day and died soon after. There is only one things worse than a loved one passing away, and that is to see them suffer.

You kept it all to yourself, Alex, even when the Press and fans demanded to know what was wrong. You kept churning out the usual cliches that all football players say in interviews, that you felt fine and would soon be back to your old self. So much of what has happened in these months now makes sense.

Your crisis of faith in the world and your place in life was matched by our wavering belief in your abilities. Perhaps now we have both emerged stronger from this dark forest and you have finally found your path. I will be sitting by that dusty roadside, because I have seen your face Godot, and I know that you are worth waiting for.

Welcome back Alex.

This article is entitled "Golden Boy to Godot & back again", taken from Football Italia, issue 8, August 2001. The images are not original.

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» Football Italia
» Football Italia magazine section