Throughout most of my teenage years, I knew little about European football. I grew up in Ecuador and we only got highlights of Serie A, La Liga, Bundesliga, etc. I knew about the Champions League, but with school, matches in the middle of the day were hard to follow. The biggest club tournaments I watched were the Copa Libertadores de America and the Intercontinental Cup.
Despite the lack of European football, I knew about Manchester United, Barcelona, Real Madrid, and strangely, Borussia Dortmund. In fact, I learned about Dortmund because one day in 1997, I stayed home sick, and I was able to see them beat Manchester United in the semifinals of the Champions League. If I had gotten sick a few weeks later, I would have seen Juventus play — and lose — the Champions League final to Borussia Dortmund. I guess it wasn't my time to meet the Old Lady yet.
My first encounter with the Italian league was in 1998, when Ivan Kaviedes from Ecuador, transferred to Perugia. He was the first Ecuadorean player to play in one of the big European leagues! This, of course, was a major deal at home, as Serie A was televised for the first time in regular TV (no cable). The first game I watched was Inter Milan vs. Perugia, and like every Ecuadorean I was cheering for Perugia. Consequently, I was also already disliking those slimy players in blue and black. I was getting primed for something so much bigger and I didn't even know it.
Fast-forward a few years, I moved to Canada to pursue my studies and I had a more flexible schedule that allowed me to watch some games in the middle of the day. In Canada, it was — and still is — almost impossible to watch club football, so it had to be the Champions League.
At this point, I guess you can say that I was a Barcelona fan. Mostly because my dad was a big Barcelona supporter and because they wore the same colours as the team I followed in Ecuador (blue and red). Barcelona were doing pretty bad in La Liga but they were killing it in the Champions League. They topped their group with six wins, 13 goals scored and 4 against. Then they moved to the second group stage and remained undefeated against Inter, Newcastle, and Bayern Leverkusen. I had not watched any of these games, but at least on paper they were looking pretty good. They were drawn against Juventus for the quarterfinals and tied their away match in Turin. I hadn't watched any of these games, but the legend of this undefeated Barca team playing against Juventus was all over the internet and really caught my attention.
So, on April 22, 2003, 12 years ago exactly from when I am writing these words, I set out to watch Barcelona-Juventus in the lobby of the building where I lived. At this point I knew about Juventus, but my knowledge was limited to say the least. I knew Buffon, Salas, Zalayeta, and Montero (the last three from South America).
A few minutes into the match, I started to notice the passion and never-give-up attitude of the bianconeri players. They had tied at home and needed a win, but Barca with players like Overmars, Kluivert, Saviola, were no pushovers. But despite all of the Barca stars, there was a blond player in black and white who impressed me the most. What a workhorse, what a technique, and what an attitude. And it was that very same player who scored the first one of the night. If you ask me right now how was the second goal Juventus scored against Lazio last Sunday, I will have to think hard to remember. But if you ask me about that Nedved goal against Barca 12 years ago, I can easily describe it. Juventus were up 1-0 and going through at that point. Xavi will get one back 13 minutes later and the game will go into extra time. That was until Zalayeta put one in with six minutes left in the second half of extra time. And Juve were through.
Something happened in those 114 minutes. I went into that match looking to see Barca do well, and suddenly I found myself rooting for Juventus. I celebrated Nedved's goal, and was frustrated by Xavi's equalizer. And when Zalayeta sealed the deal I couldn't be any happier. You can say that I went to the dance with someone, but I walked home in love with someone else. And I have never looked back. I was elated by Juventus' win against Real Madrid and I started to see why Del Piero was such a legend. And of course I was crashed by the loss to Milan.
From that April 22, 2003, I have followed the Old Lady. And that is why this April 22, 2015, in which Juventus qualifies to play the second Champions League semifinal I have seen, is just poetic for me. Juve may not be the favourites to win the tournament or to even make it through to the final, but as the old cliche goes, matches are won on the pitch. And in more than one occasion Juventus has shown that it is not always the best team that wins, but the team that wants it the most. And today, after losing the 2003 final to Milan, after being eliminated by Liverpool in 2005, after Calciopoli, Juventus is back to where I met it, at the top, where it belongs.
The game against Monaco was ugly, certainly not of the same caliber as the game against Barca 12 years ago. Instead of taking the game to them, we sat back and weathered the storm for 90 minutes but we did it nonetheless. Now we need to play smart, but also with the same dedication, self-believe, and passion as we did in 2003. As a matter of fact, I hope Max Allegri shows them the video of the Real Madrid semifinal so they can see what Juventus has done and can do. And who knows, a memorable display in the semis may be all that is needed to turn someone in the lobby of their building into a die hard bianconero.