This past September, Juventus President Andrea Agnelli was interviewed for a long piece in the Financial Times about the deal that brought Cristiano Ronaldo to Turin.
A the time the deal was — and to some extent remains — a major gamble. In transfer fees and wages, Juventus was investing a total of €340 million in a player that, for all his greatness, was staring his 34th birthday in the face, in the hope that it would reverse the way finances in soccer usually worked. Hampered by poor broadcasting revenue in Serie A, Ronaldo was seen as a way to pull in fans and sponsors and just maybe that elusive Champions League title, thereby increasing broadcasting revenue and, ultimately, achieving Agnelli’s greatest dream: making Juventus the top club in the world.
At the close of the article, the author pointed out one of the biggest hurdles in the project: The ability to pull in top-level talent once Ronaldo retires. Agnelli acknowledged as much, saying, “We have to be in a position to be able to clinch the next Cristiano, but at the age of 25.”
Almost exactly a year later, as Matthijs de Ligt climbed down the steps from a private jet at Caselle Airport in Turin on Tuesday night, one can’t help but remember those words — and credit Agnelli for acting on his words.
Yes, de Ligt may be a defender rather than a goalscorer, but it still holds. The kind of defender de Ligt has shown to be is a real rarity in this day and age. At 19 years old, he is the complete package we all thought Leonardo Bonucci would be for his entire career when he was at the height of his power from 2014 to 2016. He was the most sought-after player of the entire transfer window. He had the option to go to old-guard glamor clubs like Barcelona and Manchester United or a nouveau-riche like Paris Saint-Germain and their Scrooge McDuck-like money bin.
Instead, he chose Juve, a team that, even with its history, still hasn’t fully regained the place it had on the European stage before calciopoli — and even then was so often the bridesmaid and never the bride.
A lot of people will immediately point to the “Ronaldo effect” in de Ligt’s arrival. The Portuguese icon was the teenager’s idol as a boy (or I guess a younger boy than he is now?) and it is well known that Ronaldo lobbied him to come to Turin after the UEFA Nations League final last month. The easy explanation of “Ronaldo brought de Ligt to Turin” is going to be a major refrain over the next few days, but the story of this transfer goes much deeper than that.
When Agnelli was installed as president in 2010, he started rebuilding from the ground up. After an initial misfire in both coach selection (Gigi Delneri) and the transfer market (Milos Krasic), he and Beppe Marotta started laying the groundwork for what Agnelli wanted the club to become. Smart transfer business brought the likes of Andrea Pirlo, Arturo Vidal, Paul Pogba, and many others for either bargain prices or absolutely nothing. The opening of the Allianz Stadium, a major source of revenue not available to any other Italian team, made them the financial titan of Europe. But they were still no match for the financial might of teams like Real Madrid or the oil-fueled newbies like PSG or Manchester City. There was sustained success, but Juve still wasn’t considered a destination club.
That, apart from getting that long-sought Champions League crown, is Agnelli’s ultimate goal. Getting there would have to mean a change in philosophy. While the team continues to exploit opportunities for bargains in the transfer market — see: “Ramsey, Aaron” and “Rabiot, Adrien” — the team has started to throw more money around. The wage scale that Marotta curated so carefully before his departure last year has started to loosen up. Ronaldo is obviously the main example, but when de Ligt signs his contract he will become the team’s (and the league’s) second-highest paid player at a stroke. Agnelli also moved to make the team’s football more attractive — both to fans and to prospective targets — when he parted ways with Massimiliano Allegri and brought in Maurizio Sarri. All this has had some consequences, most notably the departure of Marotta, who may end up using the same strategies to make Inter a more viable contender.
But that change of strategy is also what brought Ronaldo to the team, and in a wider sense is what brought de Ligt. Ronaldo may have helped close the deal, but Agnelli deserves the credit for starting the ball rolling in the first place.
There are still questions to be asked. The 19-year-old de Ligt does have a release clause in his contract, a departure from normal team practice and something that his agent, Mino Raiola, is sure to try to leverage to move the defender at some point to secure another fat payday for himself. And it still remains to be seen whether Juve will advance their image to the point that they will be able to attract players like de Ligt once the lure of playing with Ronaldo can no longer be employed. But as the Dutchman’s official unveiling draws ever closer, the man who really deserves the credit is the one who, at the first time of asking, made good on his words and picked up the top young player on the market.