Juventus are a natural target for football clubs in Italy. Far and away the most successful club in the history of the game in the country, more often than not teams will circle the home and away clashes against the Bianconeri as their highlight of the season. And often Juve’s opponents show up with renewed vigour for those games ... how often have we seen goalkeepers and other teammates turn in inspired once-in-a-lifetime performances when we play against them?
With that background, comments made by anyone associated with the club — from leadership to fans to players past and present — are always put under additional scrutiny.
The handling of the coronavirus scare and the havoc it has wreaked on the lives of millions across the world is certainly one area of sensitivity right now, and the way the schedule and attendance of the games has been handled by the FIGC and Seria A is quite laughable, with leaders of football clubs not helping matters with mistimed comments as well.
However, the Juventus chairman Andrea Agnelli has really set the cat among the pigeons with his latest comments, quite unrelated to COVID-19. Agnelli for long has been a proponent of the European Super League and speaking at the FT Business of Football Summit in London this week, he downplayed the achievements of Atalanta who qualified for their first ever Champions League this season while maintaining quite an elitist tone in his statements.
“I have great respect for everything that Atalanta are doing, but without international history and thanks to just one great season, they had direct access into the primary European club competition. Is that right or not?
“Then I think of AS Roma, who contributed in recent years to maintaining Italy’s ranking. They had one bad season and are out, with all the consequent damage to them financially.
“We must also protect investment and costs. So would Atalanta therefore have less chance of playing at a high level? I don’t have the answer to that, it’s just about setting up a transparent process to make this decision.
“There are teams who won the league or cup and achieve qualification just on the basis of their country’s ranking. The point is how we balance the contribution to European football and the performance of a single year.”
While understanding that Agnelli has an agenda to push with his ESL hopes, it was quite odd to hear him dismiss one of the best feel-good stories to have come out of Italian football for a decade or so. La Dea have been transformed into a fun and eminently watchable team over the last couple of seasons, and to suggest that they don’t deserve to be in the UCL while Juventus do is quite laughable considering Juve go into their second leg against Olympique Lyon 1-0 down while Atalanta cruised to a 4-1 win over Valencia.
Gian Piero Gasperini has taken a bunch of misfits and somehow moulded them into potential world-beaters. He has not done so by playing dour and lifeless football that saps the life out of fans watching it, hoping and waiting for one of the many stars in the lineup to produce an individual piece of magic (ahem, you know who we’re talking about here), but instead by playing open attacking football with a squad of players who have bought into his philosophy and are relishing the game in a way that we have not seen in decades. Atalanta’s 7-2 dismantling of Lecce last weekend was their third game this season to have hit the seven-goal mark, and they have scored four or more seven times. Juve beat Sassuolo 7-0 a couple of years ago, but that was about it.
Indeed, how quickly Agnelli seems to have forgotten those dark years at the end of last decade when Juve had two straight seventh-placed finishes heralded by his taking over as President. By his elitist standards, no up-and-coming club would ever be able to break into the hegemony at the top of the game, knowing very well that without the television monies that Champions League football offers very few clubs would ever be able to replenish their transfer coffers to be able to compete at that level.
Criticism of Agnelli’s comments has been swift, with the Mayor of Bergamo Girgio Gori one of the first to respond, hitting back at the urban notion that Il Provinciale don’t deserve nice things -
“I respect Andrea Agnelli, but really do not agree with this. Compared to the elite of the rich and famous, I far prefer the result achieved on the pitch and credit given to those who, even if they are ‘only’ representing a provincial city, earned their place in Europe with sweat and imagination.
“It’s called SPORT.”
Even Juve’s crosstown rivals Torino hit back at Agnelli, with President Urbano Cairo adding that the likes of Agnelli would rather kill the chances of a team making a Cinderella-run to protect their own investments.
“The division of the resources is often disproportionate, a competition of a select few would make the rich clubs even richer and would increase the gap with all the others. It would seriously damage the competitiveness and entertainment in the national championships.
“We risk to not see those exciting and virtuous examples represented across various European leagues, by teams like Leicester City, Atalanta and Getafe, because the huge difference between turnover would prevent the investments necessary to be competitive.
“Sport is competition and there must be room for everyone. If a great club has invested a lot but can’t get the desired results, it means that they have done something wrong.
“It happens, but those who have done better must not be penalised. If we leave the competitions for only some clubs, we eliminate the essence of sport.”
Agnelli has been credited often for the turnaround in Juventus’ fortunes and returning to our perch at the top of Italian football, but in this case his haughty comments only make la Vecchia Signora seem more out of touch than ever.