For the first time in what felt like a long while, after many days of dark gray skies and frosted snow on the straw-colored foothills, covered in yellow sagebrush, fescue, and rye, the sun broke through the clouds.
When the winter sunshine hits the Boise foothills, the sun slanting from the south up through the canyon up to the valley where I live, the light glints strawberry-peach in the morning, not an all-enveloping thing, but, instead, little stained glass shards, neat geometric things cut from the windows of a celestial cathedral.
That sunshine, that color, on that particular morning, felt like something completely new. Like a first breath. Something that couldn’t be captured in a word or sentence, even a poem.
The romance, though not untrue or unreal, belied reality.
For the fifth week running, I hadn’t slept more than a few consecutive hours. A seemingly innocuous vacation a month before had spiraled out of control — my wife contracted COVID-19, gave it to my 10-month-old son, who, for the first time in his robust little life, refused to eat or explore or play, wanting nothing but sleep. The trip home, from Florida to Idaho, must’ve rattled their systems even more, because in the ensuing weeks either one or both of them was sick every single day. Writing this now, we’re nearing five weeks of one, two, or all three of us ailing to some degree or other.
This has been the kind of struggle where tomorrow is difficult to imagine. In that kind of struggle, strawberry-peach goes a long way. I look out across the hills, over the sagebrush, up to the pines and firs in the Boise national forest, and I can see where the snow is already deep in the mountains.
I wish I could tell you this is going to be a clear, definitive, nuanced dissection of the first half of Juventus’ season. I wish I could tell you that, after many hours of deep contemplation and rewatching of replays, I’ve finally seen the exact changes Massimiliano Allegri made along the way to launch this team into third. I can’t.
I do know this: For the first time in what felt like a long while, when Moise Kean doubled Juventus’ lead against Lazio in the first 10 minutes of the second half, I jumped up and pumped my fists.
Snotty nose, sore throat and all.
I can’t remember the last time Juventus made me jump.
On Oct. 11, everything was falling apart.
After a 2-0 defeat to Maccabi Haifa, the loss itself on the heels of a 2-0 defeat to AC Milan, I would’ve bet the house that Juventus would not advance in the Champions League. There were remaining games against Benfica and Paris Saint-Germain, but the mountain appeared too lofty and perilous to climb, especially considering the club’s current form.
The tenor of the conversation could not have been gloomier.
“There’s more rock bottom,” Sam wrote.
“Time to hit the eject button,” quipped Danny.
“With each passing week,” I opined dramatically, “I try to find some new shred of hope to grasp with Juventus, but each week the new thread slips between my fingers. There may be very little but a memory of greatness soon.”
At that moment in time, what reason was there to believe? Allegri’s squad was sitting in the middle of the table. The players were visibly despondent after every draw or less. The brass and the coach repeatedly answered questions about why Allegri was still there, whether he’d leave, what could be done. The injuries were endless. The results were bad; the eye test was worse. At that moment in time, I didn’t figure there was a chance in hell things were about to turn around.
While my fairly obvious premonition about the Champions League turned out to be true, something changed that day, and I was wildly off the mark in my sense of the direction the club was heading; it’s difficult to know whether it was the players, the coach, or nothing in particular at all, or else a great mixture of things, but something changed.
Since that loss in Israel, the Bianconeri have played eight games across all competitions with two negative results. Of those two negative results, the 2-1 loss to PSG was one of the better, more complete performances from Allegri’s team this year. Even the 4-3 debacle in Portugal wasn’t without its bright moments, as Samuel Iling-Junior announced himself to the world with a wonderful assist and incisive play on the left wing.
The thing we kept saying about Allegri’s return, the thing I kept saying, was that he couldn’t beat top teams. And, for a long time, he couldn’t. Excluding a blip result against Chelsea in the Champions League last season, the losses had piled to ridiculous numbers against domestic rivals and European giants.
Then, suddenly, after a rickety first half, Juventus blanked Inter Milan 2-0. Seven days later, it was a 3-0 dismantling of Lazio, the best 90 minutes of football I’ve seen this team play since I can honestly remember.
But what changed, actually? As I said in the beginning, I’m not sure I’m qualified to be overly prescriptive here, especially with how wrong I was about where the rest of this pre-World Cup squad was going. If I had to guess, though, I would say that Allegri, to some degree, seems to have swallowed his pride. Instead of holding onto a particular system, formation, or approach, Allegri has tailored his lineups and plans according to the resources at his disposal. Some of this is a forced issue, with the persistent litany of injuries, but even with that being the case we’ve seen Allegri in the past try to fit the players into his system — 4-4-2 or else, carping at overly ambitious movements, lines confined to a low block.
What I am trying to say is that I’m no longer seeing “Allegri’s Juventus”; I’m seeing Juventus. I’m seeing a team free enough for individuals to play with courage and freedom. And I’m seeing a coach who’s letting them.
Goodness is hard to write, hard to track.
Things falling apart, though, are much easier to record as a narrative — in my experience, at least. I can see clearly the exposition, the inciting incident, the crisis (or crises, as the case may be), the climax and falling action and denouement. The building and releasing of tension. The ratcheting, the caught breath.
Good things, though, are beautifully complicated. Good things are too good for words.
When I was remembering, and trying to remember, the little things in Europe from my time there, the things I knew I’d always want to remember even as an old man sipping whiskey on my porch, I couldn’t write them as a neat story. Instead, they came as these little fragments, not even complete as postcards with cryptic messages from distant relatives.
There was this one side street in Turin, not wide enough for a car, where I’d discovered a pizzeria. The pizza wasn’t even good, considering some of my regular haunts, but the waitress wore white sneakers and smacked her gum with a nonchalance you could write a novel about. There were stills in my mind of the Ligurian Coast, like something Cézanne painted — the geometric suggestions of colors and reality and memory and light. I remember stuffing down a few peanut butter sandwiches in the Aquarium of Genoa, watching an educational video about a tortoise in a very small cinema, then later eating bavette frutti di mare looking out at the sea.
The good things from this campaign come to me in the same fashion. I can’t, I confess, write this all as one big proclamation of how Juventus are back, can’t trace the definitive steps. “Football is simple really,” Allegri remarked, letting the unsaid speak louder. “You have to win games, there are different ways of doing that.”
I remember how long it felt like the ball hung in the air when Nicolò Fagioli scooped a right-footed effort just inside the edge of the 18. The look of unbridled joy on his face. I remember trying to imagine feeling what he must be feeling, and know I couldn’t come close.
I remember Moise dancing like we love him dancing, the crowd roaring.
I remember Federico Chiesa’s body posture as Arkadiusz Milik sprinted his way to the corner flag when the score read 3-0 — not a single drop of blood or sweat in the young Italian had wanted that goal for himself. Chiesa’s knees were bent, his back curled, his arms outstretched to Milik. He looked like a father waiting for his son taking wobbly steps his way.
There’s something old and new about the body posture, about the way the players are looking at each other.
I was wrong.
Perhaps in my romantic desire for the dramatic, I’d really believed something in the core Juventus DNA had been lost, maybe for good. I wrote about the many, heaping, stinking piles of what ailed the club; I discredited the good.
To be sure, I’m not here to convince you — or myself — that Rome is rebuilt, that the Juventus hegemony is just around the bend. In fact, the evidence that this current streak in Serie A is a flash in the pan or, worse, total fools gold, is not weak, and if the Old Lady reopens her campaign in January with dropped points then we’ll be talking about Atropos sharpening her scissors for Allegri’s thread almost immediately.
Allegri’s task doesn’t really get any simpler. In some ways, it gets thornier. Just when he landed on the right formation with the players at his disposal, he’ll be forced to retool once the full returns of Chiesa, Dušan Vlahović, Angel Di Maria, and Paul Pogba happen. He’ll be forced to do so with higher expectations, to boot.
But even if, or when, things don’t stay all bubbles and unicorns after the break, even if things get worse, even if we discover a rockier rock bottom than we’d ever could’ve fathomed, these little goods along the way deserve their weight, our attention.
My son is still sick, my wife had another doctor’s appointment yesterday, and I haven’t slept for more than a few consecutive hours in a month. But when I look out the window, I can see that strawberry-peach sunlight crawl up the hills and make me believe there’s only color. I don’t know which way this story’s going, but I don’t want to let the unknowing get in the way of the truly good and beautiful.