The first thing I knew about Wojciech Szczęsny was that, at one point during the tenure of Arsene Wenger at Arsenal, the Pole smoked a cigarette in the showers after a game.
I immediately loved him.
Nearly 3,000 days after snuffing out that cigarette, Szczęsny faced one of the greatest players to ever grace the pitch. Lionel Messi stood 12 yards away, primed to start driving the nail through the coffin of Polish hearts. The world’s most famous No. 10 on the world’s biggest stage at the World Cup in Qatar furrowed his brow, approached the ball, and launched.
Cigarette or no, Woj had other plans. Leaping to his left and simultaneously raising his right arm, he batted away the Messi penalty out of touch in what proved to be a crucial contribution to the goal differential for Poland.
After the game, Woj revealed, in truly classic Woj fashion, that he had bet Messi €100 that the penalty would not stand. Unfortunately for Lionel, Woj said he’s not going to pay the debt.
This is the one thing I want to say: Juve need Woj right now. They need his jokes. They need his penalty-stopping ability. They need his shower cigarettes. They need his awesomeness at being a dad.
Locker room vibez & post-Buffon lovable buffoonery
The road ahead for the Old Lady is murky, to say the least.
Putting aside the question of innocence vs. guilt — I know this is a fraught arena that will stir up the angst in all of you — there may or may not be penalties coming, there may or may not be even worse financial hardship coming than what the club is already experiencing, and there may or may not be other kinds of penalties levied. Some of the players who seemed foundational a few days ago may or may not get cold feet about the direction of the club, asking for a transfer and leveraging the entire debacle for an easy exit under market value. This team already needed a retool; it may or may not need a demolition and ground-up reconstruction.
Even if Juventus are found not guilty of all allegations and don’t face a single penalty, financial or sporting or otherwise, this is still a club whose entire board and president of more than a decade just resigned, still a club with serious roster discombobulations, and still a club teetering on the brink of actually being any good at all on the pitch! The memory of the Maccabi Haifa and Monza losses is as fresh as the fragrant Christmas tree I put up a couple days ago.
The club needs stable players, and in my opinion it needs players who aren’t going to sulk or succumb to whatever malaise (or malaises, if we’re straight with each other) are floating around at the moment.
I admit that I was repeatedly dismayed in the first half of the season when the players, after a poor performance, would go self-flagellate in front of the Juventus supporters, soaking up all the whistles and vitriol. (“You eat the shame for dessert,” remarks one of the central characters in Succession.) I just never felt like that was quite the right attitude to have, but they did it every time: the final whistle would blow after another depressing loss or draw, and they’d go stand over by the home supporters or traveling supporters and get booed. Screw that.
Probably there’s no one attitude that every single player should have; a team is composed of various individuals, after all, and that collective composition, not the particular singularities, is what makes team sports so awesome. I know from my sporting days, and from being a human with at least a few decades under my belt, that having a jovial, witty, light-hearted personality in the room can be as helpful as the most manic workaholic.
As far as performance on the pitch goes, how often has the “Mattia Perin is better than Woj” conversation surfaced on some blasphemous comment on some backwater thread buried deep in the annals of BWRAO? Yet every time Woj struggles for a half — and let’s be real: if he makes two mistakes in a matter of a few games, some folks grab their pitchforks immediately — he bounces back with dazzling displays of deft deflections, distribution, and defensive direction.
I will go ahead and say it: there is not a better goalkeeping room on the planet.
In Woj, Juventus have a reliable shot-stopper and an offbeat leader. In Perin, Juventus have — maybe outside of Keylor Navas — one of the best No. 2 options you could throw out there if your top guy gets hurt. In Carlo Pinsoglio, Juventus have the most epic glue man, the most congenial locker room presence, the ultimate tattooed amico on the planet.
With Gianluigi Buffon, the Bianconeri were graced with nearly two decades of pure solidity between the posts, an immaculate and inspiring leader who happened to be one of the best in the history of the game to ply his trade. That’s the dude whose shoes Woj had to fill, and the goofy guy from Poland has done a hell of a job doing so. He won’t be remembered the way Buffon will be, but with the uncertain times ahead, he has a chance to make a deep mark. I think he’s equipped to do so, too.