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Waiting for Del Piero



On March 20, 1994, Juventus met Parma in Serie A at the Stadio Delle Alpi in Turin. The home fans were far from confident. Parma, the Cup Winners' Cup-holders, were level on points with them and in form, while Juve were without their talisman Roberto Baggio.

In his place, coach Marcello Lippi opted for Alessandro Del Piero. True, he had scored the previous week against Genoa, but he was only 19, short, and had only recently signed from Padova, where he managed just one goal in 14 outings.
What followed was astonishing. Del Piero gave a masterclass in playing off a front man, darting and buzzing around defenders, creating chances and, most gloriously, scoring goals. When he made it 4-0 with three minutes remaining, Del Piero completed his hat-trick. Suddenly, he wasn't just a Juve reserve, he was the future of Italian football, the man who would, probably sooner rather than later, step into Baggio's boots for both Juve and the Italian national side. That was the day when the Del Piero legend was born and, for four years, he lived up to the hype. This season, the hype returned.

At the end of one of the hardest weeks in his career-it began with the death of his 61-year-old father from cancer-Del Piero came off the bench against Bari to score his second goal in two games to keep alive Juve's title hopes. And the goal may well be a turning point in his career.

Del Piero has had a hard time with injuries over the last two years and, this season, he has struggled to win a regular place in Carlo Ancelotti's first team. But last week's goal against Napoli, and this latest contribution, will have gone a long way to staking a claim for a more prominent role in his manager's plans.
"He scored a decisive goal," admitted Ancelotti. "Not just for Juven tus but also for himself. It shouldn't be said that with this goal Del Piero has re-emerged, because we already knew he was re-emerging last year when he came back after his injury."

Del Piero said: "I'm happy with this goal as it shows that I'm in good form. Now we have to think about the Scudetto. That's all."

The season after his explosive debut, Del Piero made a solid, if unspectacular start to the campaign. But as Christmas approached, Juventus were beginning to wobble.

At home to Fiorentina, Juve fell two behind before half-time. With league leaders Parma facing lowly Brescia, things looked bleak indeed. Gianluca Vialli pulled one back on 73 minutes, and three minutes later he levelled the match.
And then, three minutes from time, Del Piero scored a goal that will never be forgotten by those who saw it. As a long ball dropped at the edge of the box, it seemed he would have to bring it down. With defenders approaching, though, Del Piero casually lobbed a volley over the keeper and in.

The next week, he scored twice in a 4-3 victory, Parma drew, and Juve went top. Juventus won the title by ten clear points. Further Scudetti followed in 1997 and 1998.

That 1997-98 season, Del Piero's form was extraordinary. In 32 games he bagged 21 goals and earned the nickname Pinturicchio, after the Renaissance painter noted for his delicate frescoes.

He was an iconic figure, an emblem of the creative verve that Italians felt had been missing from the national team for too long. And he was only 23. Then, on November 8, the day before his 24th birthday, Del Piero injured his knee in an away game at Udinese.

He returned, but the magic had gone. In the 1999-2000 season, Del Piero only managed three goals from open play, and his place as the inventive focus of the national side was taken by Francesco Totti.

The fans began to turn against their former hero. When Italy only drew 2-2 in a World Cup qualifier in Hungary, Del Piero was held widely responsible. National coach Giovanni Trapattoni seemed to spend every training session defending Del Piero, explaining he would be back to his best given time.
So long has everyone been waiting for the old Del Piero, that Juventus owner Gianni Agnelli began to refer to him as 'Godot'.

Vladimir and Estragon, of course, kept waiting, maintaining their vigil by the roadside for a Godot who never arrived. We've waited a long time for Pinturicchio, but it seems that, finally, he might be here.


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