By Cameron Pope
It is February 2003. I, a five-year-old boy with an irritatingly squeaky voice and chunky pair of front teeth, am struggling to contain my excitement as my dad and uncle prepare the tools for unquestionably the most important event of the year: my bedroom redecoration. Having made the transfer from the box room to the big back bedroom the season prior, following the arrival of my even noisier younger sister, the fact that I am now set to graduate from dinosaur-clad quarters to a bedchamber fit for a responsible older brother – with white walls and space aplenty for my burgeoning collection of scarves and pennants – is blowing my young mind.
At some point during the evening of that first painting stint, my old man – a football commentator with seemingly unbounded knowledge of the game – and his Manchester City-supporting brother-in-law naturally flicked the tiny, antiquated 4:3 upstairs television onto ITV to fill the background with an evening of Champions League action, most likely in a bid to counter-balance my raucous excitement at the re-dec. Tuning in that night was, to them, a wholly inconsequential action; neither man had the slightest inkling that this tie would foster in me a feverish passion for a foreign team that would incontrovertibly become my first true love.
In all honestly, I did not remember the result of Manchester United’s group stage meeting with Juventus until I looked it up online, years later – but something so trivial as a scoreline had scarcely mattered. What I did recall, with clarity, was the mesmerising sight of a black-and-white unit that moved with a fluidity and flair that I had never before seen.
Ironically, they lost 2-1, shut out of the game courtesy of goals from Wes Brown and Ruud van Nistelrooy and as I re-watch the highlights seventeen years on as a veteran of many more ITV Champions League nights, it is obvious that Juve were far from their best, their defensive frailties exposed on a number of occasions. But the sharp kit, the Italian style and exotic feel that foreign football brings made a profound impression on a young chap as I stood, paintbrush in hand, watching David Trezeguet, Edgar Davids, Alessio Tacchinardi and Mauro Cameronesi cut their way through a cold Manchester night.
But there was one player who caught my eye more than any other. With his mop of blonde curls and magic eye for a cross, a troublesome Czech – Juve’s goalscorer on the night, Pavel Nedved – became the subject of what can only be termed an infatuation. The Italians’ only outlet, everything went through him; having stung the post of Fabien Barthez with the score at 1-0 he would keep United on their toes all evening, his long-range stoppage-time effort firing into the far corner to halve the arrears. My painting had long been abandoned.
I was obsessed. Every kickabout I had, I would emulate just one player. From that moment on, I became hooked on a team a thousand miles from my West Yorkshire home and neither my dad’s love for Everton, nor my uncle’s passion for City (and especially not my begrudgingly adopted local club, the downward-spiralling Huddersfield Town) were going to tear me away.
As the 2002/03 Champions League wore on, the Old Lady of Turin would put on a show for the continent and rest assured, five-year-old me was there to lap up almost every minute. Of course, in the days before cable television graced our house, this could prove difficult. Bedtime limitations would often curtail my midweek viewing schedules, too, and so I was often forced to rely on my uncle’s delivery of a recorded match on VHS to belatedly get my fill. But time after time, the bianconeri would repay my faith in them, duly dispatching Deportivo La Coruña in the groups and Barcelona in the last eight as I followed Nedved and my heroes in any way I could.
When the semi-finals rolled around, the anticipation and tension in our house reached fever pitch. Juve were to face the formidable Real Madrid, competition winners the previous year and favourites to take the crown again later that spring. In the first leg – a bitter, hard-fought contest that saw the visiting Italians rack up five yellow cards – Ronaldo and Roberto Carlos edged the hosts 2-1 ahead. I looked on, concerned, in my newly acquired Lotto Juventus home strip, a birthday present from mum and dad (emblazoned with ‘Nedved, 11’ on the back, naturally). As Juve licked their wounds ahead of an eight-day turnaround, the advantage was clearly with Los Blancos, but David Trezeguet’s strike on the stroke of half-time had crucially given us a lifeline.
And so, as I counted down to the most exciting and pivotal ninety minutes of my young life to date, it was to my utter dismay that I realised the gods – and the TV schedules – had conspired against me. My dad broke the news – I could not watch the second leg live. Instead, inconceivably, I would have to rely on the old VHS and watch the action a day later.
I protested, I am sure. But the facts were decided – what could I do? My uncle would tape the game on the Wednesday night and he, my dad and I would view it together, at ours, the evening after. The date was set.
That Thursday in May 2003 was Christmas, my birthday and Halloween. School lasted an eternity. I wolfed down my tea, my spaghetti bolognese hardly touching the sides, then raced upstairs to don the famous black and white.
And after 12 minutes, it seemed my extended wait had been worth it. The ever-reliable David Trezeguet was on hand again to square the tie, flicking Alessandro Del Piero’s cut-back past Iker Casillas to a raucous reception in the Stadio delle Alpi and a certain living room in Huddersfield. It was two-apiece on aggregate; as it stood, we were in the final courtesy of the Frenchman’s away goal in Spain. With the interval approaching, Del Piero would make it two with a sublime solo effort struck low into the corner and I, swept up in the action, would truly, wholly start to believe.
But as the three of us retook our places on the sofa ready for the second period of this enthralling European encounter, disaster struck.
In a moment of horror that young fans of today will never truly know, our tape ran out.
One minute, the screen had been showing a highlights reel from the first half; the next, Paolo Montero had been replaced by the Weatherfield cobbles. Coronation Street.
To this day, I vividly remember the sinking feeling accompanying the realisation that we were to be deprived of the decisive quarter of the tie. This match had kept me daydreaming at school all week – I doubt I learned anything at all in the days since the defeat in Madrid – and now, when Gigi Buffon and co should have been powering us on to glory, Ken Barlow was threatening to leave Deirdre.
My abject disappointment was very slightly allayed, however, upon hearing from my uncle – who had seen the game in its entirety the night before – that Juve had indeed held out to make it to the final. Better still, my favourite player had been on hand to strike the killer blow, rifling in an outside-of-the-boot effort to protect the hosts from a late Zidane-inspired fightback. But, after a re-enactment of the Czech’s goal inside the living room, someone had to break it to me that Juventus’ success had come at a heart-breaking cost. With just eight minutes to go, the impassioned Nedved had flung himself into a wild challenge on substitute Steve McManaman and was shown a yellow card, his second of the tournament. Suspended, he would play no part in the final.
Devastated, I went to bed that night knowing that my team was on the cusp of victory, but without the man whose every on-field move I had followed for the past four months – an eternity, for a five-year-old. The bitter disappointment would take time to subside; looking back, it is probably just as well that our video cut out – I wince at the thought of my real-time reaction.
Two weeks later, back on the sofa, I watched Juve walk out to face AC Milan in the 2003 Champions League final with bittersweet expectancy. Fittingly, the decider was to be played at Old Trafford, the ground at which the bianconeri had reeled me in earlier that year.
And God, it was tense. Both sides buzzed from end to end, with Andriy Shevchenko denied an opener for Milan by the linesman’s flag and Antonio Conte rattling the bar for the Old Lady. On a fine night for Italian football, the two camps cancelled each other out and after two hours of play, the tie still remained goalless; penalty kicks would decide the champions of Europe.
As I write this article, I can still scarcely believe that David Trezeguet, so often the talisman throughout that memorable campaign, missed the first spot-kick. In a shootout dominated by Buffon and his opposite number, Dida, Juve would never lead and despite Gigi’s best efforts, Shevchenko would ultimately seal the deal for Milan, 3-2.
AC became the first team to make me cry; to this day, I still harbour a largely irrational distaste for the rossoneri. I would go on to follow Juventus for the years to come, largely through countless FIFA career modes, but eventually, my early passion waned. My childhood companion would be sidelined through my growing support for Huddersfield Town, a team I would eventually follow all over the country and from whom I would learn far more about the highs and lows of football fandom. Nevertheless, I would always keep an eye out for the team that made me fall in love with club football.
It was for that reason that in April 2018, on the morning of my 21st birthday, I opened my mum and dad’s card to find a photograph of the new Juventus Stadium. In honour of that first Champions League we followed together, my old man and I were to make the pilgrimage to Turin and watch the team in the flesh – and ten months later, we stepped off the bus to be greeted by the sight of Italy’s most expensive stadium.
A full six hours before that evening’s kick-off, our first port of call was the fabled museum, where the sight of my boyhood heroes’ jerseys on display ignited an infantile sense of joy, with videos of the 1970s curva depicting scenes of unbridled adulation for Italy’s most successful club.
But, walking around, it was clear to me that plenty had changed. The stadium’s innards are a slick, corporate machine, the club shop is draped in eye-wateringly expensive Adidas merchandise and the arena itself, a trimmed-down version of the delle Alpi, boasts little to distinguish it from the other spiritless modern bowls across Europe’s top divisions.
Eleven points clear of second place at kick-off, Giorgio Chiellini’s side never looked threatened as they brushed aside lowly Frosinone, 3-0. My dad and I had grimaced as the stadium PA system pounded out an artificial ‘anthem’ for the team, ‘Storia di un Grande Amore’, and the muted cheers as Paulo Dybala opened the scoring were, for me, a sad indictment on the loss of the club’s soul. Having spent much of my youth vociferously willing Huddersfield on up the Football League from Bristol to Newcastle, Juve and I were clearly old friends who had taken divergent paths. With the home side no longer a fit for me, I found my eyes drawn to a small corner of yellow amongst the black and white seats, where a rowdy, hundred-strong bunch of Frosinone faithful were refusing to let the on-field drubbing spoil their party, beating their drums and singing their choruses, and inwardly I willed them on to grab a consolation.
Today, having wrapped up their ninth consecutive scudetto, Juventus embody the plasticity that puts me and many others off mainstream football. A once proud club has undoubtedly grown, but at the cost of becoming more corporation and less calcio. I imagine I will always want them to succeed, but I would struggle to call myself a fan anymore.
That said, trademarks and Adidas tracksuits ignored, I will be always thankful to them for my first football journey, that rollercoaster of emotions as I experienced all four seasons of fanhood over the course of one European run. And one day, I still vow to meet Pavel Nedved.