Juventus left chasing their elusive European validation

Words by Adam Digby Illustration by Philippe Fenner
April 19, 2018

Cristiano Ronaldo’s 96th minute penalty meant that Real Madrid would proceed to the Champions League semifinals, while Juventus would begin waiting once again. Just over a week has passed since that cruel last gasp defeat, and Gigi Buffon’s angry reaction was perhaps the best indicator that this was a painful and heartbreaking loss. Normally one of world football’s calmest and well-spoken stars, the club Captain erupted when English referee Michael Oliver awarded the spot kick against his side, the circumstances surround the incident simply too much for him to bear.

“To award such a doubtful, or super doubtful, penalty just ahead of the final whistle and destroy the work of a team who gave absolutely everything you have to have a rubbish bin instead of your heart,” the veteran goalkeeper told reporters shortly after the final whistle. “A human being cannot decide the elimination of a team with such a decision.” Rightly proud of his team for fighting back from a three-goal deficit only to be ultimately denied, there was little doubt that Buffon’s emotions were caused by much more than just the match official’s decision that Medhi Benatia had fouled Lucas Vázquez.

Now 40 years old and likely to retire at the end of the season, the iconic shot-stopper has perhaps played in the Champions League for the final time, his chance to lift the famous old trophy now gone for good. Having won the UEFA Cup at Parma and the 2006 World Cup with Italy before collecting league titles and Coppa Italia winner’s medals almost annually with the Bianconeri, it is often noted that this competition is the only one to elude Buffon. Yet, if victory was all he craved, the Tuscany native had chances to join Barcelona, Real Madrid or AC Milan where he would almost certainly have triumphed eventually.

Instead, we are left with one obvious truth; for Buffon, winning the Champions League was not enough, he wanted to win it with Juventus. Rather than being a point of vanity, the Captain craved a triumph in UEFA’s elite competition because that is the yardstick by which any sustained success is judged. As Bayern Munich, Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain can attest, winning a domestic title – even by an embarrassingly wide margin – is simply not enough and only overcoming the continent’s best teams can validate that dominance.

Yet for players who pull on the famous black and white stripes of Italy’s most prestigious club, this is nothing new. It began in earnest when Giovanni Trapattoni led the club to their first international trophy – the 1977 UEFA Cup – before going on dominate football on the continent for the next decade. Before leaving Turin in 1986, “Trap” would see his team win the Serie A title six times, the Coppa Italia twice, the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup and European Super Cup in 1984 and then a European Cup the following year.

He would return for three seasons before being replaced by Marcello Lippi, and it was he who would eventually restore Juve to the pinnacle of both domestic and European football. His side steamrollered their Serie A rivals in the 1994/95 campaign, winning a league-and-cup double, before a team containing Gianluca Vialli, Alessandro Del Piero and Fabrizio Ravanelli lifted the Champions League trophy just twelve months later.

Then the waiting began.

After that 1996 triumph they would reach the next two finals while simultaneously rebuilding the team, the arrivals of Zinedine Zidane, Edgar Davids and others proving insufficient when it mattered most. Those losses to Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund meant that a genuinely great team did not punctuate their superiority with Champions League glory, and they would fall short once again in 2003.

That side contained Lilian Thuram, David Trezeguet and Ballon d’Or winner Pavel Nedved, but lost to Carlo Ancelotti’s Milan on penalties despite Buffon performing heroically in goal. A point blank save from a Pippo Inzaghi header maintained parity during normal time, while he also managed to deny Clarence Seedorf and Kakha Kaladze in the subsequent shootout.

In 2015 it was Lionel Messi and Barcelona who put them to the sword, while Ronaldo scored twice in Real Madrid’s 4-1 triumph last season. Then came the events of last week, the Portuguese superstar and his team-mates once again emerging victorious at the expense of Turin’s increasingly weary Old Lady.

She will be back of course, just a few short months until there is another Group Stage draw, a fresh set of opponents to overcome in the hope of ultimate glory for a team on the brink of a seventh consecutive Serie A title. They clearly regard the Champions League as the true measure of their greatness, Juventus are looking to not only get the better of their current rivals in Europe but also emerge from the shadow of their own trophy-laden history. They’ve been waiting for 22 years.

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