Tales From A Visit Of Old Friends

Chelsea vs. Juventus : 19 September 2012.

What a lovely gift from the football Gods. The first game in our defence of the Champions League trophy, which we all hold so dear, would be against the Italian champions Juventus. As many people know, I have always had a massive soft spot for the Bianconeri and so my heart was filled with joy when the two clubs were drawn together in the same pot. Despite my funds being earmarked this autumn for the mind-boggling trip to Tokyo in December, I promised myself that I would go to one of only two European cities in this autumn’s group phase; Glasgow (Celtic) and Turin (Juventus). These two trips could not be missed.

As I watched the draw unfold on my PC at work on Thursday 23 August, I just knew that fate would assure that I would be heading back to Turin once more. True enough, Ruud Gullit helped draw Chelsea and Juve in the same group.

Perfect.

The trip to Turin in November was duly booked.

First, though, the home game.

Alongside me in the Matthew Harding Upper was Marco, the son of my good friend Salvo. I had bought the ticket for Salvo, who owns a restaurant near Earls Court, but he decided to pass the ticket on to his Juve-mad son. Salvo was worried that when he accompanied me to the Chelsea vs. Juventus game in 2009, a Didier Drogba goal had resulted in a Chelsea win and a Juventus defeat. Maybe a mixture of Catholic guilt and football superstition had colluded for this decision.

Either way, Marco and I were getting along famously. On the walk to the stadium from The Goose, we had already swapped several Juventus stories, and it also transpired that Marco was a fan of baseball too; his team being the Detroit Tigers.

We didn’t get in until 7.40pm. I had a quick glimpse down at the three thousand tifosi in the away section. Daz asked for my assistance in lifting the massive flag over the heads of the spectators in the upper tier. Once completed, I was able to head back to my seat and capture the pre-match ritual which is so iconic now.

The entrance of the two teams, the slow walk across the pitch, the players’ route taking them to the right of the black and white flag on the centre circle, the Champions League anthem, the handshakes.

In amongst the Juve fans, around a hundred fans held up their mobile phones and a hundred bright lights lit up that particular corner of The Bridge. Tellingly, I spotted around twenty similar lights in the upper tier of the adjoining East Stand. This was no surprise; though not in the same numbers as the Neapolitans who swamped HQ in March, I always knew that there would be Juventus supporters mixed in to the home areas. Hell, there was even one sitting next to me.

The big news was that Oscar was making his home debut for us. A big night for him.

The other big news, personally, was that Juve were playing in the famous black and white. It was an irritant that they chose to wear the muted gold shirts in 2009.

This was the real deal.

Chelsea in blue and white.

Juventus in black and white.

My two teams.

Of course, we all know the real story. Chelsea are my team. Chelsea are the team that I follow over land and sea, the team that has had a vice-like grip on my emotions since I was a young boy. The team which has brought me sadness one moment and happiness the next. In comparison, Juventus are a more frivolous object of desire. My history with them is still sizeable, though and Marco was getting snippets of “my Juventus story” throughout the evening.

The time I met Momo Sissoko in a Torinese restaurant. The time I saw Maradona at the Stadio Communale. The time Antonio Conte scored a last-minute winner at the Delle Alpi against Fiorentina and infamously picked up the corner flag and taunted the seething Viola fans. The time I received a Roberto Bettega signed photograph. The time I saw Vialli and Ravanelli at Ibrox.

This game would be my 904th. Chelsea game and my 10th. Juventus game.

I can well remember asking some friends a while back about the various sports teams which they support and asking them to rate the importance of the teams. If I was to add my other major love, the New York Yankees, I can remember that my results were –

Chelsea 95%
New York Yankees 4%
Juventus 1%

This game would be my 904th Chelsea game and my 10th. Juventus game.

For comparison, I’ve seen the Yankees play 32 times.

Quite bizarrely, these numbers mirror my percentage points rather well.

946 games in total.

Chelsea 95%
New York Yankees 4%
Juventus 1%

How weird is that?

Over in the far corner, I did my best to scan the banners which were fighting for space on the balcony wall. It surprised me that I didn’t recognise any of them. There was one from a town – Trezzano sul Naviglio – where my client’s warehouse is based. Down in the lower tier, six juventini wore T-shirts spelling out the word “Drughi.”

Drughi are one of the many Juve fan groups which have evolved since the mid-seventies. They are named after the “droogs” which are featured in the iconic film “A Clockwork Orange.” There was also another Juve group –since disbanded – called “Arancia Mecanica” – and I remember a famous photograph of these quasi-hooligans in a police escort in Milano wearing bowler hats to a game at San Siro.

The history of the various Juve fan groups and their rivalries for prominence warrants an encyclopaedia all by itself. Dig a little and you will be rewarded. I have a book, which I bought at that Fiorentina game in 1999, which painstakingly tells of some of these groups in a series of breathtaking photographs.

The Juve fans were soon in good voice.

“Tutta La Curva!” (meaning, in theory, “We are the curve”, or the home end.)

“Forza Ragazzi!” (meaning “Come On, Boys.”)

During the first-half, just for a split second, with the Juve fans singing loud, I was transported back to an evening in November 1987 when I saw my first-ever Juventus game. It was a UEFA Cup match against Panathinaikos and I was watching high up on the Curva Maratona – the opposite end to the home Curva Filadelfia – at the Stadio Communale. The stadium was a cauldron of cacophonous noise, full of Italian passion, full of memories which would last forever.

It was a major stepping stone in my football journey.I had been bitten by the glamour and buzz of European football and – twenty-five years on – it still has the power to exhilarate and humble me in equal measure.

I exchanged “good luck” texts with my two Italian – and Juventus – pals Mario and Tullio and quickly got into the game. And what a fine game it was.

We began brightly and I noticed that the three support players – Hazard, Oscar and Ramires – were hitting Torres early. I sat and hoped that tonight would be his night. And then, with each passing minute, Juventus started making more and more inroads into our half.

Andrea Pirlo, playing deep, was the main worry and my gaze was kept being drawn towards him. This was my first sighting of this respected player, whose stock seems to rise with each passing year. I’m surprised that Milan let him go in 2011 and to a major rival, too. This, however, is typical of Italy. How often do major players flit between the main Italian teams? I can think of many examples. Marco’s personal favourite Roberto Baggio played for Milan, Inter and Juve for example.

Another story from my Italian past. In September 1987, two friends and I were in Venice and had finished a whirlwind sightseeing tour. I bought a copy of the pink sports paper “La Gazetta Della Sport” and saw that Inter were playing newly promoted Empoli. Without much thought, we made plans to hop on a train to Milano and catch the game. I remember that an article in the ‘paper about the Inter player Aldo Serena brought a few quizzical frowns from myself. His career to date had seen him play for Inter (three times), Milan, Torino and Juventus. That a player would play for these rival teams really shocked me. Can anyone imagine Joe Cole – say – play for Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal?

Incredibly, Serena then went on to eventually play once again for Milan.

Such is Italy.

Upfront, Vucinic (who played against us for Roma in 2008 ) and the diminutive Giovinco (who played against us in 2009) were creating a few good chances, ably abetted by Marchisio and Vidal. I thought Pirlo had a relatively quiet game. As far as I could remember, only Chiellini and Buffon remained from Juventus’ last visit to SW6.

Mid-way through the first-half, Juve were edging it. I always knew they would be tough opponents, coming off a completely unbeaten league season in 2011-2012. Anyone who thought that this group would be relatively easy was deluded. To be honest, I had visions of us being hit for a few goals.

Over in the far corner, the Juve fans were memorably producing a new twist on the ubiquitous “I Just Can’t Get Enough” chant, the Depeche Mode song from 1981, which has travelled around Europe like a virus.

Not exactly “sotto voce” and “fortissimo”, but certainly with two differing tones.

Nobody does football songs like the Italians.

On thirty minutes, the ball broke to our young Brazilian number eleven and he let fire from outside the box. I was right in line with the shot. It was deflected away from Buffon and into the corner of the goal.

The crowd roared and I went very light-headed.

Get in!

It was against the run of play, possibly, but we were ahead.

Two minutes later, we witnessed one of the greatest Chelsea goals of the past twenty-five years. The ball was played into Oscar, with his back to goal. He pushed the ball away from the goal, at a bizarre angle, and seemed to move in a mysterious way as if he was unable to be seen by the defenders close by. The ball reappeared at his feet, but he was still facing away from the goal. Instinctively, he thumped the ball goal wards and we watched with open-mouthed amazement.

The ball spun up, the ball spun out, the ball spun down, the ball spun in.

2-0 and the Stamford Bridge spectators were awestruck.

What a home debut from Oscar. I imagined the headlines being typed out already.

Our amazing lead was sadly short-lived. A neat move found Vidal who slotted past Petr Cech.

It was 2-1 at the break. In the match programme, there was a nice article and three great photographs from the match in Turin in 2009. What a trip that was. Apart from Munich, it is probably my favourite ever European jaunt. If the trip this November is half as good, I’ll be very happy. There was also a photograph in the programme of Kev from Bristol, who was celebrating his 1,000th game that night. Staggeringly, he is only 31. Amazing.

Soon into the second half, I fed more Juventus stories to Marco as the game progressed.

I asked Marco’s views on the pronunciation of the word “Juventus.” Of course, long gone are the days when ill-educated English fans pronounced it with a “J.” My question was aimed at the second of the three syllables. I have often thought that Italians “almost” (and I underline the word “almost”) pronounce the “v” as a “w.”

In my mind at least (and especially when I am with Mario and Tullio), I perhaps subconsciously pronounce the word “You-when-tus.” Or at least with the slightest hint of a “w.”

Thankfully, Marco agreed.

And further, I’d suggest that it has three and a half syllables.

EE’OO-WHEN-TUS.

I mentioned to Marco that there was a strange comfort to these group stage games and especially the first of the six. They certainly have a different feeling to the do-or-die knockout games. The tension just isn’t there. Will it matter too much if any team – Chelsea included – drew the first one rather than won it? The tension tends to build in these autumn fixtures and 2011-2012 was a perfect example. By the time we met Valencia in December, the tension was as taught as a violin string.

The second-half was again rather even. Chances came and went, but both goalkeepers were not often tested. A penalty claim on Hazard was waved away. A Lampard free-kick thumped against Buffon’s body. Mata, the substitute, shot wide. Torres was always involved, but role seemed to be more of a support player. Of the two holding players, Mikel was the more impressive, forever blocking Juve’s forward thrusts. I’m surprised that Frank played ninety minutes, on the back of two full games for England and the one against QPR; he didn’t have his best game in Chelsea colours.

For the first time that I can remember – maybe because of the clear, cloudless sky – I particularly noticed the lights on the passing planes. For those unaware, Stamford Bridge is right on the flight path of Heathrow. I often see planes fly overhead. Back in the ‘eighties, it was often a welcome attraction from the dire football on the pitch.

On this occasion, I particularly noticed the green and red lights on the plans’ wings, in addition to the white light at the cockpit.

Green. White. Red.

The colours of the Italian flag.

Ominous? You bet.

With ten minutes remaining, Mikel gave the ball away and Stamford Bridge groaned. There was a dull ache of inevitability when Quagliarella was fed in and nimbly slotted home.

The Bianconeri erupted in the south-east corner. Marco grabbed my arm and I had the slightest of contradictory emotions flash through me.

Was I happy?

Maybe 1%.

As the game came to its end, I soon received two incoming text messages.

From Mario in Bergisch-Gladbach – a friend since 1975 – “A nice game.”

From Tullio in Turin – a friend since 1981 – “So, we are still friends.”

And so the defence of our trophy has begun. This indeed will be a tough group. I am convinced that the two games that we will have, back to back in October and November, against Shakhtar Donetsk will be all-important. However, one thing is certain. Throughout these games, plus our excursion to Denmark, I feel that the tension will be mounting all of the way through until we make a return visit to the Piedmont city of Turin on November 20th?

Am I excited about that?

100%.

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