Of course he has scored better goals. Of course he has scored more important goals. The current Juventus captain Alessandro Del Piero has netted vital strikes at the World Cup, in a Champions League Final, in the World Club Cup Final and has won so many top trophies and titles that his list of personal honours is longer than that of most clubs. The all-time leading goalscorer in the history of Italy’s grandest club has as they say, been there, done it and has enough medals to put on the table to silence even Alan Hansen.
Many people feel strong connections to footballers they idolise as children but my personal feelings towards Del Piero are slightly different. While still young I loved Gaetano Scirea and Franco Baresi (yes, bit of a theme there). But, while clearly not a classy central defender, Del Piero and I are a similar age and as I grew up watching him do the same in a much more public manner, I felt a bond that no other athlete has ever given me. I felt his pain as I looked on during that fateful day in Udine when his knee first gave way, I suffered with him as he squandered a gilt-edged chance to seal victory for Italy over France in the final of Euro 2000.
But before the goals, the adulation and the armband, even before he first wore the famous Bianconeri shirt he was just a boy playing football with his father. Before he was christened Pinturicchio by Gianni Agnelli, ‘our Ale’ was simply Gino’s son. Their bond was no greater than that any father has with their son, but just as Del Piero finally looked to be putting the terrible injuries of his career behind him, his world was turned upside down as the man he always turned to in times of difficulty passed away.
When my own father died in January of the same year my world collapsed. The one person who had been there for me forever was gone and I retreated from life completely, lost and unsure of where to turn. Gradually I put the pain aside and began to do normal things once more, including watching football, and it was the best decision I ever made.
Having heard the terrible news of Gino Del Piero’s passing it stunned me that just four days after the funeral Ale would be among the substitutes on February 17 2001 for a match away to southern side Bari. After 63 minutes of an exciting but scoreless game in which both sides had been denied by some fantastic goalkeeping from Jean Francois Gillet and Edwin van der Sar, Carlo Ancelotti brought on Del Piero for Darko Kovacevic.
The next fifteen minutes from Del Piero was a perfect encapsulation of the way I had felt for the previous month, yet while my own melancholy and grief was private and hidden I watched on as a man who, just three years earlier, was arguably the world’s best footballer lived out his own in front of a packed stadium and a huge televised audience. The once immaculate first touch was gone, his passing simply terrible and shooting even worse.
Then, with less than ten minutes remaining, everything changed.
The ball broke to Del Piero midway inside Bari’s half, out by the left touchline and he ran directly at his marker, forcing him to backpedal all the way into box. A step-over left the defender flat-footed and one touch later the Juventus number 10 chipped a left footed shot over the advancing ‘keeper from an acute angle to score a wonderful goal.
As he curled away the emotion came pouring out, first as he threw Alessandro Birindelli to the ground, then as he kicked over an advertising prop, all the while screaming in a mixture of joy, relief and sadness before finally collapsing into the embrace of Gianluca Pessotto. Asked in 2003 about the loss of his father, the goal and the effect it had on his life, Del Piero said;
“Undoubtedly, the death of my father had an effect on me at the time and continues to do so. But it also gave me back completely to football. I believe I’ve grown up, living through experiences that have opened my eyes”
You and me both Ale, you and me both.