It was the final day of the 1999/00 Serie A season and as torrential rain and wind battered the Renato Curi stadium, Carlo Ancelotti and his Juventus side were engulfed in a storm of their own making.
Nothing but a victory would do for the Bianconeri against Perugia, having inexplicably found themselves dragged into a title dogfight after surrendering the nine-point lead they held over Lazio in April. Having lost just one of their opening 26 Serie A matches, Ancelotti’s men had misfired at the season’s closing stage, allowing Lazio to leapfrog them on the final day; failure to defeat I Grifoni would see the title slip from Juve’s grasp.
Pre-match optimism unravelled as a blue sky gave way to a biblical downpour and a thoroughly miserable day for the Old Lady. Referee Pierluigi Collina deliberated for a full 82 minutes before finally deciding to go ahead with the second half on a badly waterlogged playing surface, and Alessandro Calori’s goal for Perugia put the finishing touches on a late-season collapse by Juventus that few would have thought possible weeks before.
As Ancelotti trudged off the rainswept pitch, the thunderous boos from the Juve faithful ringing in his ears, he must have realised that blame for the team’s implosion would surely land squarely at his feet. Already unpopular with many tifosi, the Reggiolo native would face the heat for an inexplicable late-season implosion that had wrested a seemingly inevitable league title from Juve’s grasp. It had been a traumatic unfolding for players and fans alike: “That was devastating,” reflected Antonio Conte. “For seven days I just didn’t sleep. Not a wink. We’d lost a Scudetto that we had already won.”
The Coach’s time at Juventus had been characterised by problems from the outset, with his appointment in February 1999 greeted by a mixture of dismay and anger from the terraces. The then 38-year-old was undoubtedly a promising managerial prospect, but his prior experience – a single year in Serie B with Reggiana and two seasons at Parma – seemed to pale in comparison with the pedigree of Marcello Lippi, his predecessor, who had presided over a trophy-strewn era.
More troubling was a playing career that had seen Ancelotti represent Juve’s hated rivals Roma and Milan with distinction, frequently squaring off against the Bianconeri in title challenges during the 1980s and 1990s; his CV was certainly far from that of an archetypal Juventus Coach. Fans made their displeasure abundantly clear at his first game with a crude reference both to their new leader’s pudgy appearance and his farming background. ‘Un maiale non può allenare,’ was the banner raised by Juve ultras: ‘a pig can’t coach.’
The nature of the Old Lady’s collapse towards the end of the 1999/00 season meant that patience with Ancelotti, already thin on the ground, was stretched to breaking point as the Coach set about attempting to atone for the errors of the previous year. Their early form in the 2000/01 season was steady rather than spectacular, rebounding from a home defeat to Udinese to embark on a 12-game unbeaten run. However, a series of draws would ultimately prove costly in the face of a relentless Roma side led by Fabio Capello.
A wretched Champions League campaign added to Ancelotti’s woes, with Juve finishing bottom of a winnable group that included Deportivo La Coruna, Panathinaikos and Hamburg. Recklessness and indiscipline pervaded the campaign from the outset, with Zinedine Zidane receiving red cards in consecutive games: against Depor, and then for a rash headbutt on Hamburg’s Jochen Kientz. Ancelotti cut an exasperated figure after the latter game, which also saw Edgar Davids dismissed as Juve succumbed to a 3-1 home defeat. “The behaviour of Zidane and Davids is difficult to explain,” he sighed. “I did not ask for their explanation, [and] they did not offer it.”
Zidane was Juve’s undisputed talisman alongside Alex Del Piero, but the enigmatic Frenchman’s stature at the club and popularity with the owners frequently threatened to undermine the relatively green Ancelotti. “Before every match, the Avvocato [Giovanni Agnelli] came into the locker room,” recalled the Coach, “said hello to Alessandro Del Piero, and then went straight to Zizou. He was head over heels in love; he took Zizou aside and had a little chat. It was a scene that I witnessed dozens of times… that was when I started to get a little lonely. Everyone was ignoring me; they all came to see Zidane. Sometimes even the fans ignored me.”
On one occasion, Ancelotti reportedly attempted to assert his authority by instructing the Juventus bus driver to leave, with Zidane late and nowhere to be seen; centre-back Paolo Montero, one of the team’s leaders, interjected to make it clear that “no-one is leaving here without Zidane.” Ancelotti had no choice but to wait.
On the domestic front, Ancelotti continued to insist that Juventus could still win the Serie A title, but Roma’s rampant form had many convinced that their name was already on the trophy. “We mustn’t think about Roma, because Fabio Capello’s team are playing in a different league,” Del Piero admitted in April. “They are just like a UFO.”
Still, no sooner had Del Piero spoken than Roma faltered with the finishing line in sight, providing a shot in the arm to Juve’s dwindling title hopes. With six games remaining, they faced Roma at the Delle Alpi knowing that victory would narrow the gap to the leaders even further. The Bianconeri roared into a 2-0 lead inside six minutes through Del Piero and Zidane, and looked to be headed for victory even after Hidetoshi Nakata reduced arrears in the 79th minute; however, disaster struck in added time when Edwin van der Sar’s error allowed the ruthless Montella to equalise. The 2-2 draw felt like a defeat, effectively signalling the end of Juventus’ hopes of catching Capello’s men.
Juve would win their last four league games under Ancelotti, but their failure to catch Roma sounded the death knell for the tactician’s reign at the club. The chance to usurp Roma still technically existed until the last whistle of the season, but the board seemed to have little doubt that Capello would steer his side over the line; with startling ruthlessness, it was announced at half-time of Juve’s final game of the season against Atalanta that Ancelotti was being sacked. It came as little surprise to the under-pressure Coach, who admitted to the Press that he had been made aware of the decision with two games of the season still to play.
The enormous success Ancelotti has enjoyed in club management since his ill-fated Juventus spell suggests that it was simply a bad fit at the wrong time for both parties. There was little room for error at an institution as prestigious as Juve, and consecutive second-placed finishes were unlikely to be tolerated at a club known for its relentless appetite for success. Trophies were virtually the only benchmark against which coaches would be measured in Turin. “The tradition at Milan is to play a good style of football,” Ancelotti later reflected in an interview with FourFourTwo, “differently from Juventus, where the most important thing is to win.”
Ancelotti’s failings in the eyes of tifosi, meanwhile, were amplified by his strong links to Milan and Roma. The coach would later question the extent of Juventus fans’ hostility towards him – “I coached here for two years, and my relationship with the fans was fine,” he remarked in 2015 – but Juve director Umberto Agnelli seemed to think otherwise. “The reason for Ancelotti’s departure,” he told reporters after the sacking, “is that it is difficult to work in a city where the great part of the fans and the Press are against you.”
The rancour of the club’s fans at his appointment had strengthened with every defeat, and Ancelotti’s difficulties were compounded by his seeming incompatibility with the Juventus hierarchy. “It was a new ecosystem for me and I never felt comfortable,” he noted in Il Mio Albero di Natale. “I was just a cog in a machine.”
And then, of course, there was Lippi, the charismatic tactician who had achieved so much in his spell in charge of the Bianconeri and whose shadow loomed large over Ancelotti’s reign at the club. There was a sense of unfinished business between Lippi and Juventus and, as the vultures circled around Ancelotti, the Viareggio native’s return to the club became one of the worst-kept secrets in Italian football. “Lippi has a great desire to do the job,” Agnelli admitted in the immediate aftermath of Ancelotti’s departure.
Alessio Tacchinardi, who played under Ancelotti at Juve, disputes the notion that the coach failed in Turin. “I completely reject such a definition,” he commented. “I still remember how well he handled the group, his great game plans and his handling of Alessandro Del Piero after his horrible knee injury.”
The defender contends that Ancelotti was plagued by simple bad luck throughout his time at the club.
His two years were not blessed with luck – that’s for sure. There was that storm in Perugia, and then a one-off performance by Hidetoshi Nakata for Roma at the Stadio delle Alpi. Even the fans took to him, despite there having been a few banners and things against him early on.
The famously sanguine Ancelotti, meanwhile, would use his chastening spell with Juventus as a learning experience on the path to a hugely successful managerial career. “I learned so much at this club,” he said as he prepared to lead Real Madrid into their Champions League tie with Juve in 2015. “I had problems with some sections of the support, but what can I say? The two years I spent here helped me to grow.”
Words by Fergal McAlinden: @fergalmcalinden