Before Juventus began their 2018/19 campaign, the improbable news broke out in Turin: Cristiano Ronaldo had signed a four-year contract with Juve worth €100m. The former Real Madrid star was the Italian club’s great new hope and believed to be the final piece of the puzzle in the Bianconeri’s pursuit of their European dream.
Signing the man they call ‘Mr Champions League’ in the bid to weaken their rivals and conquer European competition made complete sense for Juventus. And the Turin club’s fans soon placed their faith in the Portuguese international, the same star who inflicted pain on Juventini in the 2017 Champions League Final in Cardiff and the quarter-final stages last season. But just when Juve supporters had renewed belief that their team could go on to lift the Champions League trophy in Madrid, heartbreak struck again.
It was in the second leg of the 2018/19 Champions League Juventus-Ajax quarter-final where Matthijs de Ligt’s astonishing goal – a potent header from a corner kick – silenced the 40,000 Juventus fans inside the Allianz Stadium. The Ajax captain’s goal put the Dutch visitors 2-1 ahead on the night and 3-2 on aggregate, consequently booking a Champions League semi-final ticket for the Amsterdam side.
A youthful Ajax side, with the average age of 24, toppled the Turin giants in their formidable fortress. It was a catastrophe waiting to happen, especially in light of the way Juventus had been underperforming for the majority of this season. This experienced Bianconeri side – boasting five-time Ballon d’Or winner in Cristiano Ronaldo – once again failed to accomplish the elusive Champions League dream.
Juventus may be one of the most decorated and prestigious clubs in Italian football, but when it comes to Champions League competition, La Vecchia Signora (The Old Lady) keeps capitulating at the final hurdle. A 23-year trophy drought in Europe seems too long for one of Italy’s wealthiest and most well-run football clubs. But some former Juve players and supporters have called it a cursed trophy.
For Juventus fans, witnessing their team win copious amounts of silverware domestically has become a ritual. Juve recently secured its eighth consecutive Serie A title, making it a total of 35 league trophies for Italy’s northern juggernaut. So for all the domestic dominance and with no other Italian side currently capable of breaking the Juventus hegemony, why are the club’s supporters still left with a bitter taste in their mouths?
The only thing missing from Juve’s recent domestic dynasty – a successful period stretching from 2011 to 2019 – is the Champions League trophy. Being the most supported side in Italy and given the club’s extensive footprint in Calcio, Juventus still can’t be inducted into the exclusive list with some of Europe’s greatest heavyweights in Champions League history. Real Madrid, AC Milan, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Liverpool and Ajax have all won Europe’s greatest possession on more than three occasions.
Juventus have reached a total of nine Champions League finals, winning just two in 1985 and 1996, and finishing as runners-up on seven occasions. A staggering fact is that the Piemonte club holds the same number of Champions League titles as Nottingham Forest – a club that now plays second-tier English football.
Reaching two European Finals in three years under Massimiliano Allegri (2015 and 2017) has left Juventus fans fixated with the competition. Each year, the most obsessed fan base in Europe wait anxiously to witness Juventus lift the elusive European title.
However, never has this Champions League fascination been more significant among younger Juventini, particularly the ones born in the late 1990s. This younger generation of Bianconeri supporters have never experienced the emotions of seeing their club stand on the podium, lifting the cup dubbed ‘Big Ears’ due to its oversized handles.
Juventus analyst and football writer, Arjun Pradeep, described the feeling of what it’s like to be one of the younger Juve supporters. The Bianconeri might be breaking title records in Serie A and Coppa Italia, but they can’t erase and sugar-coat the suffering in Champions League football.
“It is not easy. I’ve witnessed Juventus lose three Champions League finals, and these losses sting,” Arjun told TGU.
“This season’s elimination to a young Ajax team angers me, but it’s even more disappointing. It’s the biggest setback that we’ve faced since the exit in the Europa League semis in 2014, a competition that we played in because we were eliminated in the Group Stages of the Champions League. The annoying thing is now Juventus fans need to wait for another year to reach this stage again. A long, frustrating wait.”
For older Juventini, the last time they saw their side win Europe’s elite competition was back in 1996. Experiencing a 23-year (and still counting) silverware drought in Europe seems like an eternity for a club that prides itself on winning. The 1996-winning Juventus side – back then boasting Italy’s finest footballers such as Alessandro Del Piero, Fabrizio Ravanelli and Gianluca Vialli – now look like invincibles compared to recent Juve squads that have failed continuously in Europe.
Juventus captain Gianluca Vialli lifts the Champions League trophy following his side’s penalty shoot-out win over Ajax in 1996
Juve hold the record for the most Champions League final defeats, a distressing trend that often draws ridicule from rival AC Milan and Inter fans. Nicholas Di Giovanni, an avid Juventus fan from the Calcio Guys podcast, describes how the taunting – mainly from Inter and AC Milan – continues to test the patience and stir the emotions of Juventus fans. It’s one of the motives that has created an unbelievable desire in the eyes of many Juventini.
“Growing up in Montreal with such a big Italian community, I’m getting frustrated of hearing all the Milanisti and Interisti talk about Juve’s failures in the Champions League,” Nicholas Di Giovanni told TGU.
“I think there’s a pride factor that comes in too, considering AC Milan have seven Champions League titles, and Inter won the treble in 2010. So Juventus fans are constantly reminded. I would love nothing more than to see Juve fans celebrating a Champions League title in our Little Italy in Montreal, replicating the similar scenes of when Italy won the FIFA World Cup in 2006.”
Interestingly enough, the last Italian team to lift the Champions League trophy was Inter, who won it in the 2009/10 season. With Juventus being the only Italian side reaching the Champions League Final since Inter’s triumph nine years ago, the pressure has grown on the 35-time Serie A winners to carry Italian football in Europe.
Juve’s last appearance in a Champions League Final, the 2017 edition where the Italians were annihilated 4-1 by Real Madrid in Cardiff, was arguably one of the club’s worst performances in a European Final according to Juventino Nicholas Di Giovanni.
“Watching that 2017 final was disturbing, and I did shed a tear. I really believed that was our time to win, especially after eliminating Barcelona along the way.”
Marco Messina, one of the founders of Italian Football TV and devoted Juventus supporter, also mentioned another factor that continues to drive Juve’s ambitions and the fans’ obsession. “Winning the Scudetto is an incredible achievement for any Italian club, especially winning it in eight consecutive seasons in Juve’s case,” Marco told TGU.
“The Champions League obsession for Juventus fans stems from knowing you’ve done what you can domestically, hit the ceiling, and are now trying to reach the pinnacle in Europe.”
However, one of the focal point of Juve’s Champions League failures from 2016 to 2019 has been the team’s mediocre midfield. The deficiencies in the middle of the pitch continue to frustrate Juventini, especially with club owner Andrea Agnelli failing to replace departed stars such as Arturo Vidal, Paul Pogba, Andrea Pirlo and Claudio Marchisio over the last four seasons. Adam Digby, the author of Juventus: A history in Black and White, explained that Juventus have continued to pay the price in Europe for failing to sign a creative and dynamic midfielder.
“The 2018/19 team behind Cristiano Ronaldo has been among the poorest of this current Juve cycle, particularly in midfield where the four best players – Miralem Pjanic, Emre Can, Blaise Matuidi and Rodrigo Bentancur are all very one-paced,” Adam told TGU.
“The team lacks dynamism and speed in that area – that must be addressed this summer. New signing Aaron Ramsey is a step in the right direction, but much more is needed, a player in the Paul Pogba mould could be fruitful. Lazio star Sergej Milinković-Savić also boasts the ideal style of a creative midfielder that Juventus desperately requires.”
Another reason why Juventus fans have grown a wild obsession for immediate Champions League success is due to its ageing squad. With an average age of 29, time is starting to become a precious commodity. The Turin side’s backline is ageing, with Captain Giorgio Chiellini approaching 35 and Leonardo Bonucci having just turned 32.
In midfield, Blaise Matuidi recently turned 32, and Miralem Pjanic and new signing Aaron Ramsey are approaching their thirties. And then there is Cristiano Ronaldo, still playing at the age of 34, albeit in excellent physical condition. Juve followers would be devastated if the club doesn’t win at least one Champions League title with one of world football’s best players in their line-up.
All successful cycles in football come to an end, especially when a team is ageing. So the pressure on this current Juventus team to go all the way in Europe has never been higher. The Bianconeri fans realise that now is the best moment for Juventus to seize the Champions League opportunity – making good use of Ronaldo’s three remaining years in Turin and the team’s other assets.
With Juventus manager Massimiliano Allegri leaving the Turin side at the end of the 2018-19 season, Juve fans will be expecting a more attacking philosophy under the new coach. Allegri’s departure comes at a time when the majority of the Bianconeri supporters were keen for a change, especially after their tactician took the Serie A champions as far as he could within Europe.
Following the 2017 Champions League Final catastrophe, Allegri’s Juventus stagnated. They became complacent and reached new levels of pragmatism. Juve fans will be hoping the next coach can finally get the Bianconeri playing a brand of football that can help them fulfil their Champions League obsession.