“But we heard all those comments and we said to ourselves: ‘Boys, we are here and we don’t know if any of us will get to a final again, so let’s go out there and play a great match – we have to do everything possible to win.’”
If soccer games were played on paper, Real Madrid would already have this year’s semifinal in the bag. As is, the Spanish side is merely highly favored to beat Juventus in UEFA Champions League, giving it the chance at its second straight European title. It is Juve that just won its fourth straight Italian league, while El Real sit second in Spain, yet the latter’s star-studded team is enough to make any mortal team tremble.
The quote above, however – the mental pep talk of a team unconvinced of its superiority – came not from a Juventus player but a Real Madrid star. Former Yugoslavia international Predrag Mijatović was reminiscing about the 1998 Champions League final, where most pundits had predicted a rout by Juventus. It was Mijatović, though, that scored the game’s only goal, pushing the ball out of reach of a scrambling goalkeeper and into the top in the 66th minute. Being the favorites had done Juventus no favors.
Going into that fateful day in Amsterdam 17 years ago, Juventus was the side that looked unshakable. It had already been known for its defensive prowess when Filippo Inzaghi had joined the team in the summer, striking up a terrifying partnership with Alessandro Del Piero that resulted in 39 goals. In the Champions League, the bianconeri had notched 23 in 10 games and arrived in the Netherlands having scored six times against Monaco in the semifinals.
Real Madrid, meanwhile, might have been on the verge of conquering Europe, but its domestic campaign left something to be desired. Many of its best players were either fading or had yet to truly reach their primes. Raúl, who’d scored 21 times the season before, had been held to 10 this time around.
Juventus, in its third straight final, had won the competition two years earlier. El Real hadn’t touched the trophy since 1966. The Old Lady was mighty and looking to get even mightier, while her opponents were struggling to get a toe back in the door. A sturdy squad of decent players, to be sure, but nothing compared to Juventus. Yet Real Madrid won.
Almost 20 years on, and the clubs’ fortunes have reversed, with a seeming gulf in quality gaping even larger. Go on, take a look at this photo of Juventus and see which faces you immediately recognize:
Andrea Pirlo and Gigi Buffon, probably, given the nearly 40 years of professional soccer between them. It’s tough to not know those two. Carlos Tevez has a face you’re unlikely to forget, while Patrice Evra is probably well-known to Manchester United fans, at least. You might remember Giorgio Chiellini after his multitude of close-ups following the nibble Luis Suárez took from his shoulder last summer.
Juventus’s weak squad isn’t weak, but the contrast between it and Real Madrid is striking. The Old Lady is, well, old, regularly fielding sides in which half the players are at least 30. Many might also be considered rejects: AC Milan thought Pirlo had lost it; Manchester City was tired of Tevez. Even some younger faces came after being adjudged lacking: Paul Pogba wasn’t wanted at Manchester United, and Real Madrid itself didn’t have the patience to develop Álvaro Morata.
Compare that to the Real Madrid squad. Who among us can’t instantly identify Cristiano Ronaldo’s smirk, James Rodríguez’s baby-doll cheeks, the cheeky glint in Gareth Bale’s eyes. We know the hair of Marcelo and of Luka Modrić, the eyes of Iker Casillas, even the grin of super-sub Javier Hernández. This is a team that may not have been thoughtfully assembled, but great care has gone into making sure its faces are as recognizable as possible.
Juventus isn’t poor, not by any means. It’s the 10th richest club in the world, with an annual revenue of over $350 million. But compare that to Real Madrid, the richest of the rich, making nearly $700 million per year, and you might see why the stars just don’t line up. Juventus spent around $24 million bringing Morata in last summer. El Real took that money and treated it as pocket change, adding another $70 million or so to land James. Toni Kroos cost around $40 million. And of course, the year before Real Madrid had splashed about $125 million for Bale, while Juventus spent $12 million for Tevez.
You can see why a Real Madrid victory is expected.
But Juventus is canny. CEO Beppe Marotta (above) and his band of merry men have one foot in Italy, looking to scoop up rising talent, like Stephan Lichtsteiner, Angelo Ogbonna and Arturo Vidal. Then they’re off sniffing for bargains like Tevez. Pogba and Pirlo were free. Sometimes a bargain is exactly that – the Nicolas Anelkas and Nicklas Bendtners come to mind – but as Juventus grew back into her role as Italy’s leading lady, her sense of star quality became more and more refined.
Like that Real Madrid side of 1998, Juventus appears an assembly of players just past their primes, mixed with a younger set looking to find their grooves. Take Morata, for instance. The 21-year-old was keen to play at Real Madrid, and had even managed eight goals in 23 appearances, the vast majority of those off the bench. But his club felt he wasn’t ready, brought in James instead, and sent Morata off to Juventus. There he’s also played primarily as a substitute, but he has been entrusted to start in quite a few Champions League matches. Now we’re watching a player growing in confidence, both scoring goals and creating them, while moving in sync with Tevez.
And the Argentine, too, has found himself with a new sparkle. Currently the top scorer in Serie A, Tevez is thriving under Massimiliano Allegri, who loves to encourage an attack when the situation allows. It’s quite a change from a few seasons back, when Carlitos appeared more frustrated and uncertain.
Then, of course, there’s Paul Pogba. Watching him now, it’s difficult to believe any side would’ve been so foolish as to let him slip away, on a free no less. He may not be quite world-class yet, but he’s teetering on the edge, and his play is one of the primary reasons Juventus has made it thus far. The physical yet agile midfielder can make life difficult for both attackers and defenders.
Juventus might not boast a squad full of instantly recognizable players, all able to command astounding transfer fees. It’s a club that’s been struggling for nearly a decade to return to the elite, and has had to take risks in hopes of furthering its status. It’s a team that no one believes is the best in the world. Yet Juventus learned a lesson on that fateful May night in 1998: it’s never a wise idea to discount the underdog. This time, it’s looking to be the teachers.