Once upon a time, Serie A was the most feared and revered league in the world. Italy was the dream destination for Europe’s superstars, and the top clubs were building some of the most exciting and talent-packed squads in football history.
But Italian football’s crown would soon slip, as off-field controversies combined with the influx of investment in the Premier League, saw the English game eclipse Serie A as the glitziest and most glamorous division in the business.
But those who had followed calcio throughout the ages never strayed from their original roots, which still hosted some of the greatest stars on the planet. The Juventus and Milan teams of the 2000s and early 2010s continued to challenge at the business end of European competition, and their ageing squads proved that class and experience, partnered with old heads can still triumph at the elite level.
But on 13 May 2012, calcio waved goodbye to a cluster of legends who had carried Serie A through its successful years at the top of the footballing tree. Alessandro Del Piero, Alessandro Nesta, Filippo Inzaghi, Gennaro Gattuso and Clarence Seedorf all strolled off into the mediterranean sunset, having blessed our pitches with their grace and brilliance since before the turn of the millennium.
For Juventus, it was the beginning of a golden period in their history, as the Old Lady lifted her first legitimate title in nine years – and they are yet to loosen their grasp on the throne, since winning the following seven domestic campaigns.
And one man who had stood by their side through it all, was Del Piero. From the moment he arrived in Turin, Juve knew they had a sensational talent on their hands. The young Italian scored a hat-trick on his full debut in 1994, and the electric forward would only get better.
The diminutive forward was irrepressible upon breaking into the Juve side. He was nimble, torturously fast with the ball at his feet, and deadly from all areas of the pitch when striking towards goal. Oh, and he was lightning fast. Like, seriously, unthinkably rapid.
Del Piero quickly became a bandiera and a symbol for the club, and his status reached deific levels when he led I Bianconeri to Champions League glory in 1996, scoring six goals along the way.
Then, disaster struck.
It could all have been so different for the Italian striker, who suffered a horrendous knee injury in 1998, which completely nullified all of the attributes which had made him so unstoppable in previous seasons.
But Del Piero readjusted his game in the way that only the true greats can, and returned as a more physical forward, much more suited to the demands of an ever-changing football landscape. And he came back with a bang, scoring a hatful of goals and lifting Juve to another two Serie A titles.
What the striker was probably not prepared for however, was Juventus’ sudden plummet into Serie B, after being punished for their part in the 2006 Calciopoli match-fixing scandal. Plenty of I Bianconeri’s stars moved on that year, but Del Piero stayed put, and his 20 goals guided them back to the top-flight in one year.
The remainder of his career with the Old Lady was spent trying to leave his beloved club where they deserved to be – at the summit of Italian football. And after a couple of near misses, they finally won their first scudetto since 2003 in 2012, and the season was capped off with Del Piero bagging his final goal for the club in a 3-1 win over Atalanta on the last day of the campaign.
It was an emotional farewell for Juventus’ highest ever goalscorer, and the perfect way to end Il Fenomeno Vero’s glorious love affair and 19 years with the Torinese club.
But for Milan, who missed out on that title by four points, it signalled the end of their glory years, and the beginning of a barren spell in the football wilderness.
Fortunately for I Milanisti, we’re taking a trip down memory lane, rather than a harrowing roller coaster ride to hell – also known as, the last eight years of football for I Rossoneri.
Although this group of superstars were far from the peak of their powers by the time they bowed out from Serie A in 2012, they had been part of one of the greatest teams ever assembled only five years prior. After suffering a humbling defeat in the 2005 Champions League final to Liverpool, Milan put right all the wrongs from that evening in Istanbul only two years later.
And when you study their starting lineup from that glorious evening, it’s not hard to see how they won the big trophy. The core of the Milan side was possibly the strongest of its time.
Between the sticks stood the imposing and terrifying Dida, and ahead of him was one of the most awe-inspiring centre-back partnerships in the world. Paolo Maldini had spent the majority of his career at full-back, but he slotted in the centre of defence next to Nesta for the final few seasons, and the pair complimented each other wonderfully.
Nesta was one of the most graceful centre-backs in the world. The Italian’s ability to glide into position and cover his fellow defenders was unerring, and his reading of the game was impeccable. A clean tackler, an excellent ball-player and a scholar of the game.
Meanwhile, I Rossoneri boasted a pretty intimidating and stellar midfield. Alongside Andrea Pirlo sat Gattuso, a man who you would want by your side, rather than opposite you, when heading into any sort of battle.
Gattuso was a warrior in the midfield, the ultimate destroyer and capable of disrupting the rhythm when the game was slightly escaping your control. The World Cup winner spent over a decade anchoring the Milan team, allowing the likes of Kaka and Seedorf to express themselves to their flamboyant maximum.
And it was Seedorf who also bid goodbye to San Siro on this day, after making 300 appearances for the Italian giants over the course of ten glorious years. The Dutchman had the lot. He was calm and composed in possession, beautifully poised with his passing, and devastatingly clinical with his long-range screamers. Creative, intelligent, two-footed, Seedorf was a Rolls Royce in the centre of the park.
On This Day, 2012: AC Milan Said Goodbye To These Legends (Seedorf,Inzaghi, Nesta and Gattuso), Ever Since The Club Hasn’t been Same.
The Game Will Never Forget!❤️ pic.twitter.com/pMUGhoALwL
— Eze UmuOtu??? (@EzePaaschall) May 13, 2020
And with all that defensive resilience and midfield flair, you need someone to stick the ball in the back of the net. And that man, was Pippo Inzaghi. When the Italian arrived in Serie A, there were question marks over whether he could truly cut it at the top level.
Teammates chuckled and ridiculed the striker for his poor first touch and lack of any technical skill, but when it came to sniffing out goals, Inzaghi came alive. The penalty area was the man’s church, and he must have had some divine help from the Gods, because his opportunistic nature led to him scoring an absolute truck-load of goals – while enjoying plenty of luck along the way.
Possibly the greatest fox in the box of all time, Inzaghi was the hero on that night in Athens in 2007, doing what he does best – poaching two killer goals to defeat Liverpool and exact revenge on their bitter rivals.
But there were no such celebrations in his final game. Having failed to defend their title by the last match-day of the 2011/12 season, the 2-1 victory over Novara proved to be only a farewell party to a quadruplet of all-stars, who had made Milan great for so many years.
And there were teary scenes with ten minutes of Inzaghi’s career remaining, as he latched onto a Seedorf chip to smash home the winning goal, celebrating wildly with the entire Rossoneri squad. An almost Hollywood ending, without the title.
As Serie A continues to march forward, supporters will never forget this list of legends who gave their all to this compelling league. Grazie, ragazzi.