Ronaldo is greeted by Juventus fans at Villar Perosa on SundayDANIELE BADOLATO/JUVENTUS FC/GETTY IMAGES
Published 17/08/18 in The Times
On a hot and sticky morning this week in Continassa, on the northern fringe of Turin, a gaggle of supporters outside the players’ entrance of the Juventus training centre leant on steel barriers and waited. They watched as the vast security gates rolled open, then closed, as cars with darkened windows approached slowly then entered. Massimiliano Allegri, the manager, stopped to sign autographs and posed for pictures. Most of those outside were waiting for someone else.
Four friends from Veneto — Alessandro, Mattia, Gianluca and Federica — had made a 260-mile pilgrimage west to catch a glimpse, they hoped, of Cristiano Ronaldo, who last month shocked the football world by leaving Real Madrid for Juventus in a deal worth £99.2 million. “Until I see him for myself,” Alessandro said, “I can’t believe that it is true.”
A smile of incredulity and wonder appeared across each face at the mention of the name Ronaldo. Gabriella, a 54-year-old Torinese woman, waved her hand theatrically and took a deep breath. It was as if she were trying to draw forth a sumptuous aroma. “My blood pressure,” she said, lip trembling slightly. “I’m getting emotional.”
Inside the sprawling training centre, sprinklers flickered. The grass was a glistening lime green. A steel-framed perimeter fence shielded the players from prying eyes. In the shade of a modest concrete stand, sat a handful of media and spectators. Among them were Gianluca Pessotto and Pavel Nedved, the former Juventus stars and now the academy’s sporting director and vice-president respectively. Espressos and pastries were laid out on a white linen clothed table. Out on the pitch, Ronaldo and Paulo Dybala, the Argentine No 10, took it in turns to practise free kicks.
“Dybaldo” as the new attacking duo have been dubbed, were soon linking in a practice match against Juventus Under-23. A defender made to tackle Ronaldo, realised what he was doing and pulled back a little, but still left the near-£100 million forward in a heap on the grass. (A penny for his thoughts). Not long after, Ronaldo was back on his feet and a yard of space was snaffled on the left side of the box. A flash of his left boot. The back of the net rippled.
Just before five o’clock this evening Ronaldo will emerge at Chievo’s Stadio Marc’Antonio Bentegodi, and two days in Turin made it clear that only then will Juventus supporters truly believe he is theirs. The world’s media may have converged to screen his unveiling as a Juve player last month. He played the first half of the annual pre-season friendly in the village of Villar Perosa on Sunday, the picturesque mountain setting adding yet another layer of fantasy to the first run-out for the Bianconeri of CR7.
“We say that in Italy we have 50 million national team mangers,” Massimiliano Nerozzi, Juventus correspondent of the Corriere della Sera, tells me. “Everybody is an expert. But during May and June when the news came on about Ronaldo, in every bar, restaurant and pizzeria in Turin you saw all the people — people who never read an article about football, like a bank manager, a rich woman who has been shopping — arrive at the bar and say, ‘One coffee, please, and has Ronaldo arrived yet?’ The impact of his arrival has been incredible, and it can be felt not only for Juventus, but for the whole city.”
Turin is known for its museums, chocolates, fine wines and aromatic cocktails. Now it is also known as the home of Ronaldo. The 33-year-old and his family have moved into a modern villa set on the lush green hills to the east of the city, from which a truly breathtaking vista unfurls.
Below sits the Gran Madre di Dio, an imposing neoclassical church, the grand Piazza Vittorio Veneto and the meandering emerald green waters of the River Po. The Roman-drawn grid of city streets stretches out on to the horizon where an arc of jagged Alps pierce the azure sky. “It’s as if Turin were at the feet of CR7, a tribute of the city to the long-awaited and newly arrived champion,” La Gazetta dello Sport declared.
So far Ronaldo has ventured out only for training, to visit a Michellin-star restaurant north of the city and a traditional pizzeria in Turin. “Nobody asked for a signature or a photo,” Nerozzi says. “There was only one selfie with a child outside the pizzeria.
“If you talk to [Michel] Platini, [Zinédine] Zidane, [Alessandro] Del Piero, they will tell you that Turin is perfect to live and play in.
“In Italy we say that Turin is Sabauda,” which means Savoy, in reference to the ancient Italian royal family, whose palaces illuminate the landscape. The reserved, august and regal heritage “is in the character of Turin people”, Nerozzi says. “Francesco Totti, for example, cannot live in the centre of Rome. It would be pandemonium. But in Turin you can walk in Piazza San Carlo in the centre of the city and nobody bothers you.”
Juventus have won a record seven consecutive Scudettos, but Andrea Agnelli, the president of a club who have been in his family for generations, made clear during an address to the players at Villar Perrosa, the village 60 kilometers west of Turin that is the Agnelli family home, what the target for the “Old Lady” is this year. “The Champions League must be our objective this season,” he said. “It has to be the Champions League, the Scudetto and the Coppa Italia… We have to win everything.”
It was Ronaldo, of course, who scored the acrobatic overhead kick that drew gasps and then applause from Juventus supporters inside the Allianz Stadium in last year’s Champions League quarter-final, then dispatched the penalty that sent Juve out after a 3-0 deficit was almost overturned. It is Ronaldo who has scored ten goals in seven Champions League games against Juve, including two in last year’s final for Real Madrid. As one supporter tells me, “He is here to win the Big Ear Cup. It has been too long, I cannot even say it by name.”
Ronaldo’s acquisition, it is believed, will also put Juventus alongside the global behemoths Barcelona and Real Madrid. The marketing drive of the club will pick up pace but take a walk through Turin’s grand avenues, arcades and piazzas and, even in the week of Ferragosto, the Italian national holiday, there are signs of the Ronaldo effect coming into play.
La Stampa reported a 40 per cent spike in searches for flights to Turin in the first week after his arrival. The assessor of commerce and tourism, Alberto Sacco, plans to undertake a study, in conjunction with Turin University, of how best to utilise Ronaldo’s presence in the city, and wants “to meet with Juventus, to form a common strategy of marketing”.
Five thousand posters of the five-times Ballon d’Or winner adorning shop windows read “Bem Vindo!”, welcoming Ronaldo in his native tongue. The ubiquitous Ronaldo strips hang on street-corner stalls and adorn the backs of children. An opportunistic ice-cream parlour serves CR7-themed gelato. A young boy — one of Ronaldo’s 330 million social-media followers, a number more than six times that of Juventus — flicks excitedly through Instagram photos of his idol with his parents, while they wait outside a pizzeria serving more CR7-themed fare.
In six weeks, a club official tells me, Juventus have sold as many shirts as they would ordinarily in a year. In the Juventus Store, a vast screen shows footage of CR7 on a loop. Motionless children look up and stare in awe. Printing machines are busy embossing “Ronaldo 7” on the back of strips. Crowds at the adjacent Juventus museum, where a long queue snakes out of the front door, are up 30 per cent on July last year.
For Turin, Ronaldo is a global sporting icon made flesh. But the fevered ultras, who traditionally see themselves as the only faithful element of a club, are less enamoured of the CR7 show.
Fabio, 41, a member of the Drughi, one of Juventus biggest supporters groups, since the age of 18, commends Ronaldo’s signing as it puts Juventus on a path to their first Champions League win in more than two decades. “But the most important thing will always be the colours, the shirt,” he says. “There have been a lot of phenomenons, champions, in the history of Juventus. But the only thing that remains is the team.” When Ronaldo leaves one day and the eyes of the world shift their gaze, he says, “we will see again who are the real supporters”.
Will Ronaldo’s arrival simply tighten Juventus’s grip on Italian football? Or will Serie A benefit after falling behind its European counterparts in recent years? Ticket prices for this evening have doubled and, despite protests planned by the Drughi and others, the Bentegodi sold out weeks ago.
Nerozzi recalls how it was “an event, like a cinema, a circus” when Juventus visited towns such as Rimini and Cortona after the corruption scandal meant that they spent the 2006-07 season in Serie B. “I think it will be the same. Because when Cristiano plays it can be the first time you see a world phenomenon of football with your own eyes.”