La Vecchia Signora has been left widowed. The sad death of Gianni Agnelli not only saw Juventus lose their Honorary President but also their No 1 fan. Aged 81, Agnelli revealed last May that he was suffering with prostate cancer and on January 24, 2003, his Bianconeri heart finally stopped beating.
Giovanni Agnelli, more commonly known as Gianni to distinguish him from his grandfather, was born on March 12, 1921 in Turin. He would go on to become one of the most powerful and successful businessmen in Italy after taking control of FIAT in 1966. But Agnelli also had a sporting passion for Formula One, yachting and, in particular, Juventus.
His love affair with the Turin giants started when he was still in short trousers. His father Edoardo was handed the Presidency in 1923 when Gianni was just two. Within 24 months Juventus won only their second-ever Scudetto. Gianni became a member of the board at 15 following the death of his father and was appointed as President himself in 1947.
But after two more League titles, Gianni decided to step down in 1953 to concentrate on other areas of his life. But ‘l’Avvocato’ - The Lawyer, as he was affectionately known in Italy - remained a part of the club. Despite the Presidency passing on to firstly his brother Umberto, then Vittore Catella, Giampiero Boniperti and currently Vittorio Chiusano, Agnelli was still the father figure. “He was decisive in making Juventus one of the best and biggest clubs in the world,” stated Italian Football Federation chief Franco Carraro. “But all of football will shed a tear for the death of Agnelli who has been so important in the history of this sport.”
National boss Giovanni Trapattoni, who led Juventus to one of their most successful eras ever in the 1980s, said: “I had a close bond with him and in many ways I owe him everything. He was an educated man who had great respect and elegance. But he also had great football knowledge.”
Agnelli’s hunger for the sport was immense. Every year in mid-August, Juventus would turn up to Villar Perosa and play an exhibition match where Agnelli could have a close look at the new signings. He would often turn up at the training ground and was famous for his early morning phone calls to staff and players. But Agnelli will also be remembered for his wit and baptism of footballers.
Polish ace Zibi Boniek became known as ‘bello di notte’ - beautiful at night - for his ability to shine in evening games. It was also Agnelli who likened Del Piero to Pinturicchio, the student to master painter Caravaggio - the name he gave to then teammate Roberto Baggio. “I shall always be proud to hold the name Pinturicchio,” said a clearly emotional Del Piero. “Agnelli had a wonderful ability to judge performances and characters because he knew football so well.”
His love for great football was mirrored by his passion for the No 10. Agnelli proved a key figure in the 1982 capture of Michel Platini when he had to convince then President Boniperti to sign the player. “Platini was brought for a crust of bread, he simply added the pate,” Agnelli famously commented. On the day of the Frenchman’s departure in 1987, he stated: “A sad day has arrived. Another piece of life has passed. Platini will be remembered as one of the true greats of Juventus.” Words of affection that were shared by the player himself. “A part of my life has gone,” said Platini after hearing the news of Agnelli’s death. “I had an unforgettable relationship with him. He gave me so much and taught me to respect life. A great man is no longer with us.”
Juventus’ last present to Agnelli came in May when they lifted the title on the final day of the season. It was their 26th - just four short of the requirement needed before the Bianconeri jersey could add another star to the two already visible. “He often talked to me about one day seeing Juventus earn their third star,” said current boss Marcello Lippi. “I don’t know who will lead this club to that achievement but I’m sure Agnelli will be watching from above.”
Juventus dedicated their Week 18 victory over Piacenza to the memory of Gianni Agnelli. “This win is for l’Avvocato,” said boss Marcello Lippi. “Juventus played an excellent first 45 minutes which coincided with Agnelli’s habit of only watching the first half of our games before leaving the stadium.”
Before the tie, President Vittorio Chiusano placed a Juventus shirt on the seat that Agnelli occupied as the fans unveiled two giant banners. One read: ‘Grazie Avvocato,’ the other: ‘Ciao Presidente.’
The Bianconeri won the game 2-0 thanks to goals from Pavel Nedved and a stunning Alessandro Del Piero effort which would have delighted the now departed club legend. “We wanted to give him a special message and I hope that we did it,” stated the emotional No 10. “I’ll miss him but I’m sure he will continue to watch us from above.”
This article was taken from the March 2003 edition of Calcio Italia Magazine.