May 5, 2002, was one of the most memorable days in the history of Serie A. Antonio Labbate recalls the events of that afternoon when Juventus pipped Inter and Roma to the title.
“There is little to say, we’re enjoying this. This is for the disappointment of two years ago at Perugia and there is someone watching who was at Perugia…” It wasn’t just what Antonio Conte said as Juventus celebrated their 2002 Scudetto at the Stadio Friuli, it was the manner in which he spoke as his words screamed with a mix of satisfaction and vengeance.
The target for Conte’s rant was Marco Materazzi, the Inter defender who two years previously, according to the present Juve tactician, “acted with little respect” when his Perugia side beat the Old Lady 1-0 following a dramatic Umbrian rainstorm that saw Lazio crowned champions on the final day of the season. Now 24 months later, it was Conte’s turn to celebrate Matrix’s Nerazzurri Scudetto suicide.
The war of words continued over the next few days. “Conte should buy himself a new wig with his championship bonus,” blasted Materazzi. A jibe which the midfielder had a response for: “I’d like to remind Mr Materazzi that nobody uses wigs anymore. You can have a hair transplant now, but, unfortunately for him, brain transplants still don’t exist.”
Such animosity was to be expected following the unforgettable events of that Sunday afternoon of May 5. Hector Cuper’s Inter started the day in pole position to win their first Scudetto for 13 years, a point clear of Juventus and two ahead of Roma. By the end of it, Juventus were champions, Roma had moved up into second and the Nerazzurri were only left with the preliminaries of the Champions League.
Juventus, who took a gamble the previous summer with the sale of Zinedine Zidane and the recall of boss Marcello Lippi, started the afternoon brightly. Within minutes, David Trezeguet scored his 24th goal of the season – with no penalties – from only his 75th shot of the campaign on target to put the Old Lady 1-0 up at Udinese and a point clear of Inter. Soon after, Alessandro Del Piero doubled their lead.
With a victory already seemingly in the bag, all the focus moved to the surreal surroundings of the Stadio Olimpico where a section of the Lazio fans were urging Inter on – given the unappetising scenario of the Biancocelesti actually aiding a title triumph for Juventus or, much to their horror, city rivals Roma.
Former capital striker Christian Vieri, passed fit after an ankle issue, eased such fears for the Biancocelesti faithful on 12 minutes with a goal – celebrated by President Massimo Moratti with the sign of the cross – that sent Inter back to the top. Luigi Di Biagio did the same again soon after when he cancelled out Karel Poborsky’s temporary equaliser.
But Inter would only be virtual champions for another 10 minutes once the second halves began after a calamitous collapse which saw Lazio run out 4-2 winners. To make matters worse, Antonio Cassano gave Roma a 1-0 win at Torino to ensure second place for the Giallorossi.
“I am tired, fed up and angry,” stated Moratti. “Today no fan of Inter wants to hear words of consolation and I’m no different.”
A tearful Ronaldo, who would quit the club for Real Madrid just months later, added: “The bitterness for the title defeat was even greater because the finish line was so close. Disappointment seems to be my partner in life. In a matter of moments our dreams vanished, overtaken by reality which seemed even harder to believe.”
In truth, Inter had been on the slide in April and the turning point of the campaign came a few weeks earlier. A late strike at Piacenza by Pavel Nedved, who was given a free role as that campaign progressed, saw Juventus close the gap on the Beneamata after the latter’s controversial draw at Chievo. La Signora’s five-game winning streak at the end of the season was what made the difference and underlined their unique DNA. “They are a dragon with seven heads,” stated Giovanni Trapattoni. “You cut one off and another immediately sprouts up.”
While Juventus celebrated and Inter sobbed, Roma regretted. They were winter champions at the half way mark and looked good to win back-to-back titles until their death in Venice. “I have no doubts,” stated Fabio Capello. “We lost the title at Venezia. They were already relegated when we faced them, but we could only draw 2-2.”
Ten years later and Conte is in another Scudetto battle with his beloved Old Lady, this time from the bench and this time from the front. Gigi Buffon’s error on Wednesday night against Lecce opened up the title race yet again. And with Milan just a point down with two games left to play, there may be another palpitating last day showdown that could join May 5, 2002, into calcio folklore. It could be enough to pull your hair out.