On this day 21 years ago, Alessandro Del Piero suffered the injury that would ultimately change the course of his career.
Juventus were playing Francesco Guidolin’s Udinese at the Stadio Friuli in Week 8 of the 1998-99 Serie A season when Del Piero, late in the game, latched on to a through ball in the Zebrette penalty area and attempted a volley.
Defender Marco Zanchi (whom fate would have sign for Juve in 2000) ran across Del Piero, who overextended himself, trying to make a connection with the ball, and landed awkwardly on his left knee.
Lying in a heap on the Friuli turf, it was evidently clear that Del Piero - then just 23 years of age - needed help, and he was immediately stretched off. Udinese equalised in the 94th minute to salvage a 2-2 draw.
Del Piero had ruptured the anterior and posterior ligaments in his left knee and would be out for the remainder of the season. He flew to the US for surgery and faced nine months of rehab.
Juventus crumbled without Del Piero’s presence. The Old Lady had been top of the table leading into the Udinese game, yet after it they failed to win their next five matches, not emerging victorious again until December 20, at which point they had dropped to 8th.
Their season never recovered. Zinedine Zidane was enduring a post-World Cup hangover and, with so much now riding on his shoulders, he failed to deliver. They would reach the semi-finals of the Champions League, only after scraping through their group with one win and five draws. That epic tie with Manchester United denied them a fourth consecutive Champions League Final.
Marcello Lippi had resigned midway through the campaign. Lippi had, in principle at least, agreed to take over at Inter in the summer of 1999, having felt his cycle at Juve had run its course, but a 4-2 home defeat to Parma brought his dominant reign to a premature end.
Carlo Ancelotti came in, as did a young Thierry Henry – signed in that January to help take some of the creative burden off Zidane. However, Juve would eventually finish 7th, their worst finish in the League since the days of Gigi Maifredi at the beginning of the decade.
As for Del Piero, he was never the same player again. It was a watershed moment in his career, his life split in two. The explosive pace that had once terrified defenders had gone, as is the case with most serious knee injuries. The forward had bulked up, in an effort to make his knee more robust, and seemed two seconds slower.
Going into the 1998 World Cup, Del Piero had a case for being considered the best player in the world. He’d just come off the back of the best season of his career (which he would go on to never better), and many believed the showpiece in France would be a battle between Del Piero’s Italy and Ronaldo’s Brazil for the title of the game’s finest.
Whilst Ronaldo delivered for Brazil, the same couldn’t be said for Del Piero, who struggled in the Azzurri blue. He returned home without a single goal in the tournament and was criticised for his limp performances.
He finished 16th in the running for the 1998 Ballon d’Or. Had the voting took place midway through the calendar year, he arguably would’ve won it.
Del Piero 2.0 would become a more cerebral player, less reliant on his pace but using his ability to dip in between the lines to create chances and score goals. At the turn of the century ‘Pinturicchio’ became the world’s highest paid player, but he didn’t play like it.
He struggled for two years post-injury and the majority of his goals came via penalties. It wasn’t really until the 02-03 season that Del Piero resembled the player that was so good, Juventus decided they no longer needed the services of one Roberto Baggio.
Yet Del Piero 2.0 didn’t do too badly for himself, winning the 2006 World Cup, five Scudetti (two of them revoked), a Serie B title and back-to-back Capocannoniere titles in two different divisions – making him the first player since Paolo Rossi to achieve the feat.
Words: Emmet Gates
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