Soccer can be a cruel game sometimes. It can be devilishly unfair. It can deliver rewards and anguish seemingly on whims rather than merit.
But as Juventus found out Sunday, soccer can also be vindictive. It can indict those who sully its name. And it can seek justice.
Its search for justice took it to Turin, Italy this weekend, where Juve and Napoli met for what was billed as a Serie A title decider. And for 89 minutes, it looked set to be just that. With a goal necessary to put the Scudetto back up for grabs, nobody had scored. Nobody had scored because one team couldn’t, and the other didn’t really try.
The other was Juventus, positioned as hosts and favorites to demonstrate its superiority. Instead, it played with fear. With cowardice. With timidity. Some might say it didn’t play at all.
And on 90 minutes, Kalidou Koulibaly came flying through the northern Italian night air, as if a gift from the soccer gods, to give Juve what it deserved:
There is no one way to win a soccer match, and no one way to win a title. But this was no way to play the beautiful game.
It was also nothing new. It was the latest in a long line of unadventurous performances against competitive peers. Since a loss to Lazio in October, Juve has played five games against the top five; it has scored three and now conceded one.
It had entered five showdowns that were meant to be spectacles and turned them into slogs. It had wooed fans from around the world with its success, then bored them with its negativity.
Sunday was the preeminent example, because it should have been the preeminent game of the European league season. Disciples of the beautiful game tuned in from all continents and corners of the globe. They tuned in to see beauty. And Juventus refused to give it to them.
Juventus refused to put a single shot on Pepe Reina’s goal. It didn’t fail to, because failure requires intent; Juve, rather, barely even tried. It did so, by choice, without its best attacking player for half the match. Paulo Dybala was yanked off at halftime to make a defensive gameplan even more defensive. By the 90th minute, it had become something of a 6-3-1, with fullbacks on the field outnumbering attacking thoughts in manager Max Allegri’s head.
Fair or not, for better or worse, this would have been, and still might be, the legacy of Juventus’ seventh consecutive Serie A crown. The Bianconeri have, in fact, scored plenty. But they have chosen not to play football against capable opponents. They will be defined by 0-1, 0-0, 1-0, 1-0 and 0-1, title or otherwise. And now the title race will be defined by their results in two more top-of-the-table clashes, at Inter Milan and Roma on April 28 and May 12.
They have done what they do well, and no matter the process behind the results, titles count all the same. They have no actual obligation to play soccer or to entertain. They may very well beat Inter and Roma 1-0 to keep the Scudetto at home.
But Koulibaly extinguished their margin for error. He set fireworks flying into the Naples sky, perhaps as offerings to the soccer gods. Because on Sunday, it became clear they are watching. It became clear that they, understandably, want Napoli to win Serie A.
And if Juventus continues to refuse to play their sport, they might just get their wish.
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