Football, a sport in which the result of a match hinges entirely on the number of goals that a team scores and yet as the popular saying goes, that while striker might win you games, it is the defenders that win you the titles and the trophies. And when it comes to the defensive side of football- it’s all about Italy and their long line of fabled defenders. Hence, it is anything but surprising that the greatest defender the world has ever seen came from the land of the greatest defense in football- the Italian peninsula.
The name? Gaetano Scirea, a legend so great that he’s been revered for generations and his shadow of greatness touched upon nearly every Italian defender who has since donned the colours of the ‘La Nazionale’, so much so that Paolo Maldini, a legend in his own right, grew up idolizing Scirea. As a player, he was as calm and collected as they came, yet so incredibly talented and strong in the challenges that the best of forwards would wish to avoid playing against him. What made him even better was his affection for fellow players, never wished anyone any ill luck or made any rash tackles like his partner Claudio Gentile. There was a reason why he was arguably the football’s greatest gentleman. He lived for Juventus, loyal to the core, fighting and giving it his all on the pitch, and he achieved some astounding results too. But it was on this sad day, September-03, that he died 22 years ago in an unforgettable tragedy just months after his retirement. He died just as he had lived, for Juventus, as he became a victim of a car crash in Poland while scouting Juventus’ opponents for a UEFA Cup match.
He came to Turin when he was still very young while I was already much older. I can say I saw him grow: youngster, fiancé, husband, exemplary father. He was shy and a good man perhaps even too good. I often told him to react, to be a bit crueler with the opponents: his serenity made me angry. You know what his answer used to be? “I can’t”. He used to say so with a smile on his lips and it was disarming. I never saw him get angry. He used to say it was not worth it and in hind sight I must admit I think so too. We spent the best years of our lives together, won a lot and shared great joys. When I left Juve we still remained very close. It was impossible not to love him. It was impossible to speak badly of him. I loved him a lot.
– Franco Causio, ex-Juventus & Italy on Gaetano Scirea
Scirea was born in the province of Milan, but started his football at Atalanta youth academy before making his breakthrough in 1972 with the Atalanta first team. Only two years later, his talents had been seen enough by the Juventus honchos and they signed Scirea for immediate first team action. He was going to remain at Juventus for the rest of his career and it was with Juventus that he achieved the ultimate successes. Over the next decade or a just a bit more, Scirea won every trophy ever conceived at club level as he went on to conquer every domestic and international trophy, and to this day only four others have matched his feat, and 3 among the other four- Antonio Cabrini, Stefano Tacconi and Sergio Brio were his teammates in the all conquering Juventus side of the late 70’s and the 80’s.
What was evident from a very early age was that Scirea was a special player, blessed with extra-ordinary defensive abilities, he was the bane of nearly every attacker in Europe at the time. It was Juventus(and also for Italy NT) that he would go and form what is arguably the greatest defensive partnership in football history with Claudio Gentile. Despite the success of their partnership, the two couldn’t have been much further apart in their playing styles. While, Gentile never backed out from making rash tackles, hassling attackers or altogether hacking down opposition players if he couldnt get to the ball, Scirea was blessed with unbelievable defensive intelligence that made him see a pass even before an opposition attacker made it. His anticipation and reading of the game was second to none and he had always been a believer of fairplay who rarely made any fouls, and thus, its hardly surprising that he never earned a Red Card in his career despite always playing as the last man in his defensive line.
Gaetano? An extraordinary man and footballer. An example of style and class both on the field and off it. With him I shared great moments. During training camp we lived in the same room. I remember during the world cup in Spain, Tardelli could not sleep the night before the matches. To relax, he used to come to our room which he used to call “Switzerland” because it was the most tranquil room of the camp. In our way of being together we hardly needed any words. A look was enough. He would have been an excellent coach if he had the chance: he was convincing and loved to teach. He would have liked today’s football even though he was not the type to want to be a protagonist. He would have never become a “front page” person but he knew how to make himself heard by all.
-Dino Zoff, ex-Juventus and 112 caps for Italy
Scirea despite his extra ordinary defensive abilities, wasn’t limited to just that, his legendary forward runs to initiate his team’s attacks, both for Juventus and Italy, are a part of Italian football’s folklore. If Franz Beckenbauer was the first to have brought the role of what is now called the libero or the sweeper into the European football, it was Scirea who specialised it and all through his years was the most vital cog in the ‘Catenaccio’ setup of Italy. As much as he was surrounded by some of the best defenders in history in the form of Claudio Gentile, Antonio Cabrini, Sergio Brio, it was him who acted as the last line of defense at times and at other times was the first to break through to set up and build play from the back.
In Turin we lived very close to each other and we often went to training together. Once I forgot to pick him up and made him arrive late for the first and only time in his life. When he arrived at the Combi he came up to me and said “bravo, bravo” but you could see he had already forgiven me.
– Stefano Tacconi, ex- Italy and Juventus
But what made him different from the others was his personality, on the pitch he never went into rash tackles that could potentially harm others and off it he was never really one who liked limelight and rarely ever interacted with the media during his career but was always willing to help his teammates in their hour of need. He barely ever got late for training, rarely missed it and was the ultimate gentleman any coach would wish to have at his disposal.
His greatest truimph though came at the World Cup of 1982. Long before the Cup had started, Italian football was in turmoil with an incumbent match fixing scandal and the preperations had been anything but ideal. After initital hiccups, Italy came to the fore with their 2-1 win over Maradona led Argentina in a match Gentile continually hassled Maradona in a strong defensive display before famously quipping “Football isn’t for Ballerinas!”. A Paulo Rossi masterclass then inspired to a 3-2 win over the Brazilians to take them to the Semis where the Italians easily routed the Poles. In the final, Scirea, Gentile, Cabrini produced an astute defensive display in a match that is profoundly remembered for Juventino Marco Tardelli’s ‘Tardelli Cry‘ after he smashed in his goal in their 3-1 win, in what is also seen as the symbol of Italy WC ’82 win. At the peak of his career, Scirea was the reason why Franco Baresi never really got into the Italian first team.
He was one of the best players in the world but was too humble to say so or even to simple think so. His way of being quiet and reserved maybe took away his chance of being better known but it surely won him esteem, respect and the friendship of everyone, Juventus fans and not. This does not mean that he was weak or that he had nothing to say: on the contrary, he was very strong on the inside and knew how to speak through his silence. We had completely opposite characters but got along well. In today’s football I think he would have felt a bit lost but only on a personal level. When it came to football he was very competent and knew how to be authoritarian. Let us say that personalities with his character, nowadays, do not exist any more.
-Marco Tardelli, 1982 WC Goal Scorer and ex-Juventus
Three years later, he would go on and win the 1985 European Cup at the Heysel stadium which was largely overshadowed by the tragic events that had happened before kickoff that saw the death of 39 Juventus fans and injuries to many more after opposition Liverpool fans charged at them resulting in the collapse of a section of the stadium’s walls. The victory was however the final piece in his trophy jigsaw as it ensured that he had won every trophy there was to win in World or Domestic football at the time. With time though, as his pace reduced, his forward runs become lesser in number and he retired in 1988 from Juventus with the record of most number of appearances for Juventus(since broken by del Piero) and with countless number of titles including 7 Scudetti, 2 Italian Cups, 1 UEFA Cup, 1 European Cup, 1 Cup Winners Cup, 1 UEFA Super Cup, 1 Intercontinental Cup to go along with the holy grail- the FIFA World Cup of 1982.
However, being a true Bianconero that he was, he couldn’t stay away from the club for long and when the offer came from his good friend Dino Zoff to become the assistant coach at Juventus, barely months after retirement, Scirea accepted it in a flash. But no one was to know what was coming, while on a scouting mission in Poland for Juventus’ next opponents in the UEFA Cup, a car carrying him collided with a gas tanker on a Polish high way, Scirea died on the spot and Italy’s most revered son never came back. It unfolded 22 years ago on this very day and only death fissioned his association with Juventus.
However, his legend has stayed the same even after his death, to this day, he stands the tallest amongst all of Juventus’ stars that have worn the fabled black and white stripes of the Turin giants. In his memory, the Juve fans have named their Curva after him. The new stadium built at the venue of the old Delle Alpi, the Curva would still be called the Curva Scirea. He continues to be the symbol of Juventus and he shall continue be the ultimate gentleman who embodied the spirit and class of Juventus.
And as they all say, they dont make men like him anymore..
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