VILLAR PEROSA, Italy — Cristiano Ronaldo has played in Clasicos and Champions League finals, but never anything quite like Villar Perosa. His first appearance in Juventus’ colours came, not at the Allianz Stadium, but in a place of picture-postcard beauty, 60 kilometres west of Turin and a million miles away from the modern game as we know it.
Juve have been careful to protect Ronaldo’s privacy since he jetted into Turin halfway through the World Cup final. He has been spotted at a golf club, a pizzeria and a Michelin-starred restaurant. Aside from that though, sightings of the Ballon d’Or winner have been limited to Juventus’ social media platforms to the point people were starting to talk about the transfer as if it were an urban legend.
Which is why seeing Ronaldo in the flesh, all €117 million of him, achieved ulterior emotive significance. Cries of “Grande Agnelli! Grande Agnelli!” followed club president Andrea Agnelli as he walked to his place in the dugout, a sign of gratitude for his part in what Tuttosport are calling “the deal of the century”.
Juventus could have sold out the Allianz Stadium twice over for Ronaldo’s debut. But tradition and identity take precedent, in this case, over gate receipts. Juventus may play in Turin, but it’s in this corner of the Chisone valley where the club’s spirit lies.
— James Horncastle (@JamesHorncastle) August 12, 2018
Villar Perosa is the Agnelli family home. As such, it’s Juventus’ too. Among the trees lining the mountains that provide the bucolic backdrop to the village football pitch are the mulberries planted by one of the ancestors of Agnelli. It’s said the silkworms they attracted were sold to the region’s silk factories and what money they made from them was then used as the seed money to start Fiat. The rest, as they say, is history.
Within view of the Alps and the French border, the friendly Juventus play here, a ritual going back to 1931, is more than a simple vernissage ahead of the upcoming season. Marco Ventre, who is a forensic criminologist when he isn’t mayor of Villar Perosa, mixed with fans in a pink T-shirt on which was written: “To have a future a community must remember its past … The principal actor in the history of our little village is the Agnelli family … a bond created in the past that still lives in the present and will continue in the future …”
This family kickabout figures as its symbol, serving to tell the origin story of the Agnellis and Juventus, two entities that in essence are one and the same, the most powerful way imaginable to show Ronaldo and the team’s other new signings exactly what this club are about.
The air you breathe here is unique, a synthesis of the blue blood, exemplified in the the aristocratic surroundings of Villa Agnelli and the blue-collar nature of this rural backwater and its population of just 4,000 Piedmontesi that, for one day a year, becomes the centre of the world for Juventus fans.
The players get changed in spartan dressing rooms behind a set of Meccano-like bleachers and prepare themselves to play on a pitch that, for nine months of the year, is used by U.D. Villar Perosa, the village team. Juventus arrived at 4 p.m., but the supporters had been there for hours. They are a walking, talking map of Italy. A father and son left Bologna at 5 a.m. just to be here. Earlier in the week, Dario Merlo, the owner of the local tobacco shop, told La Repubblica he had received phone calls from parts of Italy as far flung as Sicily promising almond pasta in exchange for one of the tickets he was allocated to sell for prices between €15 and €25.
Access to Villar Perosa was forbidden without one of them, and the traffic to enter the village was already jammed before lunchtime. Six-hundred security guards patrolled the village and the three checkpoints enhanced the impression that while Juventus play this game every year, Villar Perosa hasn’t been descended on in these numbers since the days of Michel Platini and Roberto Baggio. Guaranteeing safety represented a major concern in the weeks leading up to the friendly, but the increased security presence made little dent on the party atmosphere.
Kids wearing Ronaldo shirts had the Juventus “J” shaved into their heads. A labrador in an Alessandro Del Piero jersey was out for a walk. Queues for a beer and panino were as long as those for a knock-off T-shirt with the image of Gianni Agnelli or Ronaldo on them. “Have Inter signed [Luka] Modric yet!” one Juventus fan joked, taking joy in the failed attempt of their rivals to sign a superstar and respond to the Old Lady’s acquisition of Ronaldo.
As kickoff approached, the sense of anticipation reached fever pitch. Emerging shortly after Agnelli was serenaded by fans was the team headed by new captain Giorgio Chiellini, who led his teammates in a lap of honour to show off the Scudetto and Coppa Italia to the fans.
Del Piero c’è pic.twitter.com/2qfxj7mZ10
— James Horncastle (@JamesHorncastle) August 12, 2018
Left in the “away” dressing room were Juventus B. Whatever happens in their careers, whether they make it as professionals or not, these kids will be able to say they played against Ronaldo. What must have been going through the heads of teenage centre-back Matteo Anzolin and Riccardo Capellini? Readying themselves to face Ronaldo, the fear of injuring the most expensive player ever to play in Serie A, will likely have been equal to that of getting embarrassed. But there were no scars, physical or psychological, only great memories of the experience of a lifetime.
It didn’t take long for Ronaldo to make his mark. As destiny would have it, Juventus’ new No.7, the most famous on the planet, opened the scoring in the seventh minute of the first half, chasing down a long ball from Federico Bernardeschi and finishing in the corner.
In imitation of Ronaldo’s Ballon d’Or acceptance speech, an entire stand shouted “Siiiiiiiii!” Then all 5,000 in attendance chanted “Cristiano!” over and over again. The game quickly started to resemble a circus performance. Ronaldo tried an ambitious scissor kick, fluffing his shot, and smiled as a defender cleared a loose ball he’d Cruyff-ed towards goal off the line. Withdrawn from play at half-time, Ronaldo was in the dressing room when, as is tradition, the fans invaded the pitch midway through the second half.
Patrice Evra had warned his former teammate what to expect. “You think you’re quick,” he told Ronaldo over the phone, “but after a game at Villar Perosa you have to leg it.” The fans strip the players of everything except their smalls. In Italy they call it a “bagno di folla” –literally “a crowd bath.” Emre Can and Leonardo Bonucci signed autographs in their underpants.
As the crowds dispersed, the forested hills of Villar Perosa and their 50 shades of green came back into focus. The Agnellis don’t scour the mulberry trees for silkworms anymore. The family have moved onto bigger and better business ventures without ever forgetting where they come from. That’s why they brought Ronaldo to Villar Perosa and to Juventus, hopeful the Portuguese not only delivers the Champions League, but the boost in revenue the Old Lady covets to take her to another level.