It was Juventus’ night. They were playing a pre-season friendly against Espanyol at a stadium in San Benedetto, on the East Coast of Italy, almost 400 miles away from Turin. Even if their hardcore fans in the north didn’t fancy a trip to the seaside, there were enough local glory hunters to fill the ground. The teams walked out for kick-off through a thick cloud of smoke from all the pyro being lit from the stands that covered the length of the field.
It didn’t matter who Juventus were playing, the crowd was there to celebrate the best team in Europe. Juve had won the last two Serie A titles, reached the last three Champions League finals, and had also claimed the European Super Cup and Club World Cup. Zinedine Zidane was making his first appearance since becoming the hero of France’s 1998 World Cup win, playing in midfield alongside the man who lifted the trophy, Didier Deschamps. The legions of photographers covering the touchline didn’t notice Espanyol never bothered to pose for a team picture, they were too busy snapping photos of the Juventus players.
Marcello Lippo was so relaxed in the Juventus dugout he lit a cigar. His opposite number didn’t even want to be there. Marcelo Bielsa had only been employed by Espanyol for just over a month, but four days before the friendly he had been appointed manager of Argentina. When Bielsa took the Espanyol job, his first in Europe, he insisted on a clause in his contract allowing him to leave if he was offered the big gig with the national team. Like Angus Kinnear refusing to answer a call from Bournemouth, Espanyol disputed the clause they agreed to. Eventually they reached a compromise: Bielsa would stay until Christmas, unless they found a replacement sooner.
Bielsa didn’t even last until November. He was replaced after Espanyol won just one of their opening six La Liga fixtures. Nobody was that bothered. He was jeered in what turned out to be his last game in charge, a 2-1 defeat at Real Valladolid, after slipping and falling over by the touchline. His relationship with the club’s board had become so strained that Espanyol’s president Daniel Sánchez Llibre left his sporting director Fernando Molinos to tell Bielsa they’d found someone else.
It was still worth the stress, if only for that night by the Adriatic Sea against Juventus.
Until that point, Espanyol’s pre-season had been as underwhelming as many Bielsa pre-seasons. He left their Intertoto Cup fixtures to the reserve side, coached by Paco Flores, aiding the emergence of Spain’s future World Cup-winning left-back Joan Capdevila. Meanwhile, the first team failed to win any of their first five friendlies under their new manager. They began their summer by scoring an own-goal two minutes into a 2-0 defeat at Everton, and drew 1-1 with a Coventry side coached by Gordon Stachan and led in attack by Noel Whelan.
No wonder Juventus seemed relaxed, then. But it didn’t take long before their fans were whistling at Espanyol’s temerity to attack, attack, attack. Juan Esnáider, Espanyol’s brooding bastard of a number 9, relished the role of pantomime villain, gladly picking a fight with the typically irritable Edgar Davids before trying to lob Juve’s ‘keeper from forty yards.
It wasn’t so much Espanyol’s attacking that seemed to bother the Juventus players. It was the tackling. They just wouldn’t bloody leave them alone. The cheek of it! Zidane was particularly fed up, sulking around the pitch and constantly hassled off the ball, resembling a balding dad who’d been invited to make up the numbers in a five-a-side arranged by much younger work colleagues.
“We were not ready to compete against such a tough, fierce rival,” Lippi said afterwards, once he’d finished his latest cigar. It really showed. While Juventus fans were bouncing up and down in the stands, Alessandro Del Piero was yelling at Espanyol defender Ivan Helguera for an innocuous foul. Deschamps was next to throw a tantrum, consoled by an opposition player patting him on the head. Throughout it all, Davids seemed intent on starting a fight with anyone who came near him. A friendly? La Gazzetta dello Sport described the game as “a bullfight”. David Batty would have loved it.
Ten minutes before half-time, Del Piero had enough. Davids had already sparked another melee that finally got Lippi out of his seat — Bielsa remained crouching — even though Juventus were awarded a free-kick. As Espanyol were clearing the set-piece, Del Piero claimed he had been elbowed in the face. It was soft, but enough for Italy’s Footballer of the Year to respond by booting his opponent in the shins, right in front of the referee. After being given a straight red card, Del Piero was guided down the tunnel by riot police. Juventus fans were throwing flares onto the pitch whenever Espanyol won a corner, but by this point the authorities were more concerned by the violence among the players.
Neither team heeded the warning of the red card. Juve defender Paolo Montero got away with his own elbow to the face of an Espanyol player from a set-piece, before the visitors’ number 10 Peque Benítez couldn’t resist the temptation of kicking Davids and was sent off for a second yellow card shortly before half-time.
Bielsa remained calm during the first half, barely reacting to his team being reduced to ten players apart from having a short word with one of his backroom staff and telling his side to get on with it. But during the break it was as if he decided that, if this was how Juventus were going to play it, then fine — he’d play by their rules.
The second half began with Deschamps elbowing someone else in the face and was played to a backing track of Bielsa growling at his players from the touchline. Espanyol’s winger was given a big round of applause from his boss for closing down his full-back and blocking a clearance. After Davids won another soft free-kick, Bielsa exploded in frustration and was told off by the ref, apologising with a gentle smile and thumbs up. He was less effective trying to disguise his fury at striker Esnáider missing an open goal at the back post, turning away to hide his disgust from his players.
Juventus started to appear regretful of their provocation. With twenty minutes left, Lippi had made six subs, protecting his star players but introducing Antonio Conte to maintain the bastardry. Bielsa wasn’t going to let his players relent. He left his starting XI on the pitch, still sprinting, still attacking, still tackling.
Espanyol were adapting to Bielsa’s demands, but he had a couple of his disciples on the pitch. He was reunited at Espanyol with Mauricio Pochettino, thirteen years on from the night he examined the legs of a sleeping Pochettino and, like a clairvoyant reading some tea leaves, foretold the thirteen-year-old’s future as an international footballer. Bielsa joined Espanyol after winning the Argentine Clausura title with Vélez Sarsfield, and brought with him winger Martín Posse. Posse also ventured into management after finishing his playing career and is now tasked with trying to stop Pablo Hernandez in the Kings League, and arrived at Espanyol fully aware of the extremes of Bielsa’s intensity. Bielsa was a guest at Posse’s wedding just a few hours after Vélez had played against Boca Juniors, and rocked up with a video of the match so Posse could study his performance.
As Juventus were wilting, Bielsa’s screams were getting louder. Posse cut in from the left wing and slammed the ball inside in the near post. “¡GOL, GOL, GOL, GOL, GOL!” yelled the commentator, but Bielsa was too busy shouting at his players to start celebrating. Lippi went back to his dugout and continued chain smoking.
With a lead to defend, it was Espanyol’s turn to embrace the dark arts. One Juventus player was shoved over by the corner of the pitch; another fell over in midfield to groans from the stand, sprinted into a tackle to atone for his error, bounced off the Espanyol midfielder and ended up on the floor once again. With around ten minutes to go, a stat flashed up on the broadcast showing a combined 45 fouls had been committed by either side, just as Bielsa was barking “¡CARAJO!” over the bangs of fireworks being let off around the ground.
At full-time, the sold-out stadium, who had just come to enjoy the long-since subbed Zidane strutting his stuff, whistled in bewilderment at what they’d just witnessed. It was a lesson for both Juventus and, ultimately, Espanyol. If they didn’t want crazy, what the hell were they thinking inviting El Loco to town? ⬢