Alessandro Del Piero watched the European Cup being lifted and felt a pang of envy toward David Beckham. It was May 1999 and Manchester United had just dramatically defeated Bayern Munich while Del Piero, the most famous striker in Italian football, was nursing a ruined knee wondering if he would ever reach the giddying heights scaled in the spring of his career.
There were compensations, such as the five-year £30m contract he had just signed with Juventus that would earn him a reputed £300-an-hour, whether he was eating, sleeping or watching his favourite basketball team, the Los Angeles Lakers. "Only a fool would say money does not matter," he said shortly after putting pen to a very expensive piece of paper. "It can help you live better but it can't buy you success. I watched David Beckham with the cup and it made me jealous. I have always wanted to stay at Juve and help them get back to the old ways."
Four years later, Juventus have returned to the old ways of appearing in European Cup finals and it may not be a coincidence that Marcello Lippi is back at the helm of a club he steered to three European Cup finals, although only one, against Ajax in 1996, was actually won. It may not be a coincidence either that Del Piero, the icon of the Stadio Delle Alpi, has recaptured the form that made his young star once shine so fiercely.
Like Paul Gascoigne, you can divide Del Piero's career into the time before and after a cruciate knee injury he sustained in November 1998. Juventus were then top of Serie A but in the aftermath of the injury they fell apart, plummeting at one stage to 11th, a descent which proved fatal to Lippi.
Until this season Del Piero has sometimes earned his place on the reputation of what he had been; the country boy from Conegliano who replaced the sainted Roberto Baggio and scored the goals that led Juventus to the double in his first season, going on to appear in three European Cup finals before he was 24.
And yet the problem with Del Piero is that he has rarely displayed the full range of his talents on the grand stage. He failed to shine in either the 1998 European Cup final, which was lost to Real Madrid, or the World Cup that followed, hampered by injury.
His cruciate ligaments had long been healed when the European Championship opened in 2000 and, in the final against France, Del Piero was handed and squandered a raft of chances; errors that were fatally punished by a French side renowned for resilience.
If there was a turning point, Del Piero would say it was the death of his father, Gino, just over a year ago. "Since his death the whole family have urged each other to work harder," he said before flying out to Manchester. "My father was such an important person to me and the whole family and I will be thinking of him in the final.
"Before he died, I was going through a rough patch. I had struggled with injuries and not recovered my best form; I was not even in good physical shape. But since his death something has happened, I don't know what. It is almost as if he pushed me on to greater things."
It would be stretching a point to claim Del Piero has driven Juventus to the scudetto but he has come good when it mattered. After missing six weeks of the season with another knee injury, he returned to lead Juventus' attack in the quarter-finals against Barcelona, a side which had swaggered unbeaten through the Champions' League group stages.
With Barça beaten and Real dethroned there is now the little local matter of Milan. Del Piero has promised "goals and emotion" at Old Trafford. The former is doubtful, the latter guaranteed.
ALESSANDRO DEL PIERO
Honours: European Cup winner 1996. Finalist 1997, 1998, 2003. European Championship finalist 2000. Five Italian championships.
Strengths: Scorer and creator of marvellous individual goals.
Weaknesses: Rarely shines on the great occasions. Goals-to-chances ratio often poor for someone of his ability.Reuse content