Football

Are Juventus falling behind in Serie A and Europe given their awful September?

Are Juventus falling behind in Serie A and Europe given their awful September?
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When it rains, it pours. If they were superstitious — and some might be, who knows? — Juventus officials would be waiting for their september horrible (« horrible September ») to come to an end. Not that it was great before, but this month has seen the negativity spiral in ever-tightening circles.

On the pitch, in Serie A and the UEFA Champions League, the club played five games, drawing twice and losing the other three. They’re eighth in Serie A and stuck on zero points in Europe, in a group that includes Paris Saint-Germain, Benfica and Maccabi Haifa. Massimiliano Allegri, hailed as a common-sense players’ coach back when he was winning four straight titles and taking them to two Champions League finals, is about as popular as a pair of Crocs at Milan Fashion Week.

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On Friday, they announced record losses of €254 million ($245m) in 2021-22, bringing the total over the past three seasons well beyond the half-billion mark. Season ticket sales fell 27% year on year and large sections of empty seats are noticeable at games, prompting some supporters to turn to the hashtag #StadiumVuoto (or « #EmptyStadium ») in an effort to voice their dissatisfaction with the club and, primarily , Allegri.

Juve’s on-pitch woes this season are well-chronicled. It’s down to a combination of injuries to key players (or players who Allegri thought should be key), poor planning and even poorer decisions by the manager. They are magnified and made more infuriating to fans by Allegri’s manner, which too often seems glib and dismissive, if not downright in denial.

But as poor as Juve have played, the reality is that fourth place is still just four points away, and they still control their own destiny in the Champions League.

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The heavy losses are a concern too, but not a surprise either. Some of it is down to the coronavirus pandemic, some of it is down to bad personnel decisions and some of it is down to gambles that did not work out. The ownership has pumped some €700m into the club over the past few years to smooth out the edges, and with the wage bill reduced, that should come down.

The attendance figures are perhaps most interesting in that they present a conundrum for a club like Juve.

For a start, the official numbers aren’t terrible. Yes, they’ve sold out just one game this season, but the average attendance is 37,634 per game, which isn’t atrocious in a ground that holds around 40,000. The problem is that the number includes season ticket holders — down to just over 20,000 — and they get counted regardless of whether they’re there or not. That’s how you end up with empty seats as Juve did when they hosted Salernitana on Sept. 11.

What’s more, Juve’s very public dispute with a number of hardcore fans — club officials testified against the leaders of some Ultras groups whom they accused of trying to extort tickets and favors — has led to some of their fiercest supporters either not showing up or not cheering when they do turn up, which has further hurt the atmosphere.

Sometimes, perception can be as important as reality, and this is not what the club needed right now, given events on the pitch and on the balance sheet.

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The odd thing is that this is exactly the sort of situation many thought Juve were immune from when they built the 41,000-seat Juventus Stadium to replace the hulking, 69,000-seater Stadio Delle Alpi. They figured a smaller, more compact, state-of-the-art ground would be a near-guaranteed sell-out every week. For many years, after they moved there in 2011, that was exactly the case.

It just made sense. Juve are the best supported club in Italy by some distance — they’re No. 1 in 13 of the country’s 20 regions — and they pride themselves on being a national, rather than local, powerhouse. Romy Gai, Juve’s former commercial director, once told me that the founders unwittingly made a brilliant marketing decision when they called the club « Juventus, » avoiding any mention of their home city, Turin, because it made it more welcoming to folks from other parts of the country or even the world.

(Gai went so far as to say that there are diehard Juve supporters who don’t even know they’re from Turin. I suspect he was pulling my leg, but who really knows?)

One of the side effects of a national, rather than local, fan base is that many fans have to travel long distances to home games. And when the team isn’t winning or playing well, and is surrounded by a cloud of negativity like the one that followed Pig-Pen from Peanuts, maybe you just sit home and watch them on TV — even when you already have the sunk cost of a season ticket.

In this, unwittingly, they haven’t been helped by the slogan coined by former president Giampiero Boniperti who, paraphrasing legendary NFL coach Vince Lombardi, famously said, « Winning isn’t important, it’s the only thing that matters. » So much so, in fact, that they stitched it on their jerseys one season.

The problem is that this sort of messaging works great when you’re successful — like Juve were when they won nine straight Serie A titles from 2011 to 2020 — but less so when you struggle. Some supporters raised on the mantra who experienced the years of success are less likely to say, « Hey! We stink now, but this is when they need me the most, so I’m going to the game to sing my heart out. » When winning — rather than things such as rebuilding, weathering the storm or giving youngsters a chance — is the only thing that matters … well, if you don’t win, why bother?

Juve’s biggest issue is evidently performance on the pitch. At some point, it will either improve (and the sell-out crowds will return) or it won’t, and Allegri will be sacked and they’ll start over with somebody new. To some degree, attendance — and especially engagement of the positive kind, the sort that goes beyond posting #AllegriOut hashtags — and performance will always be related. It’s the holy grail of any team, in any sport: lessen that correlation (ticket prices and facilities obviously help), ensuring that folks come to see their team play and not just to see their team win.

For a while, it looked as if Juve had cracked that formula. Now, it’s not so clear-cut.

Hey, at least September is almost over. Will October bring better times or more of the same?

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