On This Day in History: 1998

"Football needs to come out of the pharmacies in order to become a sport again", said Zeman to magazine L'espresso in August of 1998. He wouldn't have needed be more specific than that, the eyes of all who read the interview instantly turned in one direction. But he did of course get a lot more specific, continuing to ask rhetorically how it was possible that the likes of Del Piero and Vialli had added so much muscle mass to their bodies in such a small window of time.

This was unacceptable to Juvewho was he to question the club that in four years had collected three scudetti and three Champions League final appearances? The club quickly launched counter measures, using some of the many channels at the club's disposal and which would be unveiled almost a decade later in the aftermath of Calciopoli. No holds barred. Del Piero and Vialli sued Zeman for libel, Lippi went on national television and did slander Zeman, Vialli called Zeman a terrorist, and Moggi...well Moggi had his own kind of revenge plotted. Zeman stoicallyas he was wont tostood by his statements and assured he would be willing to provide testimony along the same lines of his magazine interview. In the trial connected to that subsequent testimony the prosecution could point to medical supplies famously said to rival "those of a small hospital in quantity" which had been discovered in a search of the club's training ground. (281 different drugs, to be precise.)

Although the use of drugs in football is one of my adopted causes, I don't necessarily fault the players. They're professional athletes with little understanding of what effects the antidepressant Samyr has on a person not suffering from depression. They probably didn't even know Samyr is an antidepressant. Or that some of the shots they were administered regularly contained Neoton, more commonly used during open heart surgery. What happened at Juventus during those years amounts to little more than callous experiments, with the human body as a canvas. But Juve isn't unique. During the 1960's Inter players took "Herrera's coffee", a concoction named after their coach, and the suspicions of doping were always hanging over that team. I was at Olimpico the same day Genoa's old captain Signorini passed away after suffering from Lou Gehrig's Disease ("old" is highly relative term: he was only 42, and played his last game five years prior). The emotions in play that night during the minute of silence–which was anything but was a testament to his popularity but the overwhelming sensation was the poignant reminder that his wasn't an isolated case: studies show that footballers contract the disease 11,5 times more often than a normal person. Rather than the general statistic of 6 cases among 100.000 persons, footballers count 8 cases among only 7.325 personsThe link hasn't been proven between the disease and doping, but more importantly, it hasn't been disproved either. The fact that there are instances of several players of one and the same edition of teams (a Sampdoria team of the late 1950's, a Fiorentina edition of the 1970's, etc) growing ill and dying only seems to gather the clouds of uncertainty ever closer. Also, there's the whole concept of it effectively constituting cheating, allegations that would prove even more relevant a few years later as players and directors of Juve turned up in indictment after indictment brought against them.

Why the long build-up to what happened on this day, twelve years ago? Because context really do matter.

Roma hosting Juventus was the first time the two clubs met since Zeman's interview, and the room for any more tension between the two sides was scarce. Banners and signs attacking the doping issue via irony were prevalent throughout the Olimpico, as were earsplitting whistles as soon as juventini were shown on the big screens. It was an intense and tough game, the disdain the two sides held for each other altogether was palpable: Il Messaggero reported the following day in their report of the game that Zeman and Lippi had managed to avoid each other altogether throughout the afternoon, "a feat in itself".

Roma won a cathartic win by two goals, both of which were superb. For the lead, Totti was one, two, three seconds ahead of the curve and instead of taking a traditional free kick he chipped the ball over the stationary Juventus defense, where Paulo Sergio connected. Vincent Candela, the trequartista trapped in a left back's body, closed out the game with a pretty straightforward Candela-goal: starting at the sideline around the middle of Juve's half, he carried the ball forward, in search of options. When he found none, he put the ball though the legs of right back Birindelli and entered the penalty area. Once there, the easiest thing to do seemed to be to chip the ball over Peruzzi in goal, placing it in the roof of the net from an acute angle. So he did. Normal, everyday stuff, you see.

It is a twist of irony that the two teams played each other only two days ago, back in the present season. Afterwards, I made the claim that the current Juve is both similar and dissimilar to the old one, the one Zeman's Roma took on twelve years ago. This Juve is like a cover tribute band to the original; trying to emulate it, but you're always aware that what you're watching is of questionable quality. Charming, it is not. It is by tracing this downwards trajectory that makes that day twelve years ago seem even more grand. Roma was small time, Juve was the biggest thing around. Roma blew up the Death Star.