A class act
Real Madrid fans show there is still honour in the game
Soccer has taken it on the chin over the past few years.
Match-fixing, riots, violence, racism, deaths — soccer's reputation has been blighted by a series of sordid events and scandals that have not only called into question the sport's integrity, but also its place in the greater sporting landscape.
Every so often, though, something magical occurs to restore faith and remind fans exactly why they call it "the beautiful game."
One such magical moment took place this past Wednesday in Spain.
Juventus and Real Madrid, two of the true giants of the European game, squared off at Estadio Bernabéu in the Champions League, a match that saw the Italians emerge with a historic 2-0 win, their first victory against Los Merengues on Spanish soil since 1962.
Alessandro Del Piero, the iconic captain of the Bianconeri, was the star of the show, scoring both goals — the first, a shot perfectly placed just inside the post with a swipe of his left foot; the second, one his trademark right-footed free kicks that sailed majestically into the back of the net as Iker Casillas, one of the best goalkeepers in the business, stood helplessly rooted to his spot inside the six-yard box.
His two goals aside, Del Piero, who turns 34 on Sunday, put on a master-class performance, terrorizing and ripping the Real Madrid defence to shreds with his deft touch, sublime ball control and penetrating runs in a decisive Juventus victory that sealed the Italians' passage to the next round.
It was also a result that put Real Madrid, nine times European champions, in a precarious position, as the Spaniards, second place in Group H, have a slim two-point cushion over Zenit St. Petersburg with two games to go.
But that mattered little to Madrid fans, who know a great player when they see one, and that's why the 80,000 fans jammed inside the Bernabéu gave Del Piero a rousing standing ovation as he left the field just moments before the final whistle.
Madrid fans are a demanding bunch. They famously chased manager Fabio Capello out of town in 2007 after the Italian, known for his pragmatic brand of soccer, led the club to the league championship in 2007, ending a four-year title drought.
Winning is paramount to the Madridistas, but they also want to be entertained, and if the other team can provide the entertainment, then so be it. Expressing their genuine appreciation for Del Piero's efforts was a classy move, one that came naturally to a crowd that has a real love for the game.
And it did not go unnoticed by both sides.
A thing of beauty
"When you have a great player who is performing superbly and giving his all for the team, the colour of his shirt does not matter," Juventus manager Claudio Ranieri said after the game.
"They applaud because they are applauding football. They are applauding a thing of beauty."
Said Madrid manager Bernd Schuster: "I enjoyed the ovation to Alessandro Del Piero because he is a great player. He has proved his class, and the Bernabéu recognized this fact."
Del Piero was not the first opposing player to be given a standing ovation by Madrid fans at the Bernabéu.
Johan Cruyff and Diego Maradona were similarly feted by the Madrid faithful, even though at the time they were wearing the dreaded Blaugrana of Real's arch-nemesis, FC Barcelona.
Three years ago another Barcelona hero, Ronaldinho, humiliated Real before their fans, scoring a pair of goals and putting in one of the greatest individual performances ever seen at the Bernabéu in a 3-0 win for the Catalans.
So dominating was Ronaldinho on that fateful night that Madrid fans rose in unison and thunderously applauded his efforts following his second goal.
The Madridistas, of course, don't have the market cornered when it comes to honouring the opposition. Fans at Old Trafford famously applauded Ronaldo off the field after he scored a hat trick against Manchester United in the Champions League in 2003.
But the gesture takes on an entirely different meaning when it takes place at the Bernabéu, that hallowed soccer cathedral where the giants of the game — Di Stefano, Puskas, Kopa and Zidane to name but a few — have all played for Real Madrid, the greatest club in the history of the sport.
"The Bernabéu has given me a very memorable and unique experience," Del Piero said after the match.
"It's great to score both goals in such an important victory, but to have a crowd like the one at this stadium cheer for me when I left the game …it was fantastic."
The Bernabéu crowd's standing ovation of Del Piero was proof that honour and respect still exist in soccer, and that no matter the gravity of the match or the stakes involved, genius on the field, regardless of who provides it, will always bring out sportsmanship in the game's true fans.