In Good Conscience

In Good Conscience: Agnelli's Juventus obsession still looms larger than life

The attraction that football holds for world moguls started long before the sheikhs and oligarchs, the Americans and the new Chinese rich decided that a Premier League club is a must-have item in their portfolios.

A film Black And White Stripes - The Juventus Story is heading for Asia. Scheduled to be premiered in Tokyo on Oct 18 and in Beijing on Oct 21, it attempts to compress into two hours the almost century-old ownership of the club by the Agnelli family.

Juventus is Latin for youth, and the club were formed by students in Turin. But ever since 1923, the Agnellis have poured wealth generated from their Fiat motor company into making Juve the biggest and the best - not just in Italy but wherever they sell anything, from Ferraris to fighter jets on a global scale.

When the film, narrated first in Italian and subsequently in English, was shown to invited guests last Tuesday, men and women jumped out of their cinema seats at the sight of heroes from Juve's past, from Pietro Anastasi to Zinedine Zidane.

And they applauded Gianluigi Buffon and Alessandro del Piero speaking on screen about staying faithful to the club when they were sent down a division after the match-fixing scandal of 2006.

However, the central theme of this documentary is neither about a player, nor a youth. It is about the triumphs and tragedies of the Agnellis, particularly Gianni Agnelli, who for seven of the eight decades of his life remained addicted to the team.

"I spend more than I should," he once told me. "I have been spoilt in my life. When I think of those boys we had in the 1980s - (Michel) Platini and (Liam) Brady and (Zbigniew) Boniek - marvellous, marvellous players."

This attraction never left him. We discussed for hours the players that he had, and those he coveted. Almost all of them wore the No. 10... it was the playmakers, the midfield inventors who fascinated Agnelli more than any painting or any racehorse he could buy.

The spoilt paymaster buying sons in their playing prime for his beloved club. Juventus were born by youth, but became known as La Vecchia Signora (The Old Lady) during Gianni Agnelli's childhood.

This attraction never left him. We discussed for hours the players that he had, and those he coveted. Almost all of them wore the No. 10 because while he admired John Charles, the Welshman who could play centre-half or centre-forward with equal strength, it was the playmakers, the midfield inventors who fascinated Agnelli more than any painting or any racehorse he could buy.

The fascination was in the fact that Zidane or Platini could invent, at a stroke, movement that was beyond his imagination. One morning, when half of Italy (and therefore half of the workforce he controlled) was on strike, he had called me at dawn to discuss why Ian Rush and Michael Laudrup were not in the form he hoped for.

I was lucky. Agnelli's calls to the players, and to the former player he installed as club president, Giampiero Boniperti, usually came long before the sun rose.

Ask Boniperti why he will not indulge me and buy the player who can fix our team, Agnelli once suggested. I did, and Boni responded: "I ask Mr Agnelli for a coat that we need, and he offers me another pair of trousers."

Translated, this meant Boniperti believing the team needed a worker, a defender, a striker but the owner spent all the money on creators.

The new film is also about obsession. It has taken independent film makers Marco and Mauro la Villa 15 years to bring this to the screen. The twins, born in Canada, decided in 2001, when their father died, to honour him through his abiding love of Juve.

Having produced a cinema documentary Hang The DJ about the cult of musical disc jockeys, they set about turning what they learnt at film school into telling the Juventus story. "We started to understand that, in Italy, soccer is really the only forum for men to be emotional together," said Mauro.

They delved into old, black and white photography and newsreel archives. They developed a technique to animate these to three-dimensional depth. They got inside the family by meeting Lapo Elkan, the New York-born grandson of Gianni Agnelli, and with his help, gaining access to Elkan's brother John, who is the Fiat chairman, and their cousin Andrea Agnelli, whose father Umberto was Gianni's younger brother.

The football club and the family. It is a dynastic tale that beats anything J.R. Ewing's Dallas ever came up with.

Black and White Stripes takes you through the Agnelli story starting with cavalry officer Giovanni Agnelli, the grand father of Gianni and who built the Fiat foundation. One son, Gianni's father Edoardo, was decapitated by the propeller of a seaplane that crashed in 1935, and this had tragic echoes in November 2000 when another Edoardo, the only son of Gianni, was found dead at the foot of a massive viaduct 50km from the family home in Piedmont.

Fact and rumour compete in the later tragedy. Initial reports suggested it was suicide by the son forsaken in the Fiat dynasty.

Edoardo was said to be too sensitive, too gentle a soul to run the Agnelli empire. He studied Eastern religion and theology at Princeton University, and one extreme theory on his death depicted him as an Islamic martyr because of a link to Iran.

True or false, doused in mystery, it is just one of the strands of the Juventus/Agnelli story that runs throughout the film. You get some idea of the sardonic wit of Gianni Agnelli, and an inkling of the way that Andrea, his nephew, stepped into his uncle's shoes by making the decisions on who and when to hire or fire to make Juve great again. A beguiling story of fame and fortune and Italian family history.

The film leaves, as it must, much of the history enshrined in mystery. Gianni Agnelli, who died of cancer 14 years ago, is the strand, the colossus, whose influence never leaves the screen.

How could it? This man could buy everything in life, from Hollywood mistresses to the most powerful industrial position in Italy. He handed down his passion for football as an expression of beauty at a time when Catenaccio, the art of blanket defence, darkened the Italian game.

The la Villa brothers have tackled a massive subject, and in the Italian way, honoured their Papa.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 07, 2017, with the headline 'Agnelli's Juve obsession still looms larger than life'. Print Edition | Subscribe