A Juventus goal-kick had never arrived at a more timely moment.
The clock has just ticked into the 17th minute when Giorgio Chiellini stood over the ball on the edge of his six-yard box, fully aware that this was it. The end of an era.
It took the Juventus supporters in the Allianz Stadium a few seconds to catch onto what was going on. But ambiguity evolved into clarity as Matthijs de Ligt emerged from the substitutes bench to take to the field. This was it.
The Juventus stalwart embraced his Bianconeri teammates, handed the captain’s armband to fellow departee Paulo Dybala, blew kisses to those fortunate enough to be in attendance, and bear-hugged De Ligt as he left his amphitheatre one final time.
This was no sympathetic farewell of a demising gladiator, but a celebration. Chiellini is leaving Juventus after 17 years of heroic service on his terms, having proved time and time again this season that he’s still capable of performing at the highest level.
But the Italian, after 560 appearances, 20 major honours, and countless celebrations of defensive actions, has decided that, at 37, the time is right to move on.
How Juventus go about replacing Chiellini will be no easy task. In fact, it’s impossible. He’s irreplaceable. We’re talking about a generational defender here, one that dines at the same table as Franco Baresi, Paolo Maldini, Alessandro Nesta and Fabio Cannavaro.
The wily Italian was a master of his art, one that has gradually been overlooked as the concept of the ‘ball-playing centre-half’ rose to prominence. Unlike so many at his position, Chiellini adores the fundamentals of his job. “Chiello is one of the last bastions of a dying breed, a leader of the old guard; a defender who preoccupies himself first and foremost with defending,” Luca Hodges-Ramon, managing editor of The Gentleman Ultra, once said.
Chiellini remains a fierce man-marker who has perpetually attempted to bully opponents in a manner that Claudio Gentile mastered in the 1970s and 80s: through sheer ruggedness and brutishness. But behind his gladiatorial exterior lies a deep-thinking intellectual; the unmanifested persona of an all-time great defender. Chiellini is a master’s graduate of the University of Turin; a family man who’s seemingly adored by anyone he comes into contact with. Even this Spurs fan has warmed to him after the whole “it’s ze history of ze Tottenham” episode.
His larger than life off the field character combined with his addiction to winning meant he was the ultimate Juventus teammate. The tributes came pouring in ahead of Chiello’s farewell on Monday night. “It will always be a source of pride and pride for me to be able to say that I have played with Giorgio Chiellini,” said former centre-back partner Andrea Barzagli, while Manuel Locatelli professed his love for the 37-year-old, adding that he was “honoured” to have played with the great man.
The defender’s already left a lasting impression on new teammate Dusan Vlahovic, whom he’s only known closely for a few months. In his tribute, Vlahovic said he was “ready to fight… even with a bandaged head!”
Encountering a head bandage-donning, crooked nose embracing and blood-stained shirt-wearing Chiellini may well be the ultimate test of a footballer’s mettle. A superior iteration of centre-back has ceased to exist. Whether Harry Kane, Edinson Cavani or Zlatan Ibrahimovic matched up against this enhanced version of the Italian is unknown, but they all labelled the Juventus legend as the toughest defender they’ve faced in their respective careers.
Chiellini has been the cornerstone of Juventus for over a decade. He was almost ubiquitous throughout the club’s dynastical reign over Serie A in the 2010s, with the start of Juve’s dominance built upon the imperious BBC triumvirate under Antonio Conte’s studious eye. Defensive synergy is rarely lauded in the same breath as the telepathic relationship between superstar forwards, but it’s impossible not to appreciate the mutual understanding that Chiellini boasted with his long-time partners, Barzagli and Leonardo Bonucci.
This was Juve’s answer to the great Milan defences under Arrigo Sacchi and Fabio Capello.
Unfortunately, though, the Bianconeri’s domestic success didn’t translate over to the continental stage. Chiellini was absent for the 2015 Champions League final as Juventus were beaten 3-1 by a Barcelona side boasting one of the greatest forward trios we’ll ever see. The Italian was in the starting XI for the final two years later in Cardiff, but Zinedine Zidane’s Real Madrid blitzed past Max Allegri’s Juve to win their second of three European crowns on the spin.
The Bianconeri haven’t come close to returning to the biggest game in club football since that chastening summer night in 2017. Chiellini’s availability has dwindled since, with calf issues taking their toll, but he continues to perform his profession with the same love as when Didier Deschamps oversaw his shift from the left side of defence to the centre during his short stint as Juventus boss. Such passion for the art he persistently champions will never dissipate. He’ll take it to the grave.
What the 37-year-old moves onto now remains to be seen. You can bet your bottom dollar that his master’s in business administration will come in handy further down the line, but perhaps a trip across the Atlantic is in store after he makes his 117th cap for the Azzurri against Argentina in June.
His crowning moment with the national team arrived last summer as Italy won the European Championship, and a catenaccio-pioneering nation will bid their final farewell to a defender that encapsulated the quintessence of Italian football.
For Juventus, Chiellini’s exit marks another door closure from their dominant era. The club must move on and into a prosperous new era spearheaded by a promising young core. The absence of the great Chiello will seem odd, but evolution is of the essence in Turin.