Earlier this year, fans not just of Juventus, but of Italian football in general took a moment to remember the sad passing of the inimitable Gianni Agnelli. January represented the tenth anniversary of that fateful day, and Juventini everywhere recalled their greatest memories of perhaps the most charismatic President a club could ever dream of having.
Littering those misty eyed eulogies were countless references to the nicknames the great man had bestowed upon players past and present. Nobody, with the exception of Gianni Brera – inventor of perhaps almost every word Italians use when discussing football, had bestowed monikers as perfectly apt as Agnelli did during his time at the helm of the Bianconeri.
Much like those given by the greatest sports writer of his or any other generation, the names given were never quite as straightforward as they first appeared. He was the first to call Alessandro Del Piero ‘Pinturicchio’ after the renaissance painter Bernardino di Betto, a great name and often used fondly by fans. However, Agnelli often reminded his club captain that he began life as an understudy to the masterful Roberto Baggio, much as di Betto did under the great Caravaggio.
Perhaps one of Agnelli’s most recognisable and evocative nicknames was the one bestowed upon Polish striker Zibi Boniek. Labelling him ‘Bello di notte’ – Beauty at night – the name appeared, at first glance to wonderfully capture all the moustachioed hit man meant to Juventus. After all, here was a man who seemed to always deliver in the biggest games, played of course under floodlights in evening kickoffs. Boniek enjoyed a trophy laden and spectacular spell with the club, playing a huge role in winning a Scudetto, two Coppa Italia, the Cup Winners’ Cup, the European Super Cup the Old Lady’s first European Cup in 1985.
Yet, as ever, Agnelli was using this to cut his player down to size. He may have been great in the evenings but, when the mundane fixtures of Serie A rolled around on a Sunday afternoon, Boniek would often be missing in action. Over the three years he spent in Turin, he netted an incredible seventeen goals in knockout competitions but, in league action, amassed a seriously anaemic fourteen, despite making 81 Serie A appearances but just 48 in European and Italian Cup action.
Two years ago, Mirko Vučinić arrived at Juventus and was already in possession of a moniker worth of l’Avvocato himself. It appears, like those given to Del Piero and Boniek, to be perfectly complimentary but, upon deeper reading, carries every inch as much hidden vitriol. ‘Big Game Mirko’ comes the chant, originally in Rome but now transplanted to Turin.
When faced with a tough challenge or a storied rival, Vučinić is a brilliant goal-scoring forward, capable of terrorising the world’s best defences. Many of his displays for club and country are truly breathtaking and, at 29 years of age, he is on the cusp of his peak years as a professional. At other times, however, he becomes a tough player to manage, a difficult character and one who – when not feeling appreciated and respected – is capable of lashing out at coaches and club management or simply disappearing during matches.
He has shown flashes of just how devastating he can be in games like the five goal thrashing of Fiorentina last season or his stellar display in the first derby with Torino earlier in the current campaign. Yet, when the likes of Bologna or Siena come to town he, much like Boniek, will be nowhere to be found. Where Zlatan Ibrahimovich is labelled a bully for his visible contempt for a league’s lesser sides, Vučinić has no interest in padding out his stats in the provinces.
It will surprise nobody to learn it has always been this way with Vučinić. Upon hearing that a young striker had been performing miracles in his hometown of Nikšić, the then sporting Director of Italian club Lecce, went to see just what was so special about this prodigious talent. With a reputation as one of the best scouts in the business, Panteleo Corvino wanted to witness first hand what the then sixteen year old could do.
True to form, the player put in a performance one can imagine he would repeat were Juventus to ever find themselves travelling to one of European football’s backwaters in the Champions League. “Corvino came to watch him in person in a friendly here,” recalled general manager Andrja Vujovic. “That day Mirko didn’t play very well, but Corvino understood immediately that he was a talented kid and decided to take him to Lecce.” Yes, the Vučinić who frustrates us on a weekly basis could not even muster a good display when a man who had travelled across the Adriatic Sea to offer him a contract came to town.
Over the past two seasons this has not been a problem, however as the struggles of Beppe Marotta and the club have battled with in order to capture that ever elusive ‘top player’ have rendered the former Roma man the best striker Antonio Conte had at his disposal. This summer that is set to change as, with Fernando Llorente already arriving in June, the Director General has seemingly one clear mission; add a second high quality forward to the ranks before the transfer window closes.
Should he succeed in that goal – and with the club’s improving financial position enabling him to maximise his efforts there is no real reason why he won’t – where does that leave Vučinić? The Pamplona native is set to earn in the region of €4.5 million next term and a striker to complement him would rightly expect to earn similar amounts. Neither would expect to spend much time on the bench, particularly in the highest profile matches and, as we have seen throughout his time on the peninsula, what playing time remains would hardly appeal to Vučinić.
As clichéd as it may be to say, he is very much a confidence player, one who quickly retreats within himself at the first sign of what he perceives as a slight on his ability. He seems to become upset very easily and needs to feel both positive about himself and to have that feeling reciprocated from those in the stands. It is a point not lost on Walter Sabatini, another who – having spent time with Maurizio Zamparini in Palermo – seems to understand temperamental characters as well as anybody in the game.
“Vučinić is a champion with the kind of skills that only five or six players in Europe can boast,” said Sabatini in an interview with TeleRadioStereo late last year. “He is always unpredictable and in terms of technique is almost supernatural. However, the affection of the fans is needed by all players, especially someone like Mirko. I pointed out to him that some of this is down to his attitude. Fans must understand the psychology of a player, but it goes both ways.”
Much as Boniek was pushed out to accommodate Michael Laudrup back in 1985, Vučinić appears to be at a crossroads. While his place is not threatened by the tight restrictions on foreign players that saw his Polish predecessor sold to Roma, he may find his role heavily reduced in the future. After eleven years wearing only red and yellow for Lecce, Roma and his national side, he will need to prove he can change his colours as well as attitude in order to continue to thrive in black and white.
By Adam Digby
This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona