Juventus Enters Champions League Final With More Than a Title at Stake

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Gonzalo Higuaín had been a Juventus player for only a few hours when he was asked the question, the one that transfixes anyone and everyone connected to the club. At Napoli, the team he had just left, they were still flushing jerseys bearing his name into the sewers, mourning what they had lost. In Turin, fans’ thoughts had already turned to what they might win.

Higuaín was not asked whether he thought Juventus might win the Serie A championship. The domestic title is almost a given here these days. Instead, he was invited to contemplate whether he thought the team that had paid $100 million for his services was now, finally, ready to win the Champions League.

Higuaín gave the only answer acceptable in this part of northern Italy — yes — and he meant it. “I remember looking my teammates in the eye in August and knowing that we would have a great season,” he said this week. “And now, we are one step away from making history.”

The Champions League consumes Juventus. No club holds this tournament quite so close to its heart as Juventus’s opponent in Saturday’s final, Real Madrid, which has lifted the trophy a record 11 times and regards winning it as somewhere between its primary purpose and its birthright. It started this year not hoping but demanding to win No. 12.

Juventus’s relationship with it, on the other hand, is characterized by failure. Yes, it has twice been crowned champion of Europe, in 1985 and 1996. The number that fixates Juventus, though, is six: the number of finals the club has lost. To Ajax in 1973, Hamburg in 1983, Borussia Dortmund and Real Madrid in quick succession in 1997 and 1998, to A.C. Milan on penalties in 2003, and then, two years ago, to Barcelona in Berlin.

That persistent disappointment has seeped into the very bones of the club. When its current coach, Massimiliano Allegri, replaced Antonio Conte in 2014, “there was this negative approach that scared me a lot,” he remembered.

Ever since, Allegri has tried to persuade everyone connected to Juventus that the club’s record should be a source of pride, rather than pain.

“I hear people saying that we have lost six finals,” he said. “That disturbs and annoys me. It is not that we have lost six finals. It is that we have played eight. It is not easy at all to make such an achievement.”

Much of Allegri’s work this past week has focused on encouraging his players to be “serene, to prepare without anxiety, to be optimistic.” He does not want that litany of disappointment to weigh on their minds; worse still, he does not want it to take on the aura of a curse.

He is resolutely, relentlessly positive. “Anxiety leads you to waste a lot of energy,” he said. “We want to face the coming week as if we are playing a normal match.”

Deep down, though, Allegri knows that it is anything but, that it is a game that might transform not only the way Juventus regards its past but fundamentally alter its future.

This is the other strand behind Juventus’s obsession with the Champions League: the sense that only by winning it can Juventus, now apparently the perennial champion of Italy, consider itself an equal of Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich in the ranks of Europe’s modern superpowers.

It is no coincidence that the team Allegri will name on Saturday will include several players who were once standard-bearers for Juventus’s domestic rivals.