Massimiliano Allegri's unique journey from Aglianese to Juventus
One of the most iconic moments in the rivalry between Juventus and Real Madrid was the sensational goal scored by Pavel Nedved in the semifinal second leg 14 years ago. The Old Lady overcame a 2-1 deficit from the first leg to win 4-3 on aggregate, but the Czech star committed a needless foul towards the end and was suspended for the Champions League final. "I am so sad I could die," he said through the tears afterwards.
That happened on May 14, 2003. Three days earlier, a much-less-memorable (but ultimately hugely relevant) event took place: Massimiliano Allegri took the field for the last time in his playing career at the age of 35. The midfielder was booked as Aglianese lost at home to Gubbio and finished in eighth place in Serie C2 -- the fourth division in Italy.
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Immediately afterwards, Allegri was named the new Aglianese coach and started his remarkable journey to the top. He worked at SPAL, Grosseto and Sassuolo before getting the first Serie A job at Cagliari. He subsequently reached the heights at AC Milan and Juventus, and is now preparing his Juve side to take on Real Madrid in their second Champions League final in three years, having already won the Italian league and cup double.
Allegri's story is rather unique. Most top coaches were very good players themselves, who starred for major clubs and represented their national teams. There's another type of coach who never played professional football -- that list includes the likes of Jose Mourinho, Maurizio Sarri, Leonardo Jardim, Jorge Sampaoli, Brendan Rodgers and Andre Villas Boas. And there are also coaches who didn't make it into the first division -- Jurgen Klopp, Unai Emery and Luciano Spalletti among others.
Yet very few become a great manager following a mediocre playing career with only short spells in the top flight.
Allegri has done it despite representing 12 different clubs on the pitch, most of them in lower divisions. His best season was in 1992-93, when he scored 12 goals for newly promoted Pescara in Serie A. Pescara's style included gung-ho performances under attack-minded coach Giovanni Galeone, but they went down nevertheless. That was the pinnacle, and Allegri continued changing teams thereafter, even partnering with the young Andrea Barzagli at Pistoiese in Serie B in 2000.
Eventually, his career came to an end at tiny Aglianese, but those who worked with Allegri during his playing days understood his special character.
"I wanted Massimiliano at my team because he was perfect for my 3-5-2 formation," Francesco Buglio, who was Allegri's coach at Aglianese and guided Pavia to the promotion playoffs in the fifth division this season, told ESPN FC.
"He played as a deep-lying playmaker in front of the defence, and his contribution was vital when were were promoted from Serie D to Serie C2 in 2002. Allegri was a celebrity in our village, a creative and smart player with great vision who showed leadership qualities on and off the pitch."
Buglio could sense that Allegri was bound to have a decent career as a manager, too.
"I realised soon enough that Massimiliano aspired to become a coach," he added. "He helped me as the senior player in the team, and was sort of an assistant. His reading of the game was perfect, and that is exactly the quality he shows nowadays. He made the necessary adjustments and helped us to change the run of the game.
"He is a cheerful person who brought a lot of positive energy into the dressing room. He was a prima donna, but in a good way. Everyone respected him and listened to him. Massimiliano was very punctual and took training sessions very seriously, even at his age."
Buglio's contract at Aglianese ended in 2003, and Allegri replaced him. The man who chose the new coach was the club's vice president Fabrizio Giusti.
"We became friends with Massimiliano during his playing days," he told ESPN FC. "I have always respected him as a person and as a player, and it was only natural to offer him the job.
"Massimiliano is a very relaxed and calm person, who is open to dialogue and discussion. He is great at communication, and understands other people. That is probably why he is able to be so flexible and change his work according to circumstances."
Allegri quickly made his mark at Aglianese.
"I was impressed with the passion and ambition, and he strived to make our team better and better," Giusti remembered. "Massimiliano always talked to players and never acted as a dictator. He explained his ideas instead of imposing them. That earned him a lot of respect."
Both Giusti and Buglio have remained in touch with Allegri, who left the club in 2004 before embarking on a trajectory that saw him win promotion with Sassuolo in 2008 and land his first job in Serie A with Cagliari that same year.
A first Serie A title arrived in 2010-11 with Milan, and he has now won the last three with Juventus, alongside the last three Coppa Italia titles. The one major prize missing is the Champions League: which he has a chance to add to his CV in Cardiff this weekend.
"I might not have expected Massimiliano to reach the very top, but he had the stamina to do it, and now I regard him as one of the best coaches, alongside Pep Guardiola and Carlo Ancelotti," Buglio admitted.
Giusti added: "I thought that Allegri should enjoy a brilliant career, but you can never really predict that someone would reach those levels. He has done it thanks to his commitment, consistency and seriousness. His passion at Juventus is the same as at Aglianese, and I am pleased to watch that. Now I just hope that his dream of winning the Champions League will come true on Saturday."
Michael Yokhin is ESPN FC's European football writer. Follow him on Twitter: @Yokhin