Of all of the matches I covered during this summer’s International Champions Cup, AS Roma against Juventus from Gillette Stadium was perhaps the most unique. Neither club has the star power and recognizable branding of a team like Barcelona or Manchester United. Instead, this matchup drew fans with a strong connection to their team. While the strictly Serie A fixture from Gillette Stadium hosted the second lowest amount of fans of any match I covered during the tournament, this one felt as if there was more to play for.
Ahead of kickoff, I walked through the parking lots, visiting tailgates and asking for match predictions. I was treated to a plethora of food — mostly sweet Italian sausage — of which I’d say I had my fill for the year. Interestingly enough, I saw very few random jerseys (I usually see at least 10 Messi Barcelona jerseys no matter who is playing). Children were bedecked in full Juventus and AS Roma kits, and small-sided games were being played on any free stretch of lot. Walking to the stadium, supporters of both sides were in fine voice, singing and chanting time-honored words that have come to define each club and their fandom.
Both managers started strong teams, and the tempo of the match was high from the opening kickoff. As the tournament ends so close to the start of the season, it’s normal that both sides should be playing what will eventually be their starting XI. As with El Clásico in Miami the night before, both Roma and Juventus seemed to have placed a good amount of stock in this match. Yes, it’s a meaningless preseason friendly, but tell that to Mandzukic and Chiellini, who exchanged words and a elbow or two during the game.
I spent most of the game watching from behind either goal amongst the fans. The press box at Gillette Stadium is nice but it feels like one is too far away from the field and, thus, the spectacle loses a bit of its edge. Standing shoulder to shoulder with passionate supporters is a feeling that will never get old. The energy is infectious, the emotion is raw. It’s hard to accurately describe the palpable tension before kickoff or the rollercoaster of emotions fans go through before and after a near miss. Being a neutral at such an event is always fun.
The match failed to disappoint, providing the 33,039 in attendance with an end-to-end exciting battle. A disallowed goal, an uncalled penalty and some near misses only added to the intrigue of this fixture and when it finally came time for it to be decided by penalty kicks, it felt almost like an injustice.
How wrong I was — the penalties were like having a separate competition added on. As is the ICC format, if a match is tied after going the full 90 minutes, it goes directly to penalty kicks to be decided. Normally, I feel that it’s a cruel way to end any game, especially one that has clearly been a close enough contest to remain tied. The decision to go directly to a penalty shootout, coming at the end of an exciting preseason friendly, was well-received by fans of both clubs who cheered loudly after it was announced around the stadium. In the end, Juventus won on a well-placed kick from new signing Douglas Costa.
Both managers seemed pleased to end their stateside preseason tours on a positive note, satisfied with the work they had done to prepare for the long season ahead. AS Roma manager Eusebio Di Francesco seemed happy with what he’d seen over the past two weeks. “As far as our players’ performances are concerned, I’m happy about their improvement since our previous game. Key players, like [Maxime] Gonalons, [Daniele] De Rossi and [Edin] Dzeko, are finding their way.” Di Francesco’s counterpart Massimiliano Allegri, echoing his comments following Juventus’ loss to Barcelona at MetLife Stadium, stressing that despite a positive performance from his side, there was plenty of work to be done.
As much as preseason friendlies like the International Champions Cup are a chance for clubs to promote their brands globally, the true focus of these teams is to prepare for the upcoming season. Despite their price of admission, the matches are basically glorified training sessions for managers to watch and take note of any deficiencies or to try something new knowing the price of failure is zero. They may not have won the competition, but earning new fans and satisfying old ones seems a more important goal.
For Juventus and AS Roma, this tournament has surely been a success.