The Juventus No 19 jersey remains unassigned. On Sunday’s opening match day of the Serie A season, the name of Juve’s most experienced player was nowhere near the team-sheet.
His “dignity”, according to the Italian Footballers Association, the body that protects players’ rights, has “been stamped all over” by the club he has represented more than 500 times.
At this stage of every summer, with the close of the transfer window imminent and the competitive season under way, there are hundreds of professional footballers in uncomfortable limbo, told clearly they are not to the taste of the head coach, or too heavy a weight on the salary budget, or, because of a dwindling time left on their contracts, deemed at peak resale value and so being pressured to leave.
The case rocking Juventus has some of those elements. But it’s a headline-grabber because the footballer being marginalised, his “dignity” offended, is the captain of Italy’s national team. He’s the hero of the Azzurri triumph at the last European championship. He is Leo Bonucci.
Eleven weeks ago, when Juventus closed out a difficult 2022/23 with a 1-0 win at Udinese, Bonucci was there, wearing the captain’s armband.
Fast forward to the weekend and Juventus went back to Udinese and won 3-0 with Bonucci entirely absent, despite being under contract – and apparently fit – until the end of next June.
His advisers were meanwhile in serious talks with Lazio, one of the suitors for the 36-year-old defender who, along with an interested Union Berlin can offer Bonucci Champions League football this season were they to lure him and meet his wage expectations before the transfer window closes in 10 days time.
Moving from Juventus will still feel like a wrench and his pointed rejection by the club where Bonucci was a pillar through eight of Juve’s nine successive Serie A titles between 2012 and 2020 is a brutal way to end the relationship.
But Bonucci is 36 and the sort of warrior centre-back whose tough duelling treads a thin line between what’s legitimate and what is punished by a foul. In the age of VAR and magnified scrutiny of contentious tackles, that puts him in a category of defender who have become less fashionable.
This has been a chastening summer for a few. Just as Italy’s new head coach, Luciano Spalletti, faces uncertainties about Bonucci’s status as his captain and defensive leader, his England counterpart Gareth Southgate anticipates similar dilemmas when Italy play England in Euro 2024 qualifying in October.
Harry Maguire has been a first-choice in England’s central defence for most of Southgate’s seven years in the job. Yet Maguire, ushered towards various possible exits by his club Manchester United this summer, can only imagine he will be regularly starting club matches by October if he moves on.
At Old Trafford, he is well down the defenders’ pecking order. United head coach Erik ten Hag has removed the club captaincy from him, unconvinced Maguire is nimble enough with the ball or sufficiently quick on the turn to play a pro-active part in ten Hag’s preferred system. Maguire is only 30 and was the most expensive defender in the sport’s history, at €87 million, when United signed him only four summers ago from Leicester City.
Sergio Ramos is, at 37, further along the career path. But he is the owner of every major honour in the sport – from a World Cup and two European championships with Spain, to the multiple prizes he lifted with Real Madrid – and added more medals with the Ligue 1 titles he claimed from the last two seasons with Paris Saint-Germain, where his contract expired in June.
Yet he is currently unemployed, searching for a place to take his leadership qualities and that goalscoring knack that has always been a welcome extra to his broad, aggressive defensive skill set.
So far, clubs Ramos would like to join have passed on the opportunity. When Real Madrid learnt, after their opening fixture of the new La Liga campaign, that senior centre-back Eder Militao would be absent for months with a cruciate ligament problem, a logic pointed to a year-long deal for the club’s celebrated former captain. But there was no approach.
For Ramos, the King of the Comeback, famed for rescuing results with late goals and interventions, there will be no romantic comeback either to Sevilla, where he started his career.
The player pushed open that door, but heard it shut firmly by Sevilla president Jose Castro.
“Sergio Ramos would like to come to Sevilla? Well, I’d like a private aeroplane,” said Castro. “Nothing against him, but he doesn’t fit into our recruitment policy.”