Wednesday 18 September 2019

Bonucci: United wanted me but I had to return home

Second chance: Bonucci says 'not everybody would have accepted to come back and admit a mistake'. Photo: REUTERS/Massimo Pinca
Second chance: Bonucci says 'not everybody would have accepted to come back and admit a mistake'. Photo: REUTERS/Massimo Pinca

Jason Burt

Leonardo Bonucci might so easily be in the home dressing room at Old Trafford tonight for the momentous Champions League group match between Manchester United and Juventus.

United wanted him when he left AC Milan at the end of last season. But there was only one place he wanted to go: "Home".

So, he will line up for Juventus and, at Continassa, the Italian club's stunning new training ground close to the Allianz Arena, he talks about his remarkable return to the club, and his equally astonishing departure the year before, about the art of defending and about the burning desire to win the Champions League.

The 31-year-old comes across as extremely thoughtful and attentive and as he talks, the eye is drawn to a tattoo on the inside of his right forearm.

Written in English, it reads: "Dear God, I want to take a minute not to ask for anything from you but to simply say thank you for all I have."

Bonucci explains: "I had that tattoo after the birth of my children.

"Basically, when you get married, you start searching for stability, and that stability was given by my wife [Martina] and my kids [Matteo and Lorenzo], so I felt really satisfied and rewarded.

"Apart from realising my dream as a football player, I had also obtained what I wanted in life."

Except, in 2016, Matteo fell ill and had to undergo emergency surgery.


Bonucci considered quitting football. "Especially when we had problems with Matteo's health, when he fell ill - I did not ask for anything," Bonucci says, touching the tattoo. "I talked to God and I just told him 'it's up to you, it's your decision' and God listened to me and Matteo was able to start a second life."

It would be too trite to say Bonucci is now enjoying a "second life" back at Juventus, but it is a fresh start at least - even if United also came calling when it became clear that his shock move to Milan was not working out.

"Basically, there have been some possibilities, both with Manchester City and with Manchester United," Bonucci explains. "With Manchester City, when I received an offer [in 2016], I actually talked to the club, I talked to Juventus, and we decided that it was good for me to stay and to keep on winning with Juventus.

"And this year, when I was told there was a possibility to go back home, to come back to Juventus, I just stopped listening to any other offers and decided to come back here."

So, there was an offer from United? "Yes," says Bonucci. .

"I feel at home (at Juventus). Here, I really do my best, I just push myself to the maximum and that's something at Milan I really didn't manage, I didn't achieve and that was probably because, in my heart, I had already made the decision that I wanted to go back home."

So, why did he leave Juventus in the first place after such remarkable career - six league titles, two Champions League finals - at the heart of Europe's most formidable defence? "At that time, I made a decision driven by pride and I was upset by a specific situation," Bonucci says, alluding to an apparent row between himself and Juventus coach Massimiliano Allegri.

"And, so, I was not myself any more and I decided to leave. Then, with the passing of time, I realised that I had probably had the wrong attitude and so those expectations that I believed were not met, well it was not actually like that. So, I changed my mind."

That was an honest response, I say. "Well, it was obviously a tough decision because not everybody would have accepted to come back and to admit a mistake like I did. I was also lucky because I was made welcome and accepted again by our president, by our coach and by the whole dressing room.

"So, I decided that I had to run this risk because it was worth taking and overcoming all the possible hurdles with the support of my family and with Juventus itself. And that is what happened in the end. That it what the tattoo says."

Bonucci pauses and points to another tattoo, in Latin, under his left bicep. "Per aspera ad astra," it reads. "Through hardship to the stars".

Juventus are unbeaten this season, recording 10 straight wins, including six clean sheets, in all competitions before the 1-1 draw at the weekend against Genoa, and it is fascinating to hear Bonucci talk about what being a defender means.

"Defending is definitely an art," he says, explaining how he has learnt from Giorgio Chiellini and Andrea Barzagli, the other feted members of the original "BBC".

"What I have done is 'stealing' by observing them with my eyes what they were doing, because they are icons of world football and for someone like me who became a defender quite late, it was vital to watch them, learn from them.

"I defend my goal as if it were my home."

The Left Wing: Ireland's fullback dilemma, World Cup bonding and the squad standby list

Also in Sport