2012 – Italian Serie A: The end of the decline?
Italian Football lost the appeal that used to have in the “glorious” 1990s, will it be able to reply to the supremacy of Spanish and English teams?
Do you remember the 1990s? When players used to wear black shoes and used to shower and wax their hair after, not before, the games? If you remember it, you’d also remember that those were the years of the dominion of Serie A teams in Europe. Between 1990-1999, Italian teams contested 7 Champions League and 7 Uefa Cup finals. It was the time of the AC Milan of Gullit, Van Basten and Maldini, and coach Marcello Lippi’s Juventus, full of first-rate champions, such as monsier Zinedine Zidane. Even smaller clubs like Lazio, Parma and Sampdoria were filled with international top players, Veron, Crespo, Seedorf and Thuram. If you remember the 1990s, you also remember that, at that time, all the best players aimed to play in the Italian Serie A: Van Basten, Weah, Zidane, Ronaldo, Batistuta and Nedved, without naming the best generation of Italian players ever: Del Piero, Buffon, Pirlo, Cannavaro and Vieri. At that time, even Joseph Blatter, FIFA Chairman, labeled Serie A as “the most beautiful league of the world.”
Then, a slow decline stroke down Italian football leading to the recent – and controversial – scandal, named “Calciopoli” in 2006, whose true story hasn’t been written yet, and probably never will. In recent years, Serie A had, too often, to deal with old, dangerous and almost-empty stadiums. In addition, Italian teams experienced both a dramatic fall of performances in the European competitions and a loss of appeal toward international top players, who prefer to sign for English and Spanish teams, more competitive (and rich). With the exception of Ibrahimovic and Wes Snejider, no top player is currently playing in Italy. On the contrary, the best “products” of Serie A have left their team to seek titles, glory and money abroad, think of Balottelli (ManCity) and Alexis Sanchez (Barça). Over the few last summers, Juventus, AC Milan and Inter tried hard to reach the finest players, Aguero, Dzeko, Silva, Falcao and Sanchez, but they all preferred other options (Manchester, Barcelona, Madrid). The lack of both appeal and economic means sealed the final decline of Italian Serie A, today one of the least attractive leagues in the continent – at least it appears so. This downturn culminated in 2011 with the “German surpass”: in this ongoing season – and for two more seasons at least – the German Bundesliga will be able to send 4 teams into Champions League, while Italy only 3.
However, the Italian case is not unique, actually quite the opposite. Starting from the mid-80s until the end of the 1990s, Bundesliga, Premier and Liga went through a very similar involution. After a golden period in the 1970s, in Britain, the merciless Hooligans movement forced the UEFA to out-rule English teams for 5 years from any European competition (Liverpool for 6). Over this period, also German and Spanish teams could hardly compete with AC Milan and Juventus. Between 1985 and 1999, British teams reached a Champions League final only two times, also because of the ban (Liverpool ’85 and ManU ’99), German teams only one (Bayern ’99) and Spanish only 4, not an honourable result compared to the 10 Champions League finals played by Italian teams (12 if we go back to 1983). In Germany old facilities and mediocre teams took people away from the stadiums. On the other hand, in the UK, stadiums were full, but violent episodes perpetrated by the hoolingans were a shameful commonplace.
Yet, today the situation is completely reversed, the geopolitics of European football has radically changed, leading to an evident Spanish-English-German supremacy. How did this happen? How did these leagues managed to find a new birth? I think that everything started with a commitment to renovation. Two main changes allowed these leagues to come back to dominate in Europe. 1) First of all, new stadiums. In Germany many teams built their re-birth on new, modern, private and practical stadiums. In England, besides the creation the Premiership formula that we know today, governments and clubs set up new strict rules, that aimed to chock off the hooligans movement. 2) Secondly, these teams heavily invested in their youth sectors. In 2006 Germany impressed the world with its new facilities, but also with one of the youngest German national teams ever (think of Ozil, Muller, Khedira). At the same time, think of Barça, that are amazing the whole world with a team, which is young and mostly “home-made”, as the most part of its players were churned out by la cantera. Basically, these leagues managed to pursue a 360-degrees-renovation, which is at the basis of their astonishing results.
What about Italy today? Italy was left behind. Football is probably only a metaphor of a wider social, political and economic decline. It is true that AC Milan and Inter won the Champions League in 2003, 2007 and 2010, but those were isolated cases, within a clear Anglo-spanish supremacy. However – here comes the news, this season seems to stand out as a turning point for Serie A. The wind of change is spreading from Turin throughout the rest of Italy. Juventus built and inaugurated its new Stadium, the first private one in Italy. This benchmark step has given new vitality to the team, that is now leading the league, but most importantly stimulated a careful consideration about the future of Italian football. Other teams are planning to build private stadiums, through which launch a new course, strongly supported by the Italian Federation (FIGC). But let’s talk about played football. This season Juventus, Udinese and Napoli are proposing a kind of football, which is in deep contrast with the Italian past and tradition: an offensive, rapid and spectacular football that has nothing to envy to Liga and Premiership. Napoli, for example, has stroke out of Champions League the way more highly-rated (and rich) ManCity, thanks to young, emerging wonderful players: Cavani, Lavezzi and Hamsik. Udinese and Lazio, with a very very limited budget, managed to cruise into the final phase of Europa League; for the record, Udinese has also one of the youngest team in Europe. It is maybe too early, but it seems that things are going under a deep change in Italy.
As I’ve said, the real challenge here, is that of renovation, as Premiership, Liga and Bundesliga did in the late 1990s and 2000s. If Serie A will really manage to go all the way down to this course, Champions League will soon stop to be a matter concerning only Barça and Real. My suggestion is to go on ESPN3.com and start watching some Juventus, Udinese or Napoli games, for a change. Will we be able to see these teams as protagonists in the next editions of UEFA Champions League? I think so.
Written by Andrea Chiampan