Football: Lazio take stock for share of spoils

Manchester United can learn some lessons from the fall of one of Italy's most successful teams.
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The Independent Online
DOES BIGGEST necessarily mean best? The answer, if the Italian equivalent of Manchester United is anything to go by, is yes for a few years, then emphatically no.

When the Italian league gets under way with five matches today and another four tomorrow, Silvio Berlusconi's Milan will have a job on their hands trying to rekindle past glories. For the second season running, Milan have failed to qualify for any European competition, a statistic of almost scandalous proportions given the club's recent history.

The transformation of a team who were feared only a couple of years ago by every opponent in Europe should make interesting reading for those who both worship and detest Manchester United. When Berlusconi bought Milan 12 years ago, they were practically bankrupt. With billions of lira from his MediaSet television holding company, Berlusconi bought the best players, paid them the highest salaries and sat back smugly as Milan won five Serie A championships in nine seasons and the European Cup three times.

Then (Manchester United, take note) came the crash. As Berlusconi put more of his energies into politics and less into football, Milan's star faded. The club still bought expensive players but the blend was no longer there. Nor was the commitment. "The Old Lady", otherwise known as Juventus, made a stunning comeback. Today, it is Juve, not Milan, who the others are trying to emulate.

Top among the pretenders are Lazio, the only floated club in the country, and Parma, who were in Serie C not so long ago. After going public in May, Lazio, where Paul Gascoigne played with mixed success for three years, have been the summer's big spenders splashing out on no less than 13 players.

The Italian striker Christian Vieri cost pounds 19m from Atletico Madrid and lines up in a potentially awesome strike force alongside pounds 12m Marcelo Salas (eat your heart out, Alex Ferguson), the Croatian Alen Boksic and Roberto Mancini. Already, in Italy's equivalent of the Charity Shield, Lazio have beaten Juventus 2-1.

The decision by the Lazio owner, Sergio Cragnotti, to go public broke a long trend in Italy of rich, private family ownership and was only permitted after a change in Italian law. While Cragnotti's fortune has been made by selling tomatoes, Parma's cash comes from the world's biggest dairy producer. Parmalat's money has already financed the arrival of the Argentine, Juan Veron, from Sampdoria, while Faustino Asprilla will continue his second spell at the club after leaving on Newcastle.

By contrast, the spending of Italy's big three has been positively conservative even though Juve have bought nine players, Inter 14 and Milan 10, including the German striker Oliver Bierhoff. Juve's midfield, led by the World Cup-winning duo of Zinedine Zidane and Didier Deschamps, will again take some stopping, while Inter rely once more on the Brazilian who flattered to deceive in France. Yes, Ronaldo is back, although not too fit judging by Inter's pre-season Italian Cup tie against Cesena last Wednesday. Burned out at 21? Perish the thought.

Some will no doubt also perish the latest move in Italian football's marketing boom. The 100th Scudetta, as the championship is known, will carry, for the first time, a sponsor's name. That of Telecom Italia Mobile, a mobile phone operator.

Sponsorship of the league is not the only innovative development in a country which continues to lead the way in marketing football as a business. Pay-per-view, still to be launched in this country, goes into its second season, with fans of every major club able to sit back with a glass of Chianti and tune in.

Not everything is quite so rosy, however. Italian football is still recovering from a drugs scandal prompted by comments from the Roma coach, Zdenek Zeman, who publicly questioned the muscular capacity of certain high-profile players, including the Chelsea manager, Gianluca Vialli.

Vialli has violently repudiated the allegations. He has enough on his plate, not least the fact that his multi-talented team have not yet won a league game in this country.

ITALIAN LEAGUE (today): Fiorentina v Empoli, Milan v Bologna, Parma v Vicenza, Roma v Salernitana, Udinese v Sampdoria. (Tomorrow): Cagliari v Internazionale, Bari v Venezia, Perugia v Juventus, Piacenza v Lazio.