Football: Milan the superpower in league of nations: Jasper Rees looks forward to the kick-off of the Italian championship tomorrow

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AFTER the last World Cup, the Milan coach, Arrigo Sacchi, boasted that his club could have beaten either of the disappointing finalists, and with a side containing Gullit, Van Basten, Rijkaard, Baresi, Donadoni and Maldini, he may well have been right. Throw in Jean-Pierre Papin, Dejan Savicevic and Zvonomir Boban and Fernando de Napoli, whom the club have just signed, and two years on he would be even more right. Now, though, Sacchi coaches not the best club in Italy, but Italy itself, and he will have to make do without foreign talent.

The national side begin their World Cup campaign against Switzerland in October. The indigenous crop of players from whom Sacchi will select his squad have less access than ever to top club football. This season there will be no fewer than 72 non-Italians affiliated to the 18 clubs of Serie A, the Italian First Division. Unlike in England these are not just any foreigners; these are most of the best non-Italians in the world. We should know: in Des Walker, David Platt and Paul Gascoigne, this country is currently lending Italy the three best footballers it has.

This is not just bad news for Italian players. With each side permitted to field only three at a time (the allowance goes up to four in European competition), you do not need to be a mathematician to know that some very expensive imports are going to be kicking their heels for the next nine months. Milan, who for the past four or five seasons have routinely fielded their three Dutchmen, are the biggest culprits. At some stage in the new season the unthinkable may well happen: Ruud Gullit will be dropped.

Amid all this talk of foreigners coining it in Italy, it should be remembered that Italian clubs charge more as well as pay more. In the last couple of years Italian players have been the ones breaking the world transfer records: Roberto Baggio cost Juventus pounds 8m, Gianluca Vialli cost them even more, and now Torino have sold Gianluigi Lentini to (again) Milan for a sum so astronomical that nobody is sure exactly how astronomical. If anything stops Milan walking away with a second successive title, it will most likely not be another challenger but egotistical strife from within. Strikers as superior as Papin and Van Basten do not always make for a good mix.

The battle in the market is over, and the playing commences tomorrow. Juventus, touted as the most significant threat to Milan, have a similar surplus of foreigners, and the club's president, Gianni Agnelli, has hinted that Platt may be used only for home matches.

At least he will see action. The news from Rome is that Paul Gascoigne is thought unlikely to be thrown into the arena for quite a while yet, and Lazio have signed the Dutchman, Aron Winter, as cover. For the moment their hopes of success depend more on their two Germans, Thomas Doll and Karlheinz Riedle.

Several of their compatriots, meanwhile, have left the country. Rudi Voller is no longer with Roma, and Internazionale have offloaded their Teutonic triumvirate of Matthaus, Klinsmann and Brehme. Toto Schillaci, who for two years has vainly struggled to regain the form which made him Italia '90's top scorer, has been dumped by Juventus and will team up in Inter's attack with Darko Pancev, one of several former Red Star Belgrade players to have opted to ply his trade in exile.

Italy has consistently attracted the best players from South America (at the moment there are 11 Brazilians and eight each from Uruguay and Argentina) as well as other parts of Europe, but money and political unrest has recently increased the influx from Eastern Europe. Newly promoted Brescia have signed three Romanians, Gheorghe Hagi, Ioan Sabau and Florin Raducioiu, and in patches should serve up some elegant football.

Other sides to watch include Fiorentina, the perpetual toilers who have signed Brian Laudrup and Stefan Effenberg from Bayern Munich and might this time have got it right.

Foggia have no famous names to look out for but were last season's second highest scorers with 58 goals. They finished ninth because they also let in 58. Goals, lest we forget, are definitely not galore in Serie A.


ANCONA: Lajos Detari (Hun); Oscar Ruggeri, Sergio Zarate (both Arg).

ATALANTA: Alemao, Carlos Bianchezi (both Bra); Paolo Montero (Urug); Leo Rodriguez (Arg); Rene Valenciano (Col).

BRESCIA: Florin Raducioiu, Gheorghe Hagi, Ioan Sabau (all Rom).

CAGLIARI: Enzo Francescoli, Jose Herrera, Marcelo Tejera (all Urug); Luis Oliveira (Bra).

FIORENTINA: Gabriel Batistuta (Arg); Dunga (Bra); Mazinho (Bra); Brian Laudrup (Den); Stefan Effenberg (Ger).

FOGGIA: Igor Kolyvanov (Rus); Petrescu (Rom); Herman Medford (Costa Rica).

GENOA: Branco (Bra); Tomas Skuhravy (Cz); Igor Dobrovolski (Rus); Johnny van't Schip (Neth).

INTERNAZIONALE: Darko Pancev (Mac); Mathias Sammer (Ger); Igor Shalimov (Rus); Ruben Sosa (Urug).

JUVENTUS: Julio Cesar (Bra); Juergen Kohler (Ger); David Platt (Eng); Andreas Moller (Ger).

LAZIO: Paul Gascoigne (Eng); Aron Winter (Neth); Djair Brito (Bra); Karlheinz Riedle (Ger); Thomas Doll (Ger).

MILAN: Zvonimir Boban (Croa); Jean-Pierre Papin (Fr); Dejan Savicevic (Yug); Ruud Gullit, Frank Rijkaard and Marco Van Basten (all Neth).

NAPOLI: Careca (Bra); Daniel Fonseca (Urug), Jonas Thern (Swe).

PARMA: Faustino Asprilla (Col); Sergio Daniel Berti (Arg); Tomas Brolin (Swe); Georges Grun (Bel); Claudio Taffarel (Bra).

PESCARA: Roger Mendy (Sen); John Sivebaek (Den); Blaz Sliskovic (Bosnia).

ROMA: Aldair (Bra); Claudio Caniggia (Arg); Thomas Hassler (Ger); Sinisa Mihajlovic (Yug).

SAMPDORIA: Srecko Katanec, Vladimir Jugovic (both Yug); Des Walker (Eng).

TORINO: Carlos Aguilera (Urug); Vincenzo Scifo (Bel); Walter Casagrande (Bra); Marcelo Saralegui (Urug).

UDINESE: Nestor Sensini, Abel Balbo (both Arg); Marek Kozminski, Piotr Czachowski (both Pol).

(Photographs omitted)