Football: The long ball versus a free taste of la dolce vita: The Italian League may be the best in the world but will viewers switch to Channel 4's coverage, starting today? Jasper Rees reports

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The Independent Online
IS THE Italian League the best in the world, as Channel 4 is claiming? And if so, is it so superior that a significant number of viewers will plump for free lashings of Serie A rather than a monthly subscription to BSkyB's Premier League? We'll know the answer to the second question in a few months' time.

The first, though, is a hardy perennial, one of those great imponderables. Paul Elliott, now with Chelsea, returned from two seasons at Pisa in the late 1980s with this impression: 'They've got the best teams in the world, they've got the best players in the world, they've got the best stadiums in the world and they are amongst the best supporters in the world as well, and all those factors amalgamate to create something very, very, special.'

If you measure quality in noughts, then there is no room for argument: the lira is football's major currency, just as Italian, not English or Spanish, is fast becoming the sport's lingua franca. In the close season Italian clubs spent a mind-boggling pounds 240m in the transfer market. Forget Blackburn Rovers; AC Milan have shelled out pounds 32m since they regained the championship. Elliott calls it 'immoral financial behaviour'. Amazingly, money in such unimaginable plenitude does not always talk: a year ago Bari spent much more than Manchester United have ever done in one summer and still they were relegated.

Serie A comes to Channel 4 when the English game is at one of its low ebbs. For all the hype over the spanking new version of a clapped-out old model, England's big clubs are committed to shoring up rickety old stadiums, the national side has just flunked its latest exam in Europe and the best English players are once again drifting overseas. And where are they going? To the boot-and-ball-shaped peninsular, of course.

The migration of Paul Gascoigne, David Platt and Des Walker to Italy is one of the things on which Channel 4 is pinning its hopes for the screening of live Italian League football, which begins this afternoon. 'I would have thought that there would be a lot of national interest in the fact that they're waving the flag where it is renowned as the best footballing league in the world,' says Elliott, who will be providing expert analysis for Channel 4 during the coverage.

Exactly how much national interest there will be is impossible to predict, but Channel 4 is optimistic. 'There are a lot of people who don't want to pay for what they have seen for free,' Mike Miller, the commissioning editor for sport at Channel 4, says.

'There are football fans who'll watch any sort of football, there are people who want to see Italian football because they know about the quality of it, and there are a lot of people who are curious to see what it will be like after having heard for so many years that it's the best in the world. I don't know what the base audience will be but there's certainly been a lot of interest.'

Channel 4 has already introduced various mutations of football to British viewers - successfully in the case of the American version, less so with Australian rules and the Gaelic game - as well as women's football. The channel's brief is to cater for minority interests, but Italian football should be less of a minority interest than the others. This time there is no problem with the rules; viewers understand what they are watching. It just remains to be seen whether they have a taste for it.

What precisely will they be getting from the Stadio Olimpico, the San Siro and the Stadio Luigi Ferraris? Even in a championship containing Gullit, Van Basten, Vialli, Brolin, Baggio, Papin, Pancev, Hagi, Hassler, Riedle, Scifo, Schillaci, Skuhravy, Caniggia and Careca, one thing viewers won't be getting is goals, goals, goals.

In England, a good index of a dour or struggling side is one that scores fewer goals than it plays matches. Last season this applied to less than a quarter of the English First Division, but nearly half of Serie A, including Parma, and Internazionale, who finished seventh and eighth respectively.

It was perhaps for this reason that when Serie A was originally broadcast here by BSB, it was never quite attractive enough to force a nationwide stampede for squariels; nor when BSB became BSkyB did the demand for dishes go into orbit.

But now that Italian football comes live and free of charge on a terrestrial British channel, it may well be that many more viewers will be tuning in.

Ultimately, however, this is not just a battle between two broadcasting ideologies. It is a match between two brands of the world game.

Wimbledon versus Juventus. England versus Italy. The long ball versus la dolce vita. Whose side are you on?