Failing Italians have eyes on super league

Absence of Serie A teams in the quarter-finals of elite competition rekindles breakaway talk
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When Gianluca Vialli raised the European Cup in May 1996, European football spoke with an Italian accent. Juventus had just claimed their 11th European success in seven years. Nine different clubs had reached a final confirming Serie A's claim to be the best league in the world. Dominance was coupled with influence. Italian clubs had spearheaded the conflation of the Champions' League and would soon be rewarded with four entries in Europe's premier club competition.

As Vialli led the lap of honour around Rome's Stadio Olimpico the prospect of this being the last Italian triumph in the European Cup for at least seven years was almost as improbable as that of Vialli managing Watford in England's Nationwide League.

Yesterday, as Vialli prepared for the Hornets' trip to Barnsley, the draw for the last eight of the European Cup was made in Nyon, Switzerland. For the second successive season, no Italian clubs were involved.

Their ironic absence has prompted a certain amount of schadenfreude but opponents of the Champions' League should not celebrate too loudly. The continued failure of Serie A's high-spending clubs to last the pace is only likely to hasten the arrival of a European league.

Four months ago, as the Juventus players began sliding out of the competition, their administrators floated 37 per cent of the company on the stock market. At the London launch Roberto Bettega, once their centre-forward, now vice-chairman, talked enthusiastically of forming a European Superleague. "Juve has never played against Bayern, and against Real Madrid only once," he noted. "A new format might entail remarkable TV rights".

Juventus, like Manchester United, Liverpool and 11 other leading European clubs, are part of G14. Initially created with a view to being the foundation of a superleague they have since reined in their ambitions, publicly at least, and act as a pressure group. However, Thomas Kurth, the general manager, is still prepared to admit the group wants change. While denying any move towards a superleague, and insisting that national leagues are paramount, he confirmed: "G14 wants fewer weak teams in the Champions' League."

"Weak?" Does he mean teams like Hapoel Tel Aviv, the Israeli club that knocked Chelsea and Parma out of the Uefa Cup, and only went down to an own goal against Milan on Thursday? Or Lille, who knocked Parma out of this season's Champions' League? Or Helsingborg, who did the same for Internazionale last season? Or Nantes, who beat Lazio home and away this season despite being bottom of the French league? For "weak" read "unglamorous".

It is a false move. While it is true that the measurable financial contribution by clubs from Scandinavia, with their small grounds, and eastern Europe, with their impoverished television viewers, is small, their presence gives the competition its legitimacy. Already the champions of minor nations have to go through a prolonged qualifying process, which few survive, to reach the first group stage. G14 would like to see them eliminated completely, exiled to a glorified Uefa Cup.

They are also pressing for changes in the format when the current agreement expires in 2006. These include the replacement of the group stages with 12-team mini-leagues. There seems to be no recognition that the worst attendances, such as the four-figure one at Juventus-Arsenal this week, come when the match is "dead" as far as the home team are concerned. The current system has faults but there are very few matches without meaning. In a 12-team league without relegation there would be many.

While the big clubs ponder the future those from the smaller leagues are coming to terms with the present. The Champions' League has had a profound impact upon the landscape of European football. In its early years the geographical representation of the quarter-finalists was widespread, as it was in the old knock-out competition. As the accompanying figures illustrate the smaller nations have since been marginalised. Clubs from Sweden, the Netherlands, who provided an early winner in Ajax, Belgium, Russia, even France, are no longer progressing.

This is partly because the combination of Bosman and the Champions' League has accelerated the drift of the best players to the big four leagues of the west with the French experience typical. In the opening six years of the competition they always had a team in the last eight, a record only matched by Italy. This signposted the successes of the French team but those national triumphs led to a weakening of the club game as the players responsible, like Didier Deschamps of Marseilles, Claude Makelélé of Nantes, and Monaco's Thierry Henry and Fabien Barthez, were lured elsewhere.

In the past that meant Italy, but now Spain and England are increasingly the preferred destinations and while the influence of Arsène Wenger and Gérard Houllier means most cross the Channel, Anglo-Spanish club results suggest the stronger teams are over the Pyrenees.

The Spanish league combines the Latin skills of Serie A with the pace of the Premiership. Deportivo La Coruña, Manchester United's quarter-final opponents, are the perfect example, blending several Brazilian players with others drawn from the hard-working Catalan, Basque and Galician regions. In addition La Liga has an emphasis on attack which is far removed from the Italian mindset without resulting in football as frantic as it is in England.

Marcello Lippi, the Juventus coach, this week said he agreed with Giovanni Trapattoni, the national coach, who ascribed the failure of Italian club sides to "The great level of tension players play under in Serie A." He added: "They use a lot of nervous and physical energy on the weekend and it is difficult to recover energy for midweek."

Christian Vieri, the Internazionale striker who has played in Spain, added: "Spanish football is more attacking, more open and less tactical. In Italy football is much more difficult, much more tactical." Since Serie A is also suffering from crowd violence, racism, and widespread fraud which has affected pay-per-view income, a return to the stagnant football of the past is particularly unwelcome.

Yet while the clubs of Spain, England and Germany hold sway in the Champions' League, Italy may have the last laugh. Come the World Cup few would bet against the Azzurri, helped by a favourable draw, going furthest of the four.