Italy seeks an English cure for disease

After World Cup triumph, the country must face up to Serie A's scandals. Frank Dunne talks to the minister with a Premier League prescription for reform
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The Independent Football

The Italian government is taking the Premier League as its model as it embarks upon a series of reforms to overhaul Italian football following another summer of scandal.

The government plans to impose the collective selling of television rights on Italian clubs, bringing them back into line with the system which has been used successfully by the Premier League. The Premier League's method of redistributing income - in which 50 per cent is shared equally among clubs and a small percentage goes to the grass roots - will be imposed upon the clubs, which have sold the rights to their own home games since 1999.

Giovanna Melandri, the Sports Minister, told The Independent: "The Premier League model looked like the best fit for the Italian situation, the best solution to the problem of finding a balance between Serie A and Serie B, Serie C and [the semi-professional league] Serie D. It also fitted with the idea of restructuring solidarity by investing in the grass roots, in facilities and in youth football. The way television rights have been negotiated in Italy has created a power base centred on a very small number of clubs, which did not take into account the equilibrium of the whole system."

While the Italian Football Federation, under a government-appointed commissioner, Guido Rossi, deals with the match-fixing scandal, the government is tackling the wider crisis. At 44, Melandri is the youngest minister in Romano Prodi's centre-left government. Prodi created, for the first time in Italy, a ministry for sport, but Melandri is no newcomer to the responsibility, having held the brief for sport when serving as culture minister in the centre-left government of 1998 to 2001.

Match-fixing is the most visible symptom of a much deeper malaise but, as Melandri points out, it is not an Italian disease. "A very important report on European football was commissioned by Tony Blair some months ago, which started from the consideration that football scandals had exploded all over Europe: in Belgium, Germany, Finland, and Portugal, as well as in Italy," Melandri says. "There is a quite widespread disease in European football, even though there are problems which are specific to Italy."

The reference is to the Independent European Sport Review, authored by Jose Luis Arnaut, a former minister in the Portuguese government, in collaboration with Uefa, European football's governing body. It is a report shot through with the fear that the moneymen are taking over football, that sporting values are being eroded by the pressure to make a profit.

The government shares the aspirations of the report, but Melandri warns against taking too simplistic a view of the commercialisation of football: "I don't believe that we can dream of a football that goes back to an era when it wasn't an important dimension of our economy. That would be utopian and it would lead us down a dead-end street.

"Big clubs have become like the majors in the entertainment industry. They are producers of very sophisticated content for television and there is a connection between the clubs and the evolution of the media system. They are fully part of the market, but it's a market that needs to be regulated."

Some aspects of the marketplace, however, may not be suitable for football and in the autumn the government will take "a long, hard look" at whether clubs should be listed on the stock exchange. Juventus, Roma and Lazio are listed on the Milan Borsa. Their vulnerability to the vicissitudes of the stock market is part of what Melandri sees as the endemic economic fragility of Italian clubs.

Another problem is that, unlike English clubs, Italian clubs do not own their own stadiums, which prevents them from making money on non-match days. The government also believes that the ownership of stadiums by clubs would help to reduce violence at matches, which remains at disturbing levels.

Opposition is likely to be centred on the axis of Serie A's Milan, the broadcaster Mediaset, and the Forza Italia political party - three outposts of the Silvio Berlusconi empire. Milan earn £55m a season from the sale of their Serie A rights and Mediaset benefits from individual selling by cherry-picking the best clubs.

"That's the problem with Italy," Melandri says, "where the owner of a broadcaster and the owner of a football club can also be a political leader. But I really do think the problem is much broader and I hope that Milan - not Berlusconi - realises that the whole system has to be redefined to find a greater balance. Officially, at least, Milan has so far not opposed the bill."

The minister may want to be remembered for her part in helping to save calcio. It is just as likely that, in years to come, Italians will remember Melandri for her uninhibited celebrations at the end of Italy's World Cup final victory over France, when the cameras caught her vigorously waving the Italian tricolour in the VIP stand. "Yes, absolutely, I was waving the flag. It was folded in my bag until the last minute, but then it came out. It was a great emotion, a great joy."

Aware of slipping into nostalgia, the minister shifts quickly back on-message. "A separation needed to be made between the adventure of the Azzurri in the World Cup and the reform of the football system in Italy. We had incredible success on the field. [The Italy manager Marcello] Lippi did a great job with a great team. But we can also be proud of the season of reform that has opened and I'm sure that we can win that game, too."

Clean sweep: Plans for reform

* A bill to impose collective selling of TV rights and ensure fair distribution of revenues will come before parliament.

* A commission will examine the question of stadiums and violence. It will decide which stadiums need to be completely refurbished and look at ways to help clubs to buy stadiums from local councils.

* The government would support a salary cap based on a percentage of club turnover.

* Clubs may be barred from floating on the stock exchange.

* The anti-trust authority has been charged with monitoring the activity of agents. It has drawn up new rules which outlaw transfer dealings between members of the same family to prevent conflicts of interests.