Calcio returns this week but the customary enthusiasm for a new season is tinged with another bout of soul-searching in Italy. Not only is the game still bedevilled with racist outbreaks on the terraces, and the continuing legacy of match-fixing scandals, there is a sense that Serie A is falling behind.
Italian football once dominated Europe but Internazionale’s Champions League success in 2010 now looks a blip. It is the only appearance by an Italian club in the final in six seasons. Indeed, of the 28 European finals contested this century only four have featured an Italian team. The 2003 final between Milan and Juventus now appears a high-water mark though even that, being tactically interesting but goalless for two hours, was not the best advertisement.
The leading clubs in La Liga and the Premier League overtook their Serie A counterparts some years ago in terms of transfer muscle, but now the Bundesliga has moved ahead together with the lavishly-funded Ligue 1 clubs Monaco and Paris Saint-Germain. The latter was evident in the transfer market this summer with Edison Cavani becoming the 10th Serie A player to join PSG in the last two years, following the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Thiago Motta and Javier Pastore. Meanwhile, Monaco blew away all opposition, including Italian, with their €60m (£52m) purchase of Radamel Falcao.
Creating less waves, but still significant, were the transfers of Giulio Donati and Luca Caldirola to Bundesliga clubs Bayer Leverkusen and Werder Bremen respectively. The pair joined Marco Verrati (PSG) and Fabio Borini (Liverpool) in deciding their future is better served by moving overseas. All four played in the Under-21 team which lost to Spain in the final of this year’s European Championship – Caldirola was captain, Verrati the star playmaker.
Their departure, said Juventus supporter Daniele Billi, merely mirrored the outlook of many young Italians. “Footballers are just like factory workers and anyone else working in Italy,” said the lorry driver. “ Everyone is looking for better opportunities abroad. The economy is in crisis.”
Italian employers are notoriously conservative, much to the frustration of young Italians, and football is no different. The 14 players who figured in this summer’s Confederations Cup semi-final loss to Spain did not include anyone under the age of 26, but five were in their 30s. Admittedly Mario Balotelli was injured, but he is very much the exception. In that match Spain fielded five players under 26, and three in their 30s.
Italy were nevertheless beaten only on penalties. They also reached the final of Euro 2012 and, to a backdrop of match-fixing scandal, won the 2006 World Cup. Unlike England the Azzurri have a habit of overcoming all manner of problems to come good in tournaments, which is testament to the quality of Italian players. Their clubs, however, are finding it harder to bridge the gap.
To Massimo Moratti, owner of Inter, the solution is external investment. The petro-baron, who estimates he has sunk €1.5b (£1.3b) into the club in the last two decades, has been courting Indonesian tycoon Erick Thohir. If he sells, and a similar deal involving Chinese purchasers last season fell through, Inter would follow US-owned Roma in moving into foreign control. There is, says, Moratti, no alternative. “Today we find ourselves incapable of generating worldwide interest . We need to create a solid foreign market.”
Italian football can still attract players. Napoli themselves have signed Gonzalo Higuain, Raul Abidol, Jose Callejon, Dries Mertens, Duvan Zapata and Pepe Reina – but almost all Rafael Benitez’s recruitment has been funded by selling Cavani. Milan’s most expensive recruit is Cristian Zapata, from Villarreal for €5m (£4.3m). Inter have been equally parsimonious while Mario Gomez’s arrival at Fiorentina has been financed through the selling of Stefan Jovetic to Manchester City.
Only Juventus have spent big. Moratti mentioned Serie A’s “rundown stadia”, which come as a shock to English visitors, but Juventus are an exception. La Vecchia Signora have a new ground which, unlike most Italian clubs, they own. That helps generate income though its sub-50,000 capacity, for the biggest club in Italy, is telling.
The back-to-back champions have brought Carlos Tevez, Angelo Ogbonna and, on loan, Fernando Llorente. Europe is the target, though coach Antonio Conte said last season that it would be years before an Italian team won the Champions League again. He will be under pressure to prove himself wrong but after outclassing Chelsea in the Champions League last season Juventus were brushed aside so easily by Bayern Munich it suggested another season of domestic supremacy, but European failure, looms.
The other issues confronting Italian football will be encapsulated when Lazio host Udinese tomorrow. The Curva Nord stand at the Stadio Olimpico, where Lazio’s most fervent fans gather, will be closed and their captain, Stefano Mauri, absent as he begins a six-month ban imposed after being linked to a match-fixing scandal. The stadium’s partial closure follows racist abuse directed at Juventus players in last week’s SuperCoppa – which Juve won 4-0. It is the latest of several such punishments inposed by the Italian or European authorities and it is unlikely to be the last.
The ban levied on Mauri does reflect a more hardline mood, since his crime was not match-fixing itself, but a failure to report it. Mauri has appealed against the decision, though some feel he got off lightly considering the prosecutor had asked for a four-and-a-half-year suspension having accused Mauri of rigging two matches. The scandal is far from over – Mauri is one of more than 50 people arrested for offences related to match-fixing in the last two years. It seems there is a long way to go, on many fronts, before Italian football regains its former glory.
Top five: Serie A ins and outs
Gonzalo Higuain Real Madrid – Napoli; €37m (£32m)
Kevin Strootman PSV – Roma; €16.5m (£14m)
Mario Gomez Bayern Munich – Fiorentina; €16m (£13.6m)
Raul Albiol Real Madrid – Napoli; €12m (£10.3m)
Carlos Tevez Manchester City – Juventus; €11.8m (£10m)
Edinson Cavani Napoli – Paris Saint-Germain; €64m (£55m)
Marquinhos Roma – Paris Saint-Germain; €31.4m (£26.7m)
Stevan Jovetic Fiorentina – Manchester City; €26m (£22m)
Daniel Osvaldo Roma – Southampton; €15.1m (£12.75m)
Maarten Stekelenburg Roma – Fulham; €5.6m (£4.75m)
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