Italian failings force an overdue rethink

Letter From Rome
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The Independent Online

After the Milan-Deportivo encounter last Tuesday the post-match debate in Italy was to all effects a post-mortem. The loss marked the exit of the last remaining Italian club from European competition, the end of Italy's predominance in the Uefa Cup and Champions' League and the words defeat, fiasco and humiliation abounded in the media.

After the Milan-Deportivo encounter last Tuesday the post-match debate in Italy was to all effects a post-mortem. The loss marked the exit of the last remaining Italian club from European competition, the end of Italy's predominance in the Uefa Cup and Champions' League and the words defeat, fiasco and humiliation abounded in the media.

The atmosphere in my local bar was somewhere between despairing and nostalgic. Except that these weren't old fellows in cloth caps in a Sardinian village, they were smartly suited Roman thirty-somethings. For most of their adult lives, Italian teams had been the kings of European football.

"Twenty years we've always been there, if not winning at least competing," moaned one customer. "Now I know how the Russians must have felt after the Berlin Wall came down."

"The Spanish are on a roll, that's for sure, but even the English and German teams are through. The Serie A is still the the most important for me as a fan, but it's awful to have put on such a poor show in Europe," added his friend.

Not since 1981 has Italy had to endure such humiliation. But this season's results were even more dramatic because there were more clubs, eight in all, at the starting post. Italy still holds the record for the most European titles, (28, against Spain's 26) but risks losing even that to the Spaniards.

Italy's sporting papers, in particular the Gazzetta dello Sport, dedicated pages of analysis to the decline. "Lots of different reasons for a single failure," was the title of an editorial that calmly but pitilessly examined Italy's debacle. "In first place is the scarce technical ability of the players of our clubs (not just Italians, but above all foreigners) and as a result of this the inflated opinion of these by the managers. The article also criticised the arrogance and lack of dedication of clubs who went into games thinking they had it in the bag, only to be unpleasantly surprised by la grinta (the guts) of their opponents.

There are reasons why each of the eight clubs failed. Lazio, buoyant after becoming Serie A champions last year, went on a spending spree but unwisely ceded Sergio Conceicão and failed to reinforce their defence. The uncertainty surrounding the departure of coach Sven Goran Eriksson did not help. The questionable decision to delay the start of the Italian championship because of the Olympics made the month of September, normally difficult for European combatants, even more risky. The Latin American qualifiers also meant many key foreign players were missing.

But beyond the specifics, the fiasco prompted a wider reflection on the state of the game. "Italian football is full of dates, of commitments, of pressure," said Marcello Lippi, whose Juventus side won the European Cup in 1996. "Winning has become a duty. Everything is instant. There is no time to build or even to plan.

"The Spanish football executives have had the patience to invest in the youth sectors and the big clubs have had the courage to launch the brightest youngsters among the big names. This has let Spanish clubs preserve their identity, a DNA that has not been altered by the addition of foreigners, however talented. The major Italian clubs have to open their doors to our young talent," Lippi urged in an interview with Gazzetta.

Gigi Simoni, who took Inter to their 1998 Uefa Cup triumph, also attacked the mercenary nature of the sport. "Coaches who lose a couple of games are sacked. If you don't win you are out. And this goes for the players as well," he said.

"The big clubs buy new players every month or every fortnight. A forward fails to score, buy a new one!" The Italian sporting press also looked at the financial implications of Italy's exclusion, estimating that Juventus, Lazio and Milan each lost upward of £15m while the five Uefa Cup contenders missed out on earnings of between £6-10m.

"In the golden years I've always attributed the merit to the players and then the coaches, then to the clubs who built those teams," said Franco Carraro, president of the Italian League. "You can factor in luck and the odd bad umpiring decision but if we failed so miserably it is because we were not up to scratch on the field." To get out of the rut Carraro said salaries linked to performance and results could become fundamental.

Fiat's patriarch Gianni Agnelli spent a precious few minutes with his team last week. "I told them that the new slogan of Juventus was more goals, less cash," he informed reporters afterwards. His wise words could become a national motto if Italian football is to hold its head high in Europe again.

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