Chris McGrath: Serie A no longer making the grade

Talking Sport: Stripped bare, Serie A is mired in the retro horrors that used to afflict the Premier League
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The Independent Football

He's out there somewhere. Perhaps he's making a rare field trip, inscrutable behind his shades, bouncing across some wasteland of rock and sand to see where his men are gouging minerals from the earth's crust. What is he thinking, as he stares through the blacked-out windows, ignoring the sycophantic prattle of the nervous site manager? Is he wondering about his new jet, his new yacht, his new seraglio? Or is he asking himself what is the point of all this dough, if he can have all these things, and still feel so stale?

But then something the site manager is saying suddenly catches his attention. As a last resort, the man is talking football. They all say the boss loves his football. "And it really is amazing, sir, isn't it? What's happening to the two teams just now. Even so, sir, just because who they are, and everything they stand for, I'll be watching tomorrow. It's still the biggest club fixture in the world, wouldn't you say? Sir?"

He does not answer the man. Instead, his pulse quickening, he plunges into his attaché case. Here. His eyes race across the magazine article. Silvio Berlusconi: the piece makes him sound an international laughing stock. Falstaff playing Julius Caesar. If he is going to cling to power, in fact, it is precisely because the Italians are so vexed by foreigners saying how ridiculous he makes them look. But he also has enemies at home, clearly. The judges are on his case. That's a big fine, that. By anyone's standards.

Berlusconi says Milan is not for sale. That's what he thinks. The driver hears a tap on the glass behind him. "Back to the airport, sir? But the reception...? Yes, sir, right away, sir."

It is 20 years since Milan beat Real Madrid 5-0 at San Siro, in the second leg of a Champions League semi-final. They went on to win the final; and, uniquely, did the same the following year as well. Berlusconi's takeover had helped Arrigo Sacchi create one of the all-time great club sides – the Dutch marauders (Van Basten, Gullit, Rijkaard) liberated by an inviolate Italian back four (Maldini, Baresi, Costacurta, Tassotti).

But tomorrow the rossoneri go to Real Madrid as a nightmarish caricature of what has been happening to the Italian game over the last decade. Lining up against them, of course, will be Kaka himself – who left Milan as a world record signing in the summer, until his new employers promptly paid even more for Ronaldo. Berlusconi has spent only a fraction of the £56m trousered for Kaka, on Klaas-Jan Huntelaar – from Madrid, no less, where he was deemed superfluous to requirements.

Carlo Ancelotti – who scored the first of those five goals, in 1989, from 25 yards – meanwhile fled for Chelsea. His successor, Leonardo, was feted as a Guardiola for Milan, youthful, urbane, cerebral and cherished by the tifosi. But he has made an excruciating start, his team even contriving to get beaten at home by FC Zurich. Their 2-1 success against Roma (senza Totti) on Sunday night was ostensibly a turning point, but seemed a very jittery affair indeed.

In fairness, the winning goal dovetailed fine work from Ronaldinho and one of the squad's very few young bucks in Alexandre Pato. But Ronaldinho's Milan career has otherwise wholly sustained the notion that the club has become a marquee sanctuary for such distressed galacticos as the Brazilian Ronaldo, who was likewise dispatched from Spain. Luckily, they have an infusion of fresh blood scheduled for January, when that young tearaway, David Beckham, returns on loan to terrify Italian defences.

If he had gone to Milan at his peak – not so long ago, after all – Beckham would still have been able to enhance his own image in Serie A. As it is, even in the evening of his career, the process has been cruelly reversed.

Those of us previously intoxicated by the Italian league have been reluctantly forced to recognise that for the national team to win the World Cup was just about the worst thing that could have happened. Then, the very next season, Milan promptly became European club champions for the seventh time – a tally surpassed only by Real Madrid themselves, with nine. While both these triumphs reflected authentic class and character, they also served as fig leaves.

Stripped bare, Serie A remained mired in all the retro horrors that had to be tackled before the Premier League could achieve its recent hegemony: outdated stadiums, violence, falling attendances, insularity on the pitch. Add a sprinkling of corruption and scandal, and you have a pretty depressing landscape. And while the national team has qualified for the World Cup comfortably enough, the natives are restless about their prospects. Not a single Italian name can be found among the 30 nominees for the Ballon d'Or.

But just as the seeds of wealth are best sown in recession, so Italy might now prove fertile soil for anyone who can afford to take the gamble. The revamped Stadio delle Alpi will actually have its capacity reduced from 69,000 to 40,000, but is intended to offer the sort of civilised match-day experience you now get at Arsenal. And it is not just spectators who need to feel less intimidated; the same is true of the coaches and players, too. Jose Mourinho's Internazionale are dominating the league with their relative physicality, with pace and pressing. Elsewhere, you sometimes see the player on the ball not just walk, but stop altogether.

Now it may be that Milan's problems are more local than endemic. Inter have yet to match the Champions League endeavours of Mourinho's previous teams, but look stronger again this season. And perhaps Liverpool's difficulties against Fiorentina were more to do with Fiorentina than Liverpool.

Regardless, the timing is perfect for new investors in Italy. For proposals are already in place for a new elite structure, modelled on the Premier League – and, critically, it will have collective television rights.

Maybe Berlusconi won't sell Milan. But not even he will last for ever – even if, or perhaps especially if, his 73-year-old heart still races so enthusiastically at the sight of a beautiful woman.

The club president, Florentino Perez, believes that a "brand" (urgh, excuse me) such as Real Madrid can make economic sense even of the deranged spending of last summer. If that is true of Real Madrid, it is also true of Milan. And anyone who could rescue Milan, and bring Serie A along for the ride, would be doing a genuine service to the beautiful game.

So what, if the adventure were only embraced as an ego trip? That seems pretty well compulsory nowadays. And it's not as if the concept would be new to Milan. It's just that there is no point in an ego trip that is going nowhere, fast.

Martinez the miracle worker deserves to conjure up a full house

After his eccentric turn at Wembley last week, Steve Bruce wasted no time in tightening that loose screw on Saturday. If his team were lucky to be awarded the only goal of the game against Liverpool, they were by no means lucky winners. And they had in turn been grievously unfortunate at Old Trafford in their previous game. Bruce is demonstrably an excellent manager, quickly making a big difference to his new club.

But then precisely the same must be said of his replacement at the club he abandoned for Sunderland last summer. Roberto Martinez (right) has so far had mixed results at Wigan, but anyone who witnessed their draw with Manchester City on Sunday will not permit one syllable of equivocation about his competence for the task.

Given their sparse resources, and the big names cashed in over the last year, it would be some achievement simply to keep Wigan up. But to do so while so scrupulously playing the right way would be the work of a meteor in the European game.

His men have not had long to adjust to Martinez, and duly managed to follow success against Chelsea with defeat against Hull. But it is already obvious what he wants them to do. This was a hybrid exhibition of pace, athleticism and panache. Even in the final minute, as they poured forward for a late winner, he could be seen rebuking a player who had hit a long cross over the bar. He held his hand out, parallel to the ground, and mouthed the single word: "Play."

In Mohamed Diame, he has confirmed the eye for a bargain that so distinguished him in his first post, at Swansea. Diame, dredged out of the Spanish second division, has amply filled the gap left by Lee Cattermole, who followed Bruce to Sunderland and is himself looking worth a place in Fabio Capello's squad for the Brazil friendly.

Now I know times are hard; Wigan is a relatively small town; and no fewer than seven other clubs offer Premier League entertainment in the North-west. But it seems wrong there should have been 5,000 empty seats at the DW Stadium. If at all feasible, in terms of distance, finance and conscience, get yourself there and support Martinez in this noble crusade. Some day, it will be like saying you saw the Beatles in Hamburg.

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