The departure to the Premiership of internationals such as Fabrizio Ravanelli and Roberto Di Matteo, preceded by Gianluca Vialli - who, in the last two seasons had been the emblem of revival at Juventus - has changed this perspective. And now Italians are convinced that English football clubs are rich, very rich. We will soon see whether they have also been stupid.
The first wave of emigrants with first-class tickets, a product of the Bosman case, has filled Italy with two sensations: one of losing some of the leading lights of their national sport and one of being a nation that now thinks of business and not just of fun. The most telling case is that of Fabrizio Ravanelli, sold to Middlesbrough for 18 billion lire (pounds 7m). Ravanelli had cost a little over 4 billion when his transfer from Reggiana in 1992 was eased through by a telephone call from Walter Veltroni, a PDS politician and vice-president of the Council in the present Prodi government, to the then president of Reggiana, Ermete Fiaccadori. Veltroni is an ardent Juventus supporter and Fiaccadori was also president of Coop, the co-operative tied to the former Italian Communist Party.
The sale of Ravanelli - who scored the decisive goal in the European Cup final against Ajax in Rome last May - would in the past have been seen by Juventus supporters as the greatest of betrayals. But these days, faced by such an offer, no one had second thoughts about taking such a money-making opportunity: neither supporters nor the media.
This players' diaspora could be an opportunity to transform Italy's provincial footballing mentality: having players abroad and watching leagues as competitive or more so than the Italian league might dispel the illusion that Italian football is the best in the world. Nigeria's victory in the Olympic tournament underlined how it is no longer enough to have a tradition, such as Italy, Brazil and Germany have, for being No 1.
For England it could on the other hand be the chance to enrich the technical vocabulary of their own footballers. Silvio Berlusconi's Milan became a superpower through their technical and tactical superiority, but also and above all through the professionalism and the example of the Dutch trio of Ruud Gullit, Marco van Basten and Frank Rijkaard.
Vialli, Ravanelli and Di Matteo: three footballers of national importance, and three very different cases. The Vialli move is a fruit of the Bosman case, in that he was released on a free transfer. Juventus had anyhow decided not to count on him for the future. His fee for re-signing was too high, especially given the team's cost-cutting policy.
Ravanelli was a market-driven move in the old manner: once upon a time it was the Italians who would commit any madness to get their hands on a proven goalscorer - now it is the English. It is not a case of the Italian football market having changed course: nowadays they still look for young players from abroad, such as Kanu for Internazionale.
Di Matteo is, for Italian followers of the game, the real blow: he is a young player who does not look on moving to England as a way of making do (Ravanelli has said more often than not that, had it been left to him, he would never have left Juventus), and who occupies a midfield position on which the tempo and rhythm of the whole national team depends. He is an Italian international at the height of his powers and, like his partner in the team, Demetrio Albertini, one with a guaranteed future.
Di Matteo is thus the most surprising inclusion in this exodus: Italian teams should not have let him escape. But the reality of football is often more complex than it at first appears. Juventus, in recent years, have sold Roberto and Dino Baggio, Vialli and Ravanelli, Jurgen Kohler and Andy Moller, and yet have won the championship, the Champions' Cup, and the Uefa Cup.
Manchester United and Newcastle have bought and spent as hard as they can, but have made no progress in Europe. The superiority of Italian clubs over these English ones may reside, in the end, in matters of organisation and in details. One example could be in players' physical preparation. The impression, seen from abroad, is that English teams have yet to assimilate the importance of finding specific and different training programmes for each player.
Juventus believed so strongly in this that their fitness trainer, Giampiero Ventrone, a former Italian naval officer, was as important as, if not more than, one of their top players. The same applied at Berlusconi's Milan where the fitness trainer, Vincenzo Pincolini, was prevented from leaving by the president himself: he wanted to move to Parma, but the red and black team would have more happily given up Weah or Roberto Baggio.
The Italians, on the other hand, envy England with all their hearts its contracts for television rights. In these England has found an Eldorado, where the renaissance of English football started. But in Italy the relationship between football and television has always been governed by political battles and handled by people with little professional involvement in the game. The last negotiations for the sale of all television rights for all Italian football was absolutely grotesque. Vittorio Cecchi Gori, the president of Fiorentina and a leading figure in the Italian film industry, surpassed but failed to cover financially the offer made by RAI, the state television channel.
Perhaps the next development will be in the market for football managers. The Italians would come out on top in the championship for bank balances and, in this case, Italy would once again bring home the spoils from foreign tournaments.
Comparisons between Italy and England will be a fraught subject again during qualification for the 1998 World Cup in France. The new qualifying formula does not guarantee that both teams qualify directly: one of the two, assuming that they should finish above Poland, Georgia and Moldova, will have to go to a play-off to qualify. In Italy before the recent European Championship, few would have feared a qualifying group with England as the main adversary. For too many years the England team had disappointed at international level.
But Euro 96 changed the perspective. England went a long way, reaching the semi-finals before losing on penalties to Germany, while Italy went out in the first round. For the Azzurri this setback may have been of long-term benefit: there is no team like the Italians for excelling themselves in adversity and losing when in a position of safety. The match against the Czech Republic, in Liverpool, was the best example of this.
Italian opinion of the England team was also raised by Paul Ince's performance in the championship. The Internazionale midfielder started off badly and the critics had jumped on his back: "A typical English player, capable only of an aggressive, technique-free, game". But Ince, in the second half of Euro 96, had showed himself to be an excellent player. He will never be a Maradona, but no one in Italy can any longer doubt his quality. And if Ince can be Glenn Hoddle's "spy" on how the Italians play, so Di Matteo and Ravanelli will now be able to even things out.
Luca Valdiserri writes for Corriere della SeraReuse content