Picture the scene. Man-chester United have settled on a fee with Leeds United for Rio Ferdinand. The defender has also agreed personal terms, and the deal is all set to go through. Then, out of the blue, a government commission suddenly steps in and cancels the transfer.
Seem far-fetched? Well, it happened in Italy last month, when three of Lazio's proposed summer moves – for the Chievo pair of Eriberto and Christian Manfredini as well as the Verona defender Massimo Oddo – were blocked.
Italian football's problems do not end there. Apart from the clubs' desperate lack of funds, the start of the Serie A season has been delayed because of a dispute over television rights. Not ideal conditions for the national manager, Giovanni Trapattoni, to prepare the Azzurri for the Euro 2004 qualifiers, which start against Azerbaijan next Saturday, particularly as he is under tremendous pressure after a disappointing World Cup.
The plight ofEnglish clubs who spent wildly beyond their means before the collapse of ITV Digital looks positively rosy by comparison. Where the Italian financial fiasco differs, though, is that it involves the top clubs. While Italian legislation ensured that no extravagance was permitted in the lower divisions, the powers that be tended to turn a blind eye to the dealings of the élite. Until the top 18 clubs declared an operating loss of 800m euros (£500m) for last year.
The most glaring oversight was that of Fiorentina. For years, the Florence club spent millions as they attempted to keep pace with the big guns. Massive debts were built up by the chairman, Vittorio Cecchi Gori, which only came to light as the team struggled on the pitch.
In many ways, Fiorentina's plight is a microcosm of the Italian malaise: successful on and off the field during the heady days of the Nineties – they knocked Arsenal out of the Champions' League just three years ago – they eventually ran out of steam.
Like all clubs at some time or another, Fiorentina hit a bad patch and discovered that their "success" had not been built on solid foundations. Once one of the country's most respected sides, they have been demoted to the Fourth Division, under the new name of Florentia Viola.
More clubs could follow them. According to the managing director of the Italian League, Giorgio Marchetti, clubs have "definitely been spending too much". "What is absolutely sure," he says, "is that Italian football is going through a terrible period. What we need right now is to put the clubs' financial demands under stricter control."
The best – or worst – example of the clubs' cavalier attitude was the case of Alvaro Recoba at Internazionale. Three years ago, Recoba was about to go out of contract, so he convinced the club chairman, Massimo Moratti, to grant him the fee plus wages (estimated at £45m) he might have commanded had he been a free agent. Recoba was handed £9m per season for five years. Not surprisingly, he has had to take a pay cut.
"There must be more sensible financial planning," Marchetti says, "and I hope that the clubs are now much more aware of the dangers of over-spending on players. I am quite sure that this will make clubs more careful."
Not that there will be much need for rules and regulations from a governing body if there is no football being played. The start to the new season has been delayed by at least two weeks, with the first ball of the 2002-03 campaign due to be kicked on 15 September. No one, though, is holding their breath.
The crux of the problem is that eight of the smaller Serie A clubs are still without pay-per-view television deals for the season. Bigger clubs, such as Juventus, have signed a £34.5m contract, but the smaller clubs have had to join forces to negotiate. The eight rebels without a deal have rejected an offer of £3.3m per club. They want £6.4m. The highlights package of £28.8m offered by RAI, the state broadcaster, has also been turned down.
The dispute has become so serious that the Italian government has been forced to intervene. They ordered the FIGC, the Italian Football Association, to hold a meeting tomorrow to resolve the problem.
Something tells you that this football-mad country will not be crazy enough to kill the game it loves. In fact, Marchetti even believes that Italy will emerge from their current crisis stronger than ever.
"History shows that everything works in cycles," he says. "Italian football had a bright period at the start of the Nineties, now it is not so good. But don't worry, it will get better again soon."
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