The death of Italian football?

Anyone who follows Italian football knows that it can take you on a roller coaster ride from epic highs to frustratingly frustrating lows, it is part of what makes it interesting, the dramas away from the game, the glamour and the scandal. But with the game modernising at a frightening pace and huge sums of money now flooding into the sport across the globe the Italian game now appears to have crossed a tipping point and is quickly sliding down the steep slope to anonymity.

The last hurrah? It might be some time before another Italian team lifts the Champions League with only Juventus appearing most anywhere near capable. 

Twenty years ago you could watch Italian football and be sure that you would be able to see some of the world’s foremost stars in their peak lighting up the stage. Italian teams were at the pinnacle and to play for Inter, Juventus or Milan was to have made it. Players of the ilk of Zidane, Baggio, Matthaus, van Basten and Ronaldo bought flair, fire and fame to a league that was rightly rated one of the best in the world. Come 2013 however, and things are very different. Serie A is sick, possibly terminally so. The leagues biggest stars are fleeing quicker than the rats on the titanic. In the last year alone major stars Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Lavezzi, Thiago Silva, Wesley Sneijder, Maicon and Pato have all departed the peninsula joining others such as Balotelli, Eto’o, Veratti and Pastore, amongst others, who are fleeing to other leagues across the continent. Now, many of these transfers were made for vast sums of money and were simply too good to refuse. Every club has been in the position where their star player has been targeted by another club and a huge offer has been made for a transfer. This does not necessarily mean that a league is falling apart, simply that the market is working as it was designed.

Edison Cavani: One of the biggest stars left in Serie A, but for how long?

Unfortunately this is not what is happening in the Serie A at the moment.

Clubs are virtually giving away their players to try and balance books that have been ignored for decades, gross mismanagement over an extended period is being revealed and clubs that were ‘big’ are now finding out that they are in fact quite small on the global scale. Take Inter Milan for instance. Only a few years ago they were on a Mourinho inspired crest that took them to the top of Europe and the world. They had a world class squad with cover in every position and appeared on the verge of a dynasty. Three years later the dynasty lies crumbled at the feet of the bemused owner, Massimo Moratti, a self proclaimed fan and oil baron. Gross mismanagement and ineptitude has seeped through every layer of the club leaving is struggling to maintain its place near the top of a decidedly average Serie A pile. At the time of the Champions League triumph the club knew that rules dictating financial responsibility were coming in but instead of renewing the squad there and then when the clubs ageing stars were at their most valuable and ensuring that the club’s long term future at the top of the Italian and European game was secure, he stalled. He acted like a fan and kept the team intact, despite clear evidence that many of the players were either on the decline or no longer motivated. Opportunities to bring in some of the brightest stars in the game were squandered because of this and only two years later with Financial Fair Play regulations about to be implemented Inter Milan were left with an old, overpaid, under-performing squad. Compounding this was the fact that many of the clubs brightest youth prospects were sold or allowed to leave. With little other option the club were forced to cancel the contracts of Lucio and Julio Cesar, who only a couple of years earlier would have bought in 20 to 30 million euros, sold Maicon for 4 millions euros when he would have been worth 30 million two years earlier, and most recently sold Wesley Sneijder, rated as one of the top three players in the world only a couple of years earlier, for 8 million euros, when only a year earlier the club was offered 30 million euro for his services. The club now has a playing roster that is impressive only by how ordinary it is, a roster that will only be weakened by the impending sale of its brightest young star Philippe Coutinho, who only six months ago was rated one of the best young players in the world and who President Moratti hailed as the ‘future of Inter’.

A fan not a manager: Massimo Moratti has failed to provide a long term strategy for Inter Milan and the club are suffering for it. Unfortunately the situation is not uncommon in Serie A.

This extreme mismanagement however, is not just confined to Internazionale. It can be found in virtually every team in the league be it Palermo, Milan, Roma, Genoa or Siena. Even the Italian Football Federation, the FIGC, is well regarded for its incompetence, its inability to modernise or rid itself of rampant cronyism. Like the country itself Italian football is stuck in a cycle of favouritism where what is done is not done for the good of the game but for personal gain and favour. Much needed modernising has been pushed aside in favour of the status quo and constant bickering between the powerful individuals and their cliques has led to stalemates and resentment. Long term planning and objectives to see the game regain its place at the top table of world football have been pushed aside for short term quick fixes and temporary bandages over gaping wounds. Unfortunately these bandages are no longer hiding the damage from the rest of the footballing world and what lies beneath is shocking.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic: Former Juventus, Inter and Milan star now plys his trade at PSG, just one of the many stars to have left the Italian peninsula recently.

Two years ago Italy lost its fourth Champions League spot to Germany, pushing it into the second tier of European football. At the time strong words were issued about how Italy would be back and how things would turn around but a quick look at the league today suggests a completely different scenario. Stadia remains decrepit, crumbling concrete behemoths often only filled to a small percentage of their capacity; gangs of hooligans, or Ultras, bring a vibrancy and noise to the grounds but also scare off many families and normal supporters who do not want to be part of the abusive and often hateful chanting and behaviour; whiles stars, both young and old are looking to other leagues to make their name as the lure and wealth of the Serie A diminishes. Perhaps the clearest indication of this is the case of Gaston Ramirez. At Bologna he was hailed as a champion, a future star. A number of top clubs ran the rule over the young winger and the rumour mill was running hot with talk of Juventus, Inter, Madrid, PSG. Instead of making the step to one of Italy’s top clubs however, Ramirez chose a completely different route. Newly promoted English club Southampton snapped him up for around 12 million pounds beating out the so called super powers of the Serie A , something that would have never happened a decade ago. This is happening up and down the peninsula as the Serie A’s brightest stars choose to leave for wealthier and more appealing leagues, and there seems little to suggest that anything will change any time soon.

Gaston Ramirez chose to move to Premier league newboys Southampton instead of one of the Serie A ‘superpowers’

At the moment Serie A is rated fourth in UEFA’s co-efficient rankings for the top leagues in Europe behind  La Liga, the Premiership and the Bundesliga and looking at these three leagues it is clear that they will not be gaining on them any time soon. Just behind them are Ligue One and the Primiera Liga with the Ukraine, Dutch and Russian leagues all further back. Although things are comfortable at the moment in this second tier holding three Champions Leagues spots, the long term perspective is far from comforting. Ligue One is on the up on the back of the financial boom at PSG, which should improve the quality of the league as a whole long term, and superior club management than Serie A; while the wolves from the east in the form of the Russian and Ukrainian leagues are both getting richer and more competitive. It is only a matter of time before they turn this into consistent results in European competition at the expense of Italy’s diminishing returns. There is a real danger that within a few seasons the Serie A will away completely.

Half empty stadiums are more the norm than the exception in Italy as fans stay away in droves.

So what can be done to prevent this? Well there are some obvious things. New stadia for one to improve the fan and viewer experience; stricter control over the hooligan element to make the game more family friendly; more competent management in the example of Udinese who have managed to remain highly competitive despite operating on a strict budget; abolishing the culture of cronyism that plagues the league and prevents it moving forward; and some sort of planning that is for the long term good of the league. If it is to remain competitive on a European level it needs serious surgery which will require some cutting, some breaks,  some hurt, and a painful healing period but in the long term it will lead to a healthy and strong patient not a banged up bandage riddled corpse.

What happened to Inter Milan’s youth policy?

Only a few months ago, with the appointment of Andrea Strammaccioni as Inter Milan’s new head coach, there was a promise made to Inter Milan fans. A promise that youth would be finally allowed to flourish at the Milan based club after years of neglect. A promise that seems to have been left in the dust as the search for a top three finish heats up.

Rodrigo Palacio has been good but at 30 was he really a solution for an Inter supposedly looking toward youth?

In the wake of the almost unbelievable success in the NextGen series by Inter’s often unheralded youth academy there seemed to be a long awaited for change in the wind. The victory seemed to finally convince Massimo Moratti of a new course. Financial Fair Play meant that he could no longer bank roll the club’s marquis signings and efforts was now needed in not only identifying bargains in the transfer market but also nurturing the  players that were coming through the academy. The signing of youth team coach Andrea Stramaccioni as the first team coach was the first indication of this new policy. It was an appointment that would have been unthinkable only a few years ago but it symbolised a new chapter for Inter. A new beginning.

Leonardo Bonucci in Juve colours. He should have been the centrepiece for Inter’s defence for a decade. 

Many of the club legends, the Brazilian triumvirate of Julio Cesar, Maicon and Lucio among them, were shipped out, relieving the team of a massive financial burden and the clubs fans looked forward to signing some of the brightest young talents in the game. Players who would compliment the core of senior players who would remain but also who would not hinder the development of the players coming through. Instead we got another batch of players either in their prime or about to go past it. Don’t get me wrong some of these signings were excellent and much needed but in terms of long term strategy seemed completely wrong. Going through them highlights the lack of thought:

Tommaso Rocchi: The latest indication that Inter are not prepared to ‘gamble’ on youth but trust experience

Rodrigo Palacio (30) was bought in for 10 million, seemingly because he had been a target for years. He has been solid and scored goals but has also missed a lot. He also plays in a position that Inter have many younger players available in (Coutinho, Alvarez, Bessa to name a few). He will have a very small, if any resale value.

Fredy Guarin (26) also cost about 10 million euros and despite some less than flattering performances early on has settled into an attacking midfield roll and looks good, although I still harbour doubts about his mental ability to remain focussed for an entire match. Looks to be a decent signing.

Matias Silvestre (27): A player bought in to shore up the defence and has looked completely out of his league. Thankfully only bought in on loan. Responsible for several Chivuesque blunders and will leave when his loan expires. For me took valuable playing time from younger players.

Samir Handanovic (27): Perhaps the best signing we made, massively reduced salary in comparisons to Cesar’s and has not let anyone down. At 27 still has at least 7 good years in front of him and good resale value.

Gaby Mudingayi (30): Another loan signing. Physical and tough has been excellent when playing and added much needed steel to the midfield. Inter’s worst run also coincided with his injury layoff. Still at 30 offers no resale value and maybe 2 good seasons max. A team looking to the future would probably looked elsewhere.

Antonio Cassano (29): Another player who has impressed and whom we actually got paid to bring in! On his own a great signing but when combined with Palacio simply removed most avenues for young players to get regular time.

Walter Gargano (27): In on loan and has not let anyone down. But another player in his peak rather than one for the future. Will simply force another young talent out on loan.

Alvaro Pereira (26): A decent age, has been inconsistent and at the moment seems a fairly uninspiring signing. Could come good but the next two or three seasons will be vital. Doesn’t look like a future world beater to me.

Tommaso Rocchi (34): Bought in to add depth to the squad and has already seen more game time than most youth players. To me shows that Inter are still stuck in the old ways.

Philippe Coutinho: A little over a year ago was heralded as one of the world’s top young players but now appears on the outer at Inter

So no players under 26 bought in despite this apparent push for youth. What is more worrying is that not only are Inter persisting in bringing in older players of a lesser quality than in years gone by but they are looking to offload some of their best young players to fund it. Rumours are rife that both Ricky Alvarez and Philippe Coutinho are in line to be sold to fund other purchases, joining the long line of talent wasted by Inter in years past including Andrea Pirlo, Leonardo Bonucci, Mattias Destro, Davide Santon and Mario Balotelli amongst others. I can imagine seeing young Coutinho, a player of undoubted quality, turning up at some point at Barcelona heralded as one of the world’s top players, leaving the world to turn its attention once more to Inter and wonder, ‘what were you thinking?’

Mattias Destro now playing for Roma was a star at youth level and always destined to succeed.

Unfortunately Inter appear unwilling to allow a young player the same leeway that the older more experienced players are gifted. After all who can count the amount of blunders Chivu has made in the defence, blunders that have cost the team vitally important matches, yet he continues to bounce around in an Inter shirt putting in tackles better suited to the UFC; then there is Milito, a great striker but one who, when off form, could fill a blooper reel with his misses; Palacio too has had some shocking misses while Jonathan appears more at home in the wilderness than a football pitch he is so lost. Still these players are given chance after chance. The youth of Inter; Coutinho, Lavaja et al, one mistake and it is back to the bench.

Marko Livaja: A player highly regarded but pushed further down the pecking order by the arrival of Rocchi.

If Inter want to move forward, if they want to continue to compete on the highest level, they have to learn to have faith in their players. Young players need confidence and playing time and if given both they will flourish. A perfect example is el Shaarawy. With Zlatan at the club chances were at a premium and many questioned if he was up to standard, once the Swede left the youngster was given regular playing time and has repaid the faith and then some. Coutinho too proved a revelation when on loan at Espanyol and bought back to Inter a renewed confidence. After a promising start to the season however, this soon evaporated and he is now likely to be sold. Barcelona has been rewarding talent for the last 7 years, most German clubs are prepared to throw their young talent into the mix early, even many English clubs are now getting involved. It is time for Inter to join them, after all this youth academy won the NextGen series against some of the best academies around, the talent is there to be harnessed but the willingness to harness it must also be there or Inter’s Primavera will become the feeder for some of the world’s biggest clubs and Inter’s fans will have to continue watching their youngsters plying their trade for rivals. Inter need to bite the bullet and give some of these guys a chance on a regular basis, trust in their ability and maintain that trust even if they struggle to begin with. Failing to do this will see the club struggle to maintain its place in the top tier of world football.