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.

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