For football fans over a certain age there is no greater fall in modern football than what has happened in Italy during the past fifteen years. Serie A, the top division of Italian football, seemed like an unstoppable force throughout the 1990s.
Shown live on Channel 4 in the UK and Ireland every Sunday the league brought glamour and entertainment to a sport slowly emerging from the disasters of the 1980s and was a huge contributor to what football has become today. Serie A in the late nineties was, arguably, the greatest football league of all time.
Its downfall to its current position as Europe’s fourth ranked division in the UEFA coefficients table has been punctuated with bursts of renewed hope but has ultimately become a slow setting rot. It was all very different back in 1992 when Paul Gascoigne, undoubtedly England’s biggest football star of the time, signed for Lazio for £5,500,00.
Then, and for the rest of the decade, it looked like Serie A was untouchable. So many of the great names played such historic clubs. From the superstars like Zinedine Zidane and Roberto Baggio of Juventus to Ruud Gullit and Paolo Maldini of AC Milan, Diego Maradona of Napoli, Francesco Totti of Roma and Ronaldo at Inter Milan to the greats of the decade like Gianluca Costacurta, Ivan Zamorano, Guiseppe Signori, Gianfranco Zola, Daniel Fonseca, Roberto Donadoni and dozens, if not hundreds, more.
Six of the ten Ballon d’Or winners of the nineties came from Serie A, two of the other four signing for an Italian side the season after they won it. There never was a league line up like it and often it seemed like even a mid table Italian side would be a match for the champions of England, Spain, France or Germany.
So what happened? The short answer is poor management. The owners of Italian clubs in this era tended to treat them as an accessory and not as a business. The clubs rarely owned their own grounds and so allowed them to fall into disrepair by the end of the decade.
The World Cup in 1990 has kickstarted interest in the sport and pumped funding in to selected stadia but that had not been maintained. It meant little match day revenue for the clubs and an over-reliance on investment from the owners and TV money. It also meant the league flagged behind their counterparts when it came to corporate sponsorship and merchandise selling at matches.
As money began to pour in to football from new sources it flowed towards the more family friendly English Premier League or the powerhouses of Barcelona and Real Madrid in Spain instead.
Instead of being able to respond to a decline by following the German Bundesliga’s increased focus on the fan experience Serie A instead just had to hope their fans would stick with them. And they did, for the most part, until the Calciopoli match fixing scandal of 2006 erupted and threatened the league from a new angle.
The police investigation in to Serie A clubs leading up to the scandal had shown that numerous major Italian sides held cosy relationships with various referees. Major clubs like Juventus, AC Milan, Lazio and Fiorentina were all accused and found guilty of coercing the referees in to favouring their clubs during matches and given various punishments from fines to points deductions.
Juventus were stripped of their 2005 and 2006 league titles and automatically relegated to Serie B. Public confidence in the sport was severely harmed and it still has not fully recovered.
All of this happened in the wake of the world’s top players leaving Serie A for newer pastures. Ronaldo moved back to La Liga in 2002. Big name foreign players like George Weah, Didier Deschamps and Oliver Bierhoff all left and were never adequately replaced.
But it was in 2001 that the biggest indication of the shift of power came when Zidane, the world’s greatest player at the time, left Juventus for Real Madrid. For the first time in over a decade it could be said that the best players in the world weren’t flocking to Serie A from other clubs. They were instead leaving it for the reemerging superpowers in Spain or the new money clubs of England.
While Zidane’s exit from Juventus for the Santiago Bernabeu can be seen as the end of Serie A’s dominance and the approval of La Liga’s ousting of the league as the world’s top division there have been arguments that the subsequent decline of the league has been exaggerated.
In 2003, Italy produced the first ever Champions League final between two sides from one country. AC Milan would defeat Juventus in Manchester to lift the European Cup for the sixth time in their history and in 2007 they would capture it for a seventh.
Inter Milan would win it in 2010 on route to completing a historic treble of Serie A, Italian Cup and European Cup victories, the first Italian side to ever accomplish that feat.
But these victories only hid the growing divide between Serie A and its counterparts from England, Spain and Germany. Outside of those three victories there was only one other occasion when an Italian side made it to a Champions League final post-Zidane, when AC Milan lost to Liverpool in 2005.
In comparison, the English Premier League has sent eight representatives to the final in the same timeframe, La Liga six. More worrying is the nation’s performance in the Uefa Cup, now the Europa League. An Italian side hasn’t been to the final of the competition since Parma’s victory in 1999.
During the nineties, Serie A hosted six of the winners of the competition and the Uefa Cup also had three all-Italian finals, in 1991, 1995 and 1998. What was a surplus of great mid table sides has now fallen away completely and even the two current top clubs, Juventus and Roma, can barely make a dent in the Champions League.
But there is some hope that the league is slowly starting to get itself back in order. The success of Juventus’ move to a new stadium in 2011 has prompted other clubs to explore the same avenue. Udinese and Sassuolo are revamping their grounds whilst Roma plan on moving to a purpose stadium in the coming years.
New owners are starting to trickle in to the country from abroad, Roma have attracted American investors in recent years whilst Erick Thohir, an Indonesian businessman, purchased 70% of Inter Milan in 2013. Inter are now one of the most supported football sides in Asia and 60% of their fan base are said to come from the continent.
Television money also remains high, second only to the Premier League, so new investors could bring new expertise on running football clubs as businesses. The improved match day experience of new and revamped stadia would go a long way to generating more income for the entire league as well.
None of this may be able to recapture the league’s nineties glory days and push Serie A back to the pinnacle of club football but it might, at least, make it competitive again. Getting James Richardson back presenting a football highlights show on Channel 4 would be an added bonus.