For a certain generation of football fan – and one to which I undoubtedly belong – the highlight of a Saturday morning was watching James Richardson present Football Italia. The thrill of watching the cream of world football talent playing at exotic sounding clubs like Internazionale, Fiorentina and Juventus left a lasting impression on a football fan at such an impressionable age. Players like Alessandro Del Piero, Alessandro Nesta and Gabriel Batistuta were the heroes who lit up the world’s most exciting league and grabbed the headlines across Europe.
During this time Italian clubs were some of the most feared in Europe. Juventus reached the Champions League final four times in eight seasons, winning it once and losing to fellow Italian giants AC Milan on another occasion. Serie A could poach the best talent from across Europe, such as Ronaldo’s transfer from Barcelona to Inter in 1997, and players changed hands between Italian clubs at eye-watering prices. In fact, Serie A clubs broke the world transfer fee record no less than seven times between 1990 and 2000, culminating in Hernan Crespo’s £35.5 million move from Parma to Lazio.
It’s fairly upsetting, therefore, to see the position that Serie A is now in: a distant fourth amongst European leagues by all measurable standards. English fans may have been disappointed by the performance of Premier League clubs in the past few season of the Champions League, but Italian clubs have fared even worse. Since AC Milan won the tournament in 2007, Serie A clubs have made up just five of the 48 teams to reach the quarter-final stage of the competition. Serie A lost its fourth Champions League spot to the Bundesliga in 2011, and if PSG continue to impress in Europe and are joined by fellow big spenders AS Monaco, it could yet fall behind Ligue 1 in UEFA’s rankings.
So where did it all go wrong for Italian football? And are there any signs that Serie A could be on the way back up after a decade in the doldrums?
The watershed moment in Italian football’s decline was undoubtedly the Calciopoli scandal of 2006. Five Serie A clubs, most notably Juventus, were implicated in a far-reaching corruption and match rigging by selecting favourable referees. The Turin club were stripped of two titles and relegated to Serie B, whilst other clubs also received more lenient points deductions. Juventus’ miraculous recovery since 2006 masks the true impact of the Calciopoli; the complete loss of integrity and faith in Italian football.
Calciopoli has hung like a shadow over Italian football for almost a decade, but the decline had begun before the scandal broke in 2006. The cracks began to appear during the era of big spending, as the league’s big names competed fiercely for vital Champions League spots. It made for a fabulously competitive league, but eventually proved financially unsustainable for a number of clubs. Between 2002 and 2004. Lazio, Fiorentina and Parma all suffered humiliating collapses after financial scandals involving their millionaire owners left them with crippling debts. All three were forced to sell their star players. Fiorentina and Parma were actually forced to dissolve and reform under different names in lower divisions.
The outcome of this widespread financial mismanagement was the exodus of some of the league’s best talent, with players like Lazio’s Juan Sebastian Veron and Parma’s Adrian Mutu leaving for the Premier League. Those that remained were snapped up by the remaining big clubs in Serie A, including Gabriel Batistuta, who left Fiorentina to help Roma win the Scudetto, and Alessandro Nesta, who broke Lazio fans’ hearts by opting to join AC Milan. Calciopoli accelerated this process, prompting many of Juventus’ star men, including Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Lilian Thuram and Fabio Cannavaro. deciding to leave the club rather than play in Serie B.
The result of this was to send Italian football into a spiral of decline. Since Calciopoli, Serie A has struggled to attract the calibre of players to rival Europe’s top leagues. Some of the league’s biggest names have departed for bigger pay checks and the opportunity to achieve glory abroad. PSG’s poaching of Serie A’s finest talents is symbolic of the shifting power in European football. The Paris club brought no less than nine players, including Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Edinson Cavani and Javier Pastore, across the Alps to play in France since the oil money started rolling in.
And it’s not just the players who have been staying away.: match attendance has also been anemic for a number of seasons. Italian football is known for its passionate fans and conjures up images of stadium flares and incredible choreographed displays by groups of Ultras. However, the reality is of half-empty stadiums, with the majority of clubs averaging between 45 and 60% attendance last season. Its certainly not high prices that are keeping fans at home; the average cheapest price of a season ticket is around half that of the Premier League and lower even than the Bundesliga, the highest attended league in Europe.
Low attendance is down to a number of factors. Firstly, the financial mismanagement and match fixing scandals eroded fans’ trust and emotional investment in the clubs they support, leaving considerable disillusionment. Equally important is the aging infrastructure and lingering spectre of hooligan culture amongst a minority of fans, which has served to put off more moderate sections of support. Many teams in Serie A play in crumbling all-purpose stadia that have become increasingly unfashionable in modern football due to their tendency to distance the fans from the players. It’s no co-incidence that Juventus, who filled by far the highest percentage of their stadium last season (93.8%), recently moved to a brand new, purpose built stadium.
This cycle of decline may seem inescapable, but there is light at the end of the tunnel for Serie A. TV revenues declined with the fortunes of the rest of the league, but now they have started to pick up again. This season the league earned approximately € 840 million from TV rights, putting it second only to the Premier League in TV revenue. With foreign markets still relatively untapped by Italian football this figure is set only to rise. Helped by a relatively fair revenue distribution system, the injection of cash will hopefully mean the league can become more competitive, both amongst its own teams and in terms of European competition. Italy may soon be capable once again of attracting world-class talent.
One unexpected positive to come out of Serie A’s decline is a new focus on youth development. During the boom years, clubs shelled out huge sums to bring in readymade foreign talents in order to challenge for Champions League football. But in recent years teams have been forced to look closer to home and both big and small clubs have invested significantly in their youth facilities. This has been beneficial for the national team, as exciting young players like Juventus’ Sebastian Giovinco, Milan’s Stephan El Sharawaay and Napoli’s Lorenzo Insigne have all gained invaluable experience and had the opportunity to develop in their club first teams where in previous years they may have been overlooked.
Italian football is showing signs of recovery and is doing it the right way, by going back to its grassroots and not squeezing every last penny out of its fans. The story of the decline of Serie A should be a warning to the rest of Europe about how unsustainable spending based on individual heavyweight financial backers can be a dangerous path to tread. The definite proof that Italian football has the potential to recover is that the very clubs that suffered worst in the period of decline – Juventus, Fiorentina and Lazio – made it through financial and corruption scandals and quickly returned to the very top of Serie A. Restoring the league to the pinnacle of Europe will be an even tougher task, but the spirit to do so is undoubtedly still there.