Italy’s northern dominance and why it could be broken this season

Italians often describe their country as being split in two, north and south. Outsiders find it hard to believe that a country can have such contrasting customs and values depending what end of the ‘stivale’ one finds themselves in, but the origin of this cultural divide dates back centuries.

For a country so rich in history, it won’t come as a surprise that past events are still defining elements of Italy’s present society. Unification only occurred in the 19th century, and a glance at a map of Italy before this date shows a striking resemblance with what the average Italian would describe their country as now. Divided, then still in multiple pieces, although with an evident line separating the south, known then as the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, and the north, still formed out of several different kingdoms at the time.

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A swift jump back to the present day proves that this divide still exists, although only in the thoughts and feelings of the people of Italy. However, its effects spread far beyond merely the geographical and cultural aspects of Italian history. The same split applies to another core idea of Italian culture, a valuable national treasure that defines the lifestyle of Italy’s inhabitants and a sport that conquered the lands and people of Italy over 100 years ago: football.

The late Diego Armando Maradona sums up this concept as if he had lived his entire life on the streets of Naples, in which he holds God-like status after his seven years at the club. In an interview with journalist Daniel Arcucci, talking of his years in the southern Italian city, Maradona recalls: “it was north against south, the racists against the poor ”. With an honest phrase, he puts a geographical divide into a sociocultural context, and although the stereotypes he quotes are exaggerated for effect, they paint a painfully accurate representation of what Italian culture was back then and what it still is to this day.

The facts are clear. Southern Italy has never been better at football than northern Italy. Of the 118 official league titles won, only 8 were picked up by southern Italian teams, and that is counting Roma and Lazio. Without them, the scudetti won by southern teams are 3, with Napoli having won the Serie A twice, both times with Maradona leading the line and Cagliari once, back in 1970, led by the legendary Gigi Riva. Even counting the Roman clubs, the last scudetto won by a non-northern team was in the 2000/01 season, when Fabio Capello guided Roma to the third title in their history. Since then only Juventus, Inter and Milan have been successful in the Serie A.

As said, the stereotypes used by Maradona are hyperbolic, but their core idea, being a stark contrast between the arrogant north and the poor south, is highlighted not only in the football played by the clubs in the different regions, but also by the results they have achieved during their history. Where any club can be poor and any fanbase can be arrogant and hubristic, historical context as well common belief has segregated Italian clubs, putting them in a box-like place, where escaping and becoming part of a new group is nearly impossible.

Like with all football, history has defined and developed the Italian game. Economic and infrastructural development as well as the gap in social status between the two parts of Italy has always favoured clubs from the north. This is highlighted, for example, by the great investment of Italian car manufacturer FIAT into Juventus, a financial operation that started in 1923 and that is still intertwined with the running of the club, through the Agnelli family. In contrast, southern clubs have mainly struggled through their history, with most battling in the lower spots or lower leagues more often than battling for the title. Excluding the two Roman teams, the southern clubs with the most appearances in the top flight are Napoli (77), Cagliari (42), Bari (30) and Palermo (29), meagre numbers considering 13 northern clubs have 30 appearances or more. This anomalous occurrence of a lack of southern representation reached its present-day peak in the early 2000’s with several seasons being played with only one southern Italian team present.

Overall, the average percentage of southern Italian teams in a Serie A season is 16.6%, coming out at an average of about 3.32 teams in a 20 team season. In relation to other top European leagues, this trend is unheard of. England, Spain, Germany and France all find themselves with a much more even spread of footballing success, with an obvious concentration of titles in one or two areas, but by no means as condensed as in Italy.

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With that being said, this season has so far provided fresh hope for fans wanting a change from the clear northern dominance in Italian football. At the time of writing Napoli sit top of the Serie A, having dropped only four points so far. They’ve scored 25 goals in ten games, coming at an average of 2.5 goals a game, and have only conceded nine. An effective yet slightly overlooked transfer window during the summer has been the foundation for the excellent form they’ve been in. Attempting to cut costs, especially in player wages, Napoli rejuvenated its squad by letting go of several ageing icons. Club captain and legend Lorenzo Insigne left for the Major League Soccer after terms on a new contract weren’t agreed upon. Fan favourite Kalidou Koulibaly was sold to Chelsea, talented midfielder Fabián Ruiz left for Paris Saint-Germain, while players like Dries Mertens, David Ospina, Kévin Malcuit and Faouzi Ghoulam were also let go for free. It was a bitter pill to swallow for Napoli fans, who were witnessing the squad that had battled Inter and Milan for the title in the previous season being dismantled.

However, great efforts and possibly a few strokes of luck brought in the perfect replacements, improving the squad as well as achieving the club’s aim of lowering the wage bill. Frank Anguissa’s loan was made permanent, Mathías Oliver replaced Ghoulam, Giacomo Raspadori and Giovanni Simeone were brought in to cover for the loss of Mertens and Victor Osimhen’s injury proneness and Leo Östigrad, Tanguy Ndombele and Salvatore Sirigu were bought to plug the gaps. Fittingly, however, the two most exciting transfers were those made to replace the two biggest departing club icons. Min-jae Kim came in from Fenerbahce to replace Koulibaly and has already won the Serie A player of the month award for September and Kvicha Kvaratskhelia, who took home the August player of the month award, was tasked with helping fans forget about Insigne. In just over two months he’s done exactly that, scoring five goals and providing three assists in the league and carrying all of Napoli’s fan’s title hopes on his shoulders, already being dubbed as Kvaradona.

Another potential contender to break this northern dominance is Roma. They’ve started off inconsistently, but they’re into Mourinho’s famous second season, with a European trophy in the bag and an excellent transfer window to build upon. After ten games they’ll be happy to be just four points behind Napoli, because performances, more than results, haven’t been the best. Seven wins, one draw and two defeats puts them at 22 points, ahead of both Inter and Juventus, but an unlucky 1-0 loss to Atalanta and a 4-0 thrashing at the hands of Udinese leaves fans wishing for more. As said, performances on a whole have been poor, and every win bar one has come with only a one goal advantage. In contrast to last season, goals have been very hard to come by, with Tammy Abraham only managing two and summer signing Andrea Belotti not yet off the mark in the Serie A. Starboys Lorenzo Pellegrini and Nicolo Zaniolo have also struggled, with only one penalty goal between the two of them. The scoring duties have so far rested on the shoulders of Paulo Dybala and, surprisingly, Chris Smalling. Between them they’ve scored eight of Roma’s 12 league goals. Last season’s security at the back has also vanished, with an average of nearly one goal per game being conceded.

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However, the media and possibly the stats rate Roma quite harshly. Their inconsistent form has been highlighted by their Europa League results but 22 points in the league, having already played Juventus, Inter and Atalanta, is by no means an underwhelming achievement. Performances have fluctuated greatly, but a superb summer transfer window led by sporting director Tiago Pinto has allowed Mourinho and Roma fans to dream of a top spot. Similarly to Napoli, Roma tried to go about their business in a way that would save money, an objective that was achieved both in the spending on transfer fees and on player wages, with many redundant players being moved on. Only €8.5 million was spent over the summer, to buy Zeki Çelik and loan Mady Camara. Georginio Wijnaldum was brought in on loan with an option to buy and the window was completed with the signings of four players on a free transfer; namely Nemaja Matić, Andrea Belotti, reserve keeper Mile Svilar and starman Paulo Dybala. Luck, however, has not been on Roma’s side, with three of these signings, including both Wijnaldum and Dybala, having picked up injuries which will keep them out until next year. The dreams remain alive though and Roma fans will be hoping that the collective will prove stronger than the individuals, and that Mourinho can help guide them to the top, even in these rough times.

Sadly, the wider issue remains. With Napoli, Roma and possibly Lazio having a shot at the title this season, Italy’s northern dominance could be broken, but it will not be ended. Although we live in a developed world, fairness and equality can never be achieved. Over a century has passed since this northern domination started, yet we still find ourselves in a similar situation. Football in the south of Italy is in a pitiful state. Investors over the years have rarely ventured down south, preferring to invest in a club in a more stable economic and social condition and geographical area. Over 50 southern clubs have gone bankrupt in the last 20 years, including big clubs like Palermo, Catania and Bari in recent seasons. The reasons for this inability of southern clubs to gain success run far deeper than what can be covered in this article, but put simply, the south’s loss is the north’s gain and unfavourable and possibly unfair rules within the Italian football pyramid have led us to this stage.

A change at the top of the Serie A would be interesting this season, but wider alterations to rules and regulations will be required if the south is ever to recover and step up to be on par with the north. And, sadly for the unity and spirit of the Italian game, change is nowhere to be found.

The Author

Lorenzo van Aaken

Football enthusiast and diehard Roma fan

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