The false revival of Italian football

While the 90’s is often remembered as the era of baggy clothing, bucket hats, and boy bands, Italian football fans will know it as the time that calcio ruled the world. 

The level of dominance has yet to be recreated. In just ten years, Italian teams brought home 13 European cups, and appeared in 26 European finals. The “big three” of Milan, Inter, and Juventus spearheaded the way, while the likes of Parma, Sampdoria, and Lazio also found a spot amongst Europe’s elite. 

They revelled in the same cycle that enhances the Premier League, a snowball effect of success that leads to more success. Calcio’s prestigious reputation enticed the world’s best players, and with a warchest of money, affording them was no issue. Six transfer records and six different Ballon d’Or winners were home to Serie A in the 90s, with much of the competition for both coming from domestic competitors. 

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While the success of this era would be hard to follow by any metric, the Italian top flight has since fallen far off Europe’s best. Following a 2010s characterised by unchallenged Juventus dominance and underwhelming European campaigns, Serie A has dropped to fourth in the league coefficient rankings. 

A renaissance has been long awaited, and many believe this season it’s finally beginning. 

With an Italian club reaching each European final, and five of the twelve semi-finalists hailing from the boot-shaped peninsula, there is a growing sentiment that “calcio is back,” so much so that the statement-turned-slogan has been marketed by Serie A itself.

While the claim has been somewhat stifled by Italian clubs losing each final, it’s still more appropriate than ever. The last time a country had three teams in three major European finals was when Italian clubs did so in 1990. 

Domestically, the competition is just as fruitful. Napoli’s surprise Scudetto marked the fourth different Serie A winner in four years. Out of all leagues ranked in UEFA’s top ten, Italy’s top flight is the only one to have such a variety. 

The rediscovered success shines as a glimmer of hope for the future. Yet, when looking at it from a broader scope, there’s an uneasiness that’s hard to shake. 

In retrospect, it feels all too reminiscent of Italy’s Euro 2020 victory. The achievements weigh differently, but the juxtaposition is the same — Italian football appears to reclaim its throne, only for a myriad of issues to be buried underneath the foundation it stands on. 

Perhaps this can be epitomized by the “Plusvalenza” scandal, or more popularly recognized as the Juventus point deduction clown show. Following an investigation on Juve’s capital gains,  the Italian Football Federation (FIGC) found it just to deduct 15 points from La Vecchia Signora, sending them from third to tenth in the Serie A table. 

What followed was a rollercoaster ride through the standings, with Juve’s 15 points returned a few weeks later, then ten points deducted with two weeks left in the season. 

Jose Mourinho, who has never been one to mince words, expressed one of the many problems with the FIGC’s paradoxical decision making. 

“It’s a joke to know this with two games remaining,” he said to DAZN. “Our approach would have been different if we had known before the games with Monza and Bologna.” 

The Portuguese manager knows better than anyone that league position can affect how teams prepare for games, or the line-ups managers choose. It would be fair to claim the FIGC altered the league standings in more ways than intended.
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Above all, a bureaucratic circus only perpetuates the “corrupt and scandal ridden” stereotype that stains the image of Italian football. After the 2006 Calciopoli scandal, Serie A’s faced an arduous journey to earn back its respect. The “plusvalenza” case, along with its incompetent handling, only adds to the long list of hits on calcio’s reputation. 

Even so, Italian football’s image only scratches the surface of what’s holding it back, with Italian stadiums being the biggest obstacle. 

Carrying an average age of 74 years, many of calcio’s pillars of history are outdated and decaying. The last time most stadiums received major renovations was for the 1990 World Cup, with the repairs and improvements producing an overwhelming amount of debt. The estimated €1 billion cost is one that still stings. 

Naturally, many clubs have looked to build new stadiums in recent years, but in typical Italian bureaucratic fashion, the process continues to reveal itself as convoluted and nonlinear. As a prime example, one could point to that of Milan and Inter. 

It’s been nearly a decade since the Milanese giants began looking to pack their bags from the iconic San Siro. Plans to build new stadiums such as “The Cathedral” have garnered attention in recent years, but their endeavours have only gotten as far as the designs and public debate stage. Numerous appeals and objections have stalled operations, leaving their move-out process in a state of limbo. 

Beyond the old infrastructure, the biggest problem looming over the San Siro revolves around money. Seeing as the stadium is owned by the municipality of Milan, a large chunk of matchday revenue is fed to the unsatiated mouth of Milan’s city council. With an average combined attendance of 72,267 this season, the Rossoneri and Nerazzurri lose out on a significant amount of income. 

It’s the same issue that plagues the vast majority of Serie A sides, with only four clubs in the top flight owning their stadiums. Coupling the sizable revenue with hefty rental fees, greedy governments and local councils have little to no incentive to let clubs spread their wings. 

It serves as a major roadblock in the way of the larger goal: to reduce the wealth gap between Serie A and other leagues, primarily the Premier League. In order to do so, there also needs to be a priority put on improving the revenue from TV rights. 

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In the 2019/20 season Serie A earned €1.19 billion from their broadcasting rights — the fourth most of all leagues — yet it stands as a measly figure when compared to the Premier League’s €2.67 billion. 

The disparity is large enough that bottom Premier League clubs make considerably more than those at the top of Serie A. For the 2021-22 season, champions Milan earned €77.8 million from TV rights, while last place Norwich earned about €108 million. 

It’s not good enough for Serie A’s product, and not good enough to compete with the best. Lorenzo Casini, the president of Serie A, stated that the league has the potential for “significant growth” in regards to international media rights, and with the newfound wave of competitiveness he has a valid point. 

Italian football still has several issues to iron out, but the sudden resurgence leaves a golden opportunity on its doorstep. While right now it’d be inaccurate, perhaps sooner rather than later we can truly say that calcio is back. 

The Author

Michael Maniaci

Italian-American university student that's obsessed with the beautiful game.

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