Growing up as a “90’s” kid, I quite liked the Premiership but the real highlight of the weekend was football Italia and in particular shouting GOLACCIO. Serie A was the home of stars such as Zanetti, Baresi, Batistuta, Totti, Lombardo, Donadoni, Peruzzi and Boban. However, one man stood above them all for me (only narrowly piped by Mike Tyson as my childhood hero), namely Roberto Baggio. With a record of 291 goals in 643 games and a pony-tail to revere, I soon learnt that I could only copy the latter of these attributes, refusing to take off the hat I had bought with a tail attached to imitate my football icon. The hat still resides in my bedroom occasionally worn when the HeartBreak kid makes returns at Wrestlemania and my knee still bares the scar of running through a glass door to celebrate Pagliuca’s penatly save in the 94 World cup final, but sadly the state of Italian football means it is no longer the one I pay homage to.
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. Even the preview show on a Saturday remains long in the memory of many of us approaching, or already within, our thirties.
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. Let’s not forget where Maradona, cited by many as the greatest footballer of all time, enjoyed some of his best club playing years. Then, and for the rest of the decade, it looked like Serie A was untouchable. So many other great names played such historic clubs. From the superstars like Zinedine Zidane of Juventus to Ruud Gullit and Paolo Maldini of AC Milan and Ronaldo at Inter Milan to the greats of the decade like Gianluca Costacurta, Ivan Zamorano, Guiseppe Signori, Gianfranco Zola, Daniel Fonseca 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. The Spanish Liga has exploited the famous active nightlife, the immense prestige of the two biggest teams, Real and Barça, and especially the favorable tax regulations. Teams can spend more and offer better salaries, as the taxes on football are much lighter than elsewhere. Moreover Spanish major clubs have shown not to be scared of spending unbelievable sums (Real Madrid bought players for €250 million in one summer), or even getting into debt. On the other hand, Italian football teams, have to spend great amounts of money in taxes, and try to keep an active balance too.
The English Premier League has more and more fans from all around the world every year; it’s currently the biggest media market and moneymaking machine in football. This dominance is reflected on the field, where English clubs such as Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool impose their strength in Champions League. Thanks to this, over the last few years, many investors have poured their money into the English Premier League, making it grow bigger and bigger. Chelsea squad for example, has been enriched by many players bought with Abramovich’s money, a billionaire Russian entrepreneur, and the same happened to other teams. Italian club presidents instead are reticent in selling their property to foreign groups, reducing the economic resources of Serie A. While in this time of economic crisis, caution when it comes to spending millions could be an intelligent move. In a field like football, a club can grow and be successful only through investments, and passionate Italian fans could face more disappointments if there isn’t a change in the passive attitude of those who run the clubs they support.
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 re-emerging 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.
During 2009’s summer transfer market two of the biggest Italian football teams, Inter Milan and AC Milan, lost their key-players, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Kakà, two of the best strikers of the world. Spanish domination of football has led to Real Madrid buying the Brazilian-born star Kakà, from Milan and Barcelona taking the Swedish striker from Inter. This loss seems to be just another step in the process of Serie A’s decline while many factors have started to prop up the growth and supremacy of both the Spanish Liga and the English Premier 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. And those enormous Italian deserts.