Once home of international stars such as France’s Zinedine Zidane, Brazil’s Ronaldo, Argentine Hernán Crespo, Ukraine’s Andriy Shevchenko, Dutchman Marco van Basten and more; Serie A has seen an alarming exodus of it’s top players in recent years. Gone are Italian legends Alessandro Del Piero, Alessandro Nesta, Pippo Inzaghi and Fabio Cannavaro; as well as recent international stars: Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Thiago Silva and Alexis Sanchez. Even younger Italian talent has fled the peninsula; with polarizing striker Mario Balotelli now playing for the blue side of Manchester, Gianluigi Buffon’s heir apparent Salvatore Sirigu and young midfielder Marco Verratti with Paris Saint-Germain and talented striker Fabio Borini in the red of Liverpool. A steady stream of talent has exited Italy for pastures new, moving on on to England, France, Germany and more.
But what has happened?
The easy answer would be to point at the Calciopoli Scandal of 2006 as the main culprit for the diaspora of talent. The allegations of match-fixing in some of Italy’s biggest clubs rocked football, and certainly helped speed up the process, but Italy’s problems have been building for some time.
Ruud Gullit pinpointed the problem in January of 2012 when he lambasted Italian stadia in the Daily Mail.
“The biggest problem in Italian football now are the stadiums. They are old and people don’t want to go there… Juventus’ attendances were poor and then they opened a new stadium and all of a sudden it was packed. The seats are nice, the facilities are good and they are proud of it. Other clubs need to do the same.”
Giant, crumbling stadia are the norm, rather than the exception in Italy. Local sides play in old, unsafe stadiums that hold two or three times their average attendance, creating a poor atmosphere. Because many Italian stadia being owned by local councils, they are often multi-purpose arenas, featuring running tracks which keep supporters away from the pitch and lowers noise levels. As Serie A president Maurizio Beretta stated:
“In countries like Spain, UK and Germany club revenues are more balanced with one-third from television, one-third from commercial contracts and the remaining third from stadium matchday revenues. In Italy, however, the stadiums are only providing 12-15% of turnover because they are very old, unsafe and, in some cases, too big for the local market. We need a new generation of stadiums, more technology, more attentive to the needs of the spectators and the stadium users.”
Serie A giants Juventus’ move from the outdated Stadio Delle Alpi, was a landmark step for Italy. The Turin champions previously occupied the large 67,229-seater, which was owned by the city of Turin (as is the norm in Italy), severely impacting their matchday revenues. With the new Juventus Stadium, Juventus became the first Italian club to actually own their own stadium, and all the profits that come from its ownership. Typically, Italian stadiums are owned by the local council, and clubs must pay rent for the right to play, something almost unheard-of in countries such as England. With Juventus’ new 41,000-capacity stadium, matchday revenues have skyrocketed, and the atmosphere inside the arena is electric, having sold out nearly every home match of the 2011-12 campaign. Conversely, in the old Delle Alpi, supporters were reluctant to turn out in force, only averaging around 35,000 in attendance at the huge venue.
Strapped For Cash
The biggest issue affecting Serie A’s mass exodus is cash flow. With the EPL’s boom in profits due to the bumper TV deal struck by Sky just a few years ago, coupled with billionaire owners around the world (such asChelsea, Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain), Serie A simply cannot compete financially. Add the financial juggernauts of Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, and Serie A’s financial allure is simply not comparable.
The fact remains that Serie A is unequipped to compete with Europe’s two biggest leagues (EPL, La Liga), and now several German Bundesliga and French Ligue 1 clubs are battling for legitimacy in Europe. The recent loss of points in the UEFA coefficient system has further weakened a potential comeback for Italy, with the ever-important fourth Champions League spot ceded to the Bundesliga after several anemic performances in that competition, and the Europa League, a tournament viewed with much derision in Italy. Italian clubs’ inability to perform in the Europa League ironically caused the country to lose its coveted fourth Champions League spot. With that loss, clubs do not have the cash to sign big-name players, and big-name players are those who win in Europe. It is reminiscent of a snake biting its own tail.
Last, but certainly not least, the Calciopoli and recent Calcioscommese scandal have seriously affected Serie A’s draw with big-name players. Despite claims of innocence, players do not want to be associated with a league where their name could be tainted. Italy’s sporting problems run deep (political problems aside), and these issues have seriously affected the ability for Italy’s biggest sides to lure major talent. The problem has been confounded with the league’s biggest club, Juventus, at the center of controversy. What player would want to sign for a club whose manager is sidelined for the better part of a year? A harsh truth, but one that has hampered the Bianconeri’s search for a top attacker this season, especially in an already depleted striker market. In a sporting justice system where players and managers are guilty until proven innocent, Italy has many internal issues to sort out before it can again become a force in major competitions.
Football runs in cycles, and Serie A was the most powerful league in the world just a few years ago. The “Seven Sisters” of Juventus, A.C. Milan, Inter Milan, Lazio, Fiorentina, Parma and Roma were all once amongst the strongest in the world, shelling out the cash for record transfers and wages. Now, the game has changed, and Serie A must change with it to avoid being left behind. All is not doom and gloom, with several exciting talents spread across the league, and a wonderful brand of football being played. However, this issue of outside leagues poaching talent without outside quality coming in must be addressed if Serie A is to return to its previous heights.