​Italy Who?

By: Alfonso Duro

Once upon a time, it was any footballer’s dream to play in Italy. In the late ’80s and during most of the ’90s, the best talent in the world was playing in the top Italian clubs, and if you wanted to make a name for yourself, you had to make the trek to Italy. It is no surprise, then, that 12 out of 20 times during those two decades, the Ballon D’Or went to a player of an Italian club, but it has only happened three times since then. What happened to the glamorous shine of Serie A calcio? Where did it all go wrong? We have a few ideas:

THE BAD GUYS DON’T ALWAYS WIN. Granted, soccer has always had a large shadow cast over it because of the illegalities around it, but nothing has been so flagrantly obvious and untamed as the workings of the mafia (and not only the Italian one, capisce?) in Serie A and Serie B. From a fake passport ring, to players changing their age and name in order to compete at the highest level, to a team owner throwing bunga-bunga orgies while also running the country, Italian soccer has seen it all—and they are not proud of it. Since 2006, after Luciano Moggi and Juventus were found guilty of match fixing in the two previous seasons and consequently relegated to Serie B, things have calmed down a bit, but the tournament has also lost most of its luster. The biggest stars in the world don’t want to play for teams that are now so closely monitored they can barely pay their players bonuses at the end of the year without added scrutiny. Moral of the story: stay in school, kids.

AN ELEPHANT’S GRAVEYARD. Depleted of the best talents in the business, the spots once reserved for superstars in their prime like Baggio, Batistuta, Matthaus, Rudi Völler or Weah, are now held by some of the industry’s legendary veterans. Patrice Evra (to Juventus), Ashley Cole (to AS Roma) and Fernando Torres (to AC Milan) have been some of the top signings of the summer—all players who recently lost their footing in the way more dynamic English Premier League. If you add to the mix the fact that La Lega’s poster children are veterans Francesco Totti, Gianluigi Buffon and Andrea Pirlo, you start to get the picture. Italian soccer is screaming for new blood, while the old-schoolers still seem to be enjoying their sweet time at recess.

MORE MUSCLE THAN FLASH. Arrigo Sacchi led what was, by far, the most defensive-minded team in the history of the sport: the Italian national team of 1994 that reached the USA World Cup final. Sacchi truly believed in Catenaccio as a way of life, in spite of having at his disposal a roster of attackers who would have impressed the most forward-thinking Dutchman: Baggio, Massaro, Casiraghi, Signori and Zola. He could have made good use of them had he realized that scoring is actually important in soccer. What’s more: Ravanelli, Vialli, Mancini or Di Matteo missed the chance to attend that World Cup, because there weren’t enough spots for so many talented attackers. Today, a land where forwards have historically flourished—from Paolo Rossi to Filippo Inzaghi—has been flooded by defensive midfielders, perhaps after years and years of conditioning under the tactical rigor imposed by unimaginative Italian coaches. You reap what you sow, I guess.

PERHAPS NOT ALL HOPE IS LOST. Juventus has led the way after returning to Serie A. It has led the way to recovery, demonstrating that with serious work and good financial planning, top Italian teams can succeed. Napoli and AS Roma have followed suit and taken the spots that AC Milan and Inter Milan have held in recent years at the top of the table. The league still manages to get stars like Vidal, Pogba, Higuain or Pjanić to not be lured away by enticing offers from Spanish or British clubs, and if the Milan clubs get their act together quickly, the tournament could very well develop into a six-team (Fiorentina would be in the pack) battle for the championship. Then and only then, would we probably be able to witness the rebirth of Serie A as a major force at the European level. Here’s to hoping.

LOGISTICS: Serie A Lega, official English site

Alfonso Duro is a Spanish freelance writer. When he's not managing Google's agency in the United Arab Emirates (his current job), chances are he's watching and writing about soccer.