Once upon a time, the Italian league was the undisputed pinnacle of football. The best players in the world played in Serie A, its clubs repeatedly featured in major European finals and TV sets across the globe would be tuned in every Sunday to watch the peninsula’s best go to battle in front of packed stadiums.
To the younger generation it may seem like a fairy tale as improbable as Goldilocks or Cinderella, but 20 years ago it was a reality. Serie A had no peers. It was simply the best.
Between 1989 and 1998, nine of the 10 Champions League and European Cup finals involved Italian teams, with four winners in that time. Of the seven UEFA Cup finals from 1989 to 1995, six were won by Italian teams, and a total of 14 Serie A representatives featured in the final between 1989 and 1999.
Players as legendary as Diego Maradona, Roberto Baggio, Zinedine Zidane, Marco van Basten, George Weah and Lothar Matthaus were household names across the world and all made their corn in Italy. They were heady times indeed.
Yet in 2014, Italian football is at a low ebb.
No longer is it home to the world’s greatest talents – most of them are in Spain. It doesn’t have the huge audience share in terms of TV – that goes to England. The fans no longer fill the stadiums – instead they’re in various bars across the country with TV rights to football matches in other leading nations. And it lags behind England, Spain and Germany when it comes to achievements on the continent, with the resulting drop in Champions League places in 2012 looking unlikely to be reversed for some time.
The difference between then and now is stark and has been further underlined by this summer’s transfer window activity.
Many of the league’s biggest remaining talents have been chased long and hard by foreign clubs, with noises from each camp suggesting Serie A is not where they want to be. Arturo Vidal, Paul Pogba and Mario Balotelli have all flirted with other clubs in some way, shape or form, and none of those outfits are on the peninsula.
Simply put, Italy looks like the last place the game’s biggest players want to be right now. And it is not as though the nation’s clubs have the financial muscle to lure top stars to replace their lost talent.
Footballing power often mirrors the checkbook, and Italy’s fortunes in recent years highlight that. Between 1952 and 1992, the world transfer record was broken 17 times, with 15 of those occurrences seeing a Serie A side pay out the unprecedented sum. Players such as Luis Suarez, Omar Sivori, Paolo Rossi, Maradona, Ruud Gullit, Baggio and Jean-Pierre Papin were snapped up in that period, while Ronaldo, Christian Vieri and Hernan Crespo would later follow suit.
More than anything, that was a reflection of Serie A’s power in the moneymaking business of football as Alex Thorpe, a consultant in Deloitte’s Sports Business Group, tells Goal.
“In 1989-90, Serie A was the highest money-generating league, with the Football League in second,” Thorpe said. “If you fast-forward to today, the Premier League is way out in front with Serie A far behind so it has shifted significantly.
“If we go back to 1996-97, England had €685 million ($917 million) worth of revenue with Italy in second with €551 million ($738 million), so the gap wasn’t that big. But if we look now the gap is the best part of €1.3 billion ($1.7 billion).
“But, in fairness, that is true of the Premier League relative to the rest because the gap between the Premier League and even the second biggest league, the Bundesliga, is still over €900 million ($1.2 billion) and next season it will be even bigger. So the comparison between Serie A and the Premier League probably isn’t the best one but it’s fair to say that Serie A isn’t the stand-out European league as it was 20 years ago.”
Much of the wealth built up around the Italian league of the 1990s simply couldn’t be sustained. The Cirio group that was a majority shareholder in Lazio defaulted on its loans, while Parma’s backers Parmalat collapsed soon after and Fiorentina went into administration because of huge debts they couldn’t repay. When Napoli was declared bankrupt in 2004, Serie A had lost a lot of its depth to poor management of finances.
In the modern day, the bank balances around the bel paese do not cater for extravagances of the level of a Maradona or a Papin. And while matchday revenues continue to climb in the rest of Europe, only 11 per cent of Italy’s credit in 2012-13 came from gate receipts. This is the catalyst for a vicious circle, says Thorpe.
“If you have a full stadium and it’s commercially attractive to partner with you, then there are more eyeballs in the stadium to see the sponsor on your shirt, and there’s a better quality of facilities for brands to be associated with," Thorpe adds. "You only have to look at what’s happened in the UK to see how a good stadium can attract commercial partners.
“Similarly from a broadcast perspective, if there are more people in the stadium and a better atmosphere it makes a better broadcast product and generally you’ve got better facilities being showcased on television.”
To an extent, clubs have had their hands tied behind their backs, with the much sought-after Legge Stadi – which would allow planning applications for football stadiums to pass through law much more swiftly – having come across countless roadblocks on its way to parliament.
As things stand, only Juventus and Sassuolo of the 20 Serie A clubs own their own stadium, while Udinese has started work on its on and Roma is looking to develop a new arena by 2016. Outside of those clubs there has been very little success in getting any kind of plans off the ground.
There are areas in which the Lega Serie A could have helped itself, though. The decision to add a 12:30 lunchtime kickoff to the calendar each week was aimed at the generation of increased audience share in the Asian evening TV slots. Yet big-hitting names such as Inter, Juventus and Milan are rarely asked to play so early, meaning the concept is largely meaningless as an exercise with lower-billed teams unable to attract large broadcast interest.
Italy has not fared well as a country in recent times either, with the nation’s economy being hit hard since the recession of 2008. This has meant a general drop in gates as purse-strings are tightened, plus an unwillingness from would-be benefactors to invest in something so frivolous as football.
Add in UEFA’s Financial Fair Play laws, and gone are the days of Silvio Berlusconi financing Milan’s rise from also-ran to seven-time European champion in lieu of balanced books on the football side itself. No longer can an Angelo or Massimo Moratti decide to throw his wealth at the Inter cause. And the Agnelli family cannot unthinkingly spend Fiat’s fortune on Juventus.
Football needs more than just money these days. It requires patience and care too.
The result is that where once Serie A was welcoming Maradona in front of 60,000 fans, it is now attracting more modest targets such as Gary Medel instead. Inter’s new midfielder represents one of the Italian summer’s biggest signings at €13 million ($17 million), while wage bills have dropped markedly in the last half-decade, meaning big names of the level of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Samuel Eto’o, Wesley Sneijder et al are no longer viable additions.
But Thorpe says there are reasons to believe this could soon change.
“There are some green shoots, definitely. There seems to be a realization now and a momentum about improving stadiums. Juventus’ new stadium has trebled their matchday revenue and clubs have been drawn towards Juve on that," he said. “There is also the foreign investment coming in, with Inter and Roma recently coming under foreign ownership. And if you look at what Roma are talking about with their stadium complex plans, that – if it comes to fruition – will be a significant milestone, I think. Similarly, you’ve got the Milan clubs making noises about a stadium development and you’ve got Udinese having started renovations.
“I would say that doom and gloom was the right way to look at it two years ago, but now I’d say that there are elements falling into place for some positive change happening pretty soon.”
Clearly, there is hope for the future. The sooner more clubs follow the trend of building for brighter things, the better. It is high time Italian football started attracting football’s Maradonas again.
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