Plenty to love in Italy’s cloudy Serie A

Milan vice president Adriano Gallani sees a cloudy future for Serie A, though James Horncastle sees many reasons to be excited about the upcoming Italian season. (Photo: Getty Images).

Lev Tolstoy’s observation that happy families are all alike while every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way is applicable to soccer, and in particular its leagues. Just ask Adriano Galliani, the Milan vice president, for his opinion on the current state of Serie A.

Talking to La Gazzetta dello Sport on the day Palermo were knocked out of the Europa League by Swiss side FC Thun, he predicted that, thanks to the long-term infrastructural benefits that come with being awarded the hosting rights for Euro 2016, France will soon join Germany and overtake Italy in the UEFA coefficient.

Staking his case, Galliani noted how other leagues turn over more (the Premier League makes $3.5 billion to Serie A’s $2.2 billion), their clubs bring in greater revenue on a match-day (Real Madrid cashes $186 million compared with Inter’s $55.6 million) and they also better exploit sponsorship deals and merchandising (contrast Bayern Munich’s $249 million with Milan’s $82 million).

Meanwhile, the flight of some of Serie A’s star attractions such as Alexis Sánchez, Javier Pastore and Samuel Eto’o to clubs in Spain, France and Russia is doing little to brighten the mood, so too is the concern that several of the players picked by Cesare Prandelli to represent the Italian national team aren’t necessarily assured of a place in the starting XI of their club sides.

Then there’s the constant bickering about Calciopoli and the emergence of a betting scandal, the origins of which can be found in the strained financial circumstances of the lower leagues with wages going unpaid and clubs falling into administration. A revealing study published recently showed that the average age of unemployed footballers in Italy has dropped from 32 to 25.5.

"It’s like with theatres and restaurants," Galliani said. "There are beautiful theatres and ugly ones, luxury restaurants and pizzerias."

No doubt long accustomed to eating with his players at Giannino, the elegant Milan trattoria, Galliani has perhaps forgotten that pizza, while cheap and cheerful, is still among the people’s favorite foods, and with that in mind even taking into account all its problems Serie A remains a mouthwatering draw, what with its history of success, its tradition and its personalities.

Where else, for instance, would you find a president like Napoli’s Aurelio De Laurentiis, a movie producer who decided to unveil new signing Gökhan Inler in a lion’s mask? And that’s not all.

For his next coup de theater, De Laurentiis walked out of a TV studio after the release of this season’s fixture list. Disgusted with the outcome, he turned the air blue with his swearing then sensationally flagged down a passing motorist and asked if he could escape on the back of his scooter before speeding into the night.

Now that’s entertainment.

Indeed, every cloud, even one as dark as that on Galliani’s horizon, has a silver lining, and there are bright spots to point out to those with little faith.

The cynics among the football intelligentsia would do well to remember that even when the favorite Oliver Peoples sunglasses of Fiorentina coach Sinisa Mihajlovic were stolen this summer, the thief responded to the club’s appeal and handed them back in an unmarked envelope.

Another heartwarming story comes in Turin where Juventus will open their new stadium against Notts County, the club that inspired their black and white shirts, in a friendly on September 8.

Although Serie A’s grounds are on average 61 years old, Juventus’s 41,000 capacity home is state-of-the-art and the nearest seats to the pitch are only 7.5 meters away. When it’s not a match day, the tills at the club shop, restaurants and bars – of which there are 28 – will keep ringing, as they’re open all week.

Of course, innovation isn’t the exclusive purview of Italy’s biggest clubs. Take Novara for example, the northernmost team in Serie A with a shirt the color of Dolcelatte Gorgonzola, who are finally back in the top flight after 55 years and have a fan in UEFA president Michel Platini on account of his grandparents hailing from the area.

Backed by Massimo De Salvo, a level-headed owner with a background in private clinics, the first act of his presidency was to build a high-tech training ground, Novarello, in the shadow of a 17th century windmill. It cost approximately $10 million, about $1.5 million less than the club’s entire wage bill before tax. To put that figure into perspective it’s around the same amount Juventus goalkeeper Gigi Buffon earns in a single season.

Recognizing that Novara is the wet and rainiest city in Piedmont, De Salvo also had the foresight to contact Maurizio Girardi, the owner of Italgreen, the leading name in the production of a new generation of artificial pitches that use ‘reinforced’ natural grass.

Unlike the Bentegodi in Verona, the Renato Dall’Ara in Bologna and the Luigi Ferraris in Genova, grounds which all saw games either ruined or abandoned last winter, Novara’s Stadio Pioli always boasts optimum playing conditions and gives the club’s players the best chance to thrive. Is it any wonder Novara became only the 17th club in the history of Italian football to achieve back-to-back promotions this summer?

Over in the capital, the Boston-based businessman Thomas Di Benedetto is blazing a trail as a foreign owner not just because he is prepared to invest in Italian football but notably for his desire to change it, too. The surprise appointment of Luis Enrique on the basis that he is ‘uncontaminated’ by Serie A and represents ‘discontinuity’ is not an explicit attempt to graft the Barcelona model on to Roma, at least not to returning general manager Franco Baldini, who feels that the values the Catalan giants embody, such as playing to win, but also to convince and promoting youth, are of pertinence to every football club.

"I’m not bringing a revolution, just common sense and pragmatism," he told La Repubblica. "In other countries these things have already been done, so why not in Italy?"

A back to basics approach, and the wish to set an example, has also guided Prandelli’s philosophy at the helm of La Nazionale. Now a year into the job, he has brought back enthusiasm, proven himself to be inclusive by handing call ups to the ‘new Italians’ like Thiago Motta and Cristian Ledesma, and cultivated a healthy respect for the shirt as exemplified in the introduction of an ethical code, which holds players such as Mario Balotelli and Daniele De Rossi accountable for their actions.

Under trying circumstances, with relatively few youngsters coming through – a shortage owing in no small measure to the fact that only 16 players under the age of 22 experienced at least 45 minutes playing time a week between Serie A and B last season (compared with an average of 20 in the rest of Europe) – Italy have risen to seventh in the FIFA rankings by playing positive and expansive football with a midfield composed of piedi buoni (or good feet), which has contributed to their being a step away from qualifying for Euro 2012. Lest we forget it also culminated in an encouraging 2-1 victory over World and European champions Spain in a friendly in Bari earlier this month.

So even with a strike threatening the opening weekend’s play, there are plenty of reasons for Galliani to cheer up and plenty of storylines for fans to look forward to this coming season.