Beginning its 80th season this weekend, the Serie A returns to action, with many questions pertaining to its decline and relevancy. If you want a team-by-team preview, Roberto Gotta covers Atalanta-Juve here and Lazio-Udinese here.
There was once a time when the Serie A could claim to be the best league in the world. While it is still considered one of the big four leagues with La Liga, Premier League, and Bundesliga, it would be hard to argue that the Lega Calcio has not fallen behind La Liga and the EPL.
Could there be a silver lining or a ray of sunshine on the horizon? Italian supporters only need look to their history for a model of hope.
The Serie had its first big match fixing scandal in 1980, the Totonero. This resulted in Milan and Lazio being relegated, as well as five teams being penalized points the following season. Caught up in the scandal was Paolo Rossi, the star striker who broke out for the Azzurri at the 1978 World Cup.
Yet, in the midst of reeling from scandal, in 1982 Italy won its first World Cup title since 1938, led by Rossi and goalkeeping legend Dino Zoff. Building on this victory, the Serie A entered its heyday of the 80s and early 90s, which saw many of the world's top footballers playing in Italy while the Azzurri also challenging regularly for world championships in the international stage.
The early golden period was led by Juventus, as the Old Lady dominated the Serie A in the late 70s and early 80s, culminating with the UEFA Cup Winners Cup and Super Cup championships in 1984 and the European Cup and Intercontinental Cup triumphs in 1985. These teams were lead by three-time European Footballer of the Year Michel Platini, along with Rossi. Unfortunately the 1985 European Cup was also the Heysel Stadium disaster. That tragedy resulted in English teams being banned from European competition, in many ways aiding the Serie A's ascendancy in European football.
The late 80s saw the rise of Napoli, led by the great Maradona, and the Milan teams. Milan famously built its two all-conquering Dream Teams, the 1989 European Champions with Alessandro Costacurta, Franco Baresi, Paolo Maldini, Frank Rijkaard, Carlo Ancelotti, Roberto Donadoni, Ruud Gullit, and Marco van Basten. The 1994 version had one of the most famous European Cup championship victories in the competition's history, crushing Barcelona 4-0. Future world players of the year continued to be found in the Serie A, with Roberto Baggio and George Weah. Baggio also helped lead Italy to the 1994 World Cup final. During the same period, Italian teams dominated the UEFA Cup, with Juve, Inter, Fiorentina, Napoli, Parma, Torino, and Roma all playing at least one final from 1989 to 1995.
However, it was in the late 1990s that things began to slip in the Serie A, even if observers didn't immediately notice it.
By this time, Juventus was once again a European power on the back of the incomparable Zinedine Zidane. However, stadium infrastructure and TV contracts, both in Italy and in England, were beginning to take their toll. Most stadiums in Italy are owned by local city councils, and the clubs pay a percentage of their gate profits for their use. Many stadiums were built for the 1990 World Cup and they lacked the atmosphere and amenities of new, modernized, or renovated stadiums that came during the mid- to late-90s. Many were built with tracks separating the stands from the field, further reducing atmosphere and visibility. The Stadio delle Alpi in Turin is a prime example.
TV contracts were the second major factor reducing competitiveness. Deregulation led to cheap pay-TV, and clubs were able to strike their own deals. Obviously this led to the big clubs like Juve, Inter and Milan, and to a lesser degree Napoli, Lazio, Roma, and Fiorentina, signing contracts worth more than the smaller clubs. Ultimately the Serie became a two league team, with Juve and Milan dominating and Roma and Inter occasionally challenging. The supposed high water mark for the Serie A was the 2003 Champions League final, pitting Milan against Juventus, one of the worst finals ever. Many claimed this was the peak of the Serie A, but all the final did was serve to hide the ultimate collapse that was to come.
In addition to aging stadia, poor stadium and TV contracts, and an extremely top-heavy imbalance in quality, the Serie A's demise was aided by three other important factors: the rise of the Premier League, scandal, and hooliganism.
As just noted, the Serie A's TV contracts put smaller clubs in a severe disadvantage. On the other hand, the Premier League introduced collective and exclusive TV rights, as well as league corporate sponsorship. The dramatic increase in revenue for all teams in the Premier League substantially improved each team's relative ability to improve itself and attract top foreign talent, finally able to compete with the likes of Milan, Juve, Real Madrid, and Barcelona. Add in the influx of rich foreign ownership, and you get Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea, and Liverpool dominating Europe along with Spanish teams during this decade.
Of course, corruption was the final stake in the heart of Serie A prominence. The Calciopoli scandal led to Juventus being relegated and Milan, Lazio, Reggina, and Fiorentina penalized (and I will maintain that after everything, the fact that Milan was not as severely punished as Juve and Inter was not punished at all was the result of corruption itself - Inter was heavily involved in illegal phone tapping and referees testified to Inter's involvement in tampering back to 2002).
The scandal clearly weakened Serie A competitively and certainly left a black eye on its reputation. Afterwards, only one team was left untouched that could be a true representative in Europe, namely Inter. However, Inter was never good enough to grab hold of the imagination, even after raiding Juventus for player reinforcements. Additionally, Roma, who was the next biggest beneficiary of the scandal, failed to take advantage of its new position as the number two team in Italy. With the severe penalties temporarily crippling Milan and Juventus, both teams are still in the midst of rebuilding their teams. Juve is ahead of Milan in this respect.
The final and currently ongoing source of decline in the Serie A is hooliganism, including racism. Much has been made of the right-wing ultras at many teams, especially those at Lazio that have been linked with fascism. Repeated violence in January 2007 threatened to halt the Serie A entirely, and as recently as this February Roma hooligans stabbed four Liverpool fans. In April, Juve fans racially abused Italian-born Mario Balotelli and were forced to play a game behind closed doors, not the first time such a penalty has been forced on an Italian team in recent times.
As for the actual talent on the field, this summer was notable in Italy for the star players leaving rather than joining Serie A clubs, with Kaka joining Real Madrid from Milan and Zlatan Ibrahimovic joining Barcelona from Inter in a swap for Samuel Eto'o.
So, after all that history and an examination of the current problems plaguing the Serie A, where does that leave us? In the wake of a scandal, Italy won the 2006 World Cup, so can the Serie A replicate its post-1982 rise to prominence?
Juventus and Milan are slowly trying to rise again and both appear entrenched in European competition along with Inter and Roma. Juve made the biggest moves, adding Diego and Felipe Melo to play with young Italians like Giovinco, Chiellini, and Marchisio, and it looks like they could be the team ready to step up and challenge Inter at home and possibly the big boys in Europe. Unfortunately, despite having budding star Alexandre Pato, Milan has been in disarray following Kaka's departure and many of their key players are aging. Milan must be hopeful that Ronaldinho can some how rekindle his former magic (remember how amazing it was to watch him in action at the top of his game for Barca?).
Still, I can't really see the a new renaissance coming right now. Like it or not, big clubs largely influence how a league is perceived. Milan is in transition and Inter simply has never been the type of team with a world following that can bring attention to the Serie A the way Milan and Juve can, or Man U, Liverpool, Barca, Real Madrid, and even Bayern Munich do for their leagues. Even though Inter smartly added Eto'o this summer, who is the first person you think of when you think of Inter? Jose Mourinho, their coach, not any player.
Of course the real test of a league's strength is the second tier of teams. England tries to claim superiority because it can trot out the likes of Aston Villa, Tottenham, the new Man City, and Everton. Spain has strong claims due to its deep roster of quality sides that have over the years challenged in Europe, such as Valencia, Villareal, Deportivo, and Sevilla.
But what of the second tier Serie A teams? Fiorentina and Roma will continue to try to play attacking football, and Roma on their day can still produce beautiful displays. But Roma's problem is its huge debt, preventing them from building depth that could push a very strong first 11 to the level of true challenger to Inter and in Europe. Udinese provides the occasional sublime football and had a roster full of up and coming Italians, but losing its fulcrum D'Agostino to Liverpool will be a big blow. Palermo and Genoa also raised the level of play in Serie A last year, but both look poised to be feeder clubs as teams like Inter pick off their best performers. Genoa alone lost Diego Milito and Thiago Motta to Inter. An entertaining and competitive middle third of the Serie A consisting of teams like Udinese, Palermo, Genoa, Sampdoria, and Napoli is vital to the Serie A's health, but these teams have either underperformed in Europe or they get virtually no exposure on TV (at least in the US). And when the games are shown in the US, poor broadcast production and poor atmosphere (or in some cases the broadcast fails to adequately convey the atmosphere) often make the games unwatchable.
Ultimately the only way the Serie A will rise again is by having Milan and Juve reach their former levels, but not at the expense of teams like Inter or Roma, while modernizing competitiveness at the gate and on the airwaves. In positive news, Juve's new stadium is still on schedule for completion in time for the 2011 season despite the economic collapse that has deranged many a development project. With a new stadium and new team, Juventus could be regaining its old luster, and doing so may prove a stimulus that forces other teams to do what's necessary to remain competitive. MLS actually provides a good model for the Serie A. In MLS the main goal of the league has been to get every team eventually into small, soccer-specific and atmospheric stadiums. I understand it's asking a lot to redo both the television and stadium infrastructure of the league, but if the Serie A doesn't do something soon, it will fall further and further behind. As it is, Italy has geographic and other advantages to England (e.g., women and food), so if new stadiums produce new atmospheres and safer crowds, then coming to Italy suddenly becomes much more appealing.
Thank you for bearing with this long post, but as someone with an interest in Juventus and in competitive, beautiful soccer generally, it's sad to see a storied league fall so hard and I can only hope things turn around.