by Panos Bletsos
Fact: Italy made the final of Euro 2012 unaffected by the latest Calcio Scommesse scandal.
Fact: The four-time World Cup winners suffered a hands-down 4-0 humiliation at the hands of Spain in the Kiev endgame.
Fact: Italy has just surrendered one of its Champions League berths to Germany.
Fact: Some of Serie A’s biggest stars, such as Lavezzi, Thiago Silva and Ibrahimović, have found France (and not Spain or England) a more suited destination to ply their trade rather than stay in Italy.
Fact: The erstwhile almighty Calcio is decomposing fast.
Italy has been one of the cornerstones of the global game since the late 19th century, not only because of its own success on international level, but also thanks to that extra spice Italian immigrants have added to the flavour of South American football: there are some 30 million Brazilians and another 22 million Argentines of Italian descent, as well as 1.6 million Uruguayans, almost half of the country’s population.
After the English introduced the Beautiful Game to the peninsula sometime in the 1880s Italy quickly developed into a major force and before World War II broke out its national side had won the FIFA World Cup twice (1934, ’38) as well as the 1936 Olympic football tournament in Berlin. The Azzurri went on to add another two world titles (1982, 2006) and the 1968 European Championship to their collection, while Italian sides have dominated the UEFA club competitions since their inception, back in the ‘50s: they have won a combined total of 46 titles (including the FIFA Club World Cup and the now defunct Intercontinental Cup) compared to Spain’s 42 and England’s 35.
But things have changed a lot over the past two decades and especially since the turning point of 1992, when both the UEFA Champions League and the FA Premier League were established. Following the Hillsborough and Heyzel tragedies the English modernized their old stadiums and built new ones, while also utilizing TV-generated income to convert their elite club competition into a worldwide brand name. In the mean time the Spaniards slowly but steadily expanded La Masia’s academy project, developed at Barcelona by Johan Cruijff, throughout their league system across to their youth national sides to produce the famous Tiqui-taca, a style of play that has brought them unprecedented international success at every age level.
What did the Italians do while all of this was happening elsewhere? The answer is easy: not much, if anything at all. Despite the authorities’ best efforts match fixing scandals have rocked the world of Calcio one too many times (remember the 1980 Totonero, Totonero II between 1984 and ’86, the 2006 Calciopoli and the latest Calcio scommesse, which is still being investigated). With the bright exception of Juventus Turin and its impressive new stadium, which opened last year, no other major Italian club has built a modern football ground, while most of the Serie A venues have not even been renovated since before the 1990 FIFA World Cup finals were held in the country! And with Italy’s top flight clubs making less TV money compared to their Spanish and English counterparts, mainly due to their diffidence to sell broadcasting rights collectively up until 2010, they started moving down the pecking order of the European game.
Proof is right there for everyone to see. Italy has only celebrated three Champions League triumphs in 16 years and has enjoyed no Europa League success whatsoever since 1999, after a number of its sides brought home the former UEFA Cup a stunning eight times in 11 seasons! And as far as the European Super Cup is concerned, only Milan has spared Italy’s blushes since the turn of the millenium by clinching it twice.
So is it any wonder that so many of their household names are seeking a more rewarding future elsewhere? No, and it’s a process that started quite a while ago. But this summer has been a catastrophe for the one-time most prestigious national league in the world. Pippo Inzaghi finally called it quits, a number of Serie A’s biggest stars thought that the time had come for them to seek something different at the twilight of their careers (Rino Gattuso, Sandro Nesta, Marco Di Vaio, Mark van Bommel), even without a specific destination in mind (Alex Del Piero and Gianluca Zambrotta are still free-agents). Others decided to taste the magic of life and the Jogo bonito in Brazil (Clarence Seedorf, Diego Forlán), while a couple of highly-rated youngsters took up the chance of trying their luck abroad before really establishing themselves in their own homeland (Fabio Borini, Marco Verratti).
At the age of 19 Verratti, widely thought of as Andrea Pirlo’s successor, moved to Paris Saint-Germain, which has lured the lion’s share of top-class players fleeing Italy. With Carletto Ancelotti at the helm and Leonardo as director of football the French club has recruited no fewer than nine Serie A stars in the past year or so! Javi Pastore, Salvatore Sirigu, Mohamed Sissoko and Jérémy Ménez moved to the City of Light in the summer of 2011, Thiago Motta followed suit in January and then Verratti, Ezequiel Lavezzi and the Milan duo of Thiago Silva and Zlatan Ibrahimović put pen to paper in their own new deals this summer. That’s some 212 million dollars invested in the Italian market alone!
Considering the recent loss of a number of other influential players (Elia, Juan, Kjaer, Simplicio, Gago, Velloso, Belluschi) it’s clear that Italian football is getting poorer by each year – and it could be even worse if the likes of Edinson Cavani, Daniele De Rossi and Hernanes were to move abroad as well. They say Rome wasn’t built in a day. True. But it’s also true that the great Roman Empire did not cease to exist overnight. After ruling most of the known world of its time for centuries, slowly but steadily it grew weaker and more vulnerable before finally fading away. And, as sad as it may be, a similar fate lies ahead for the Calcio if no preventive action is taken fast. The clock is ticking.
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