How do you define the strength of a league? Perhaps the success in European competition or the quality of player that can both be attracted and retained can give an indication? Or the amount of money that foreign countries are prepared to pay to watch it? On all counts, Italy is struggling, a marked change from 20 years ago.
The excellent Football Pantheon attempted to judge the greatest club side of all time; that list featured four Italian sides that played in the last 25 years, but the latest of those sides was the Juventus side of the mid-1990s (http://footballpantheon.com/2011/05/the-50-greatest-european-club-sides/11/). In comparison, there were more recent teams from Spain, Manchester United and Germany in that list (admittedly Jose Mourinho’s Internazionale side were at number 21, slightly behind Manchester United’s treble winning side, but that doesn’t really add to my argument so I’m not going to mention them).
At the same time, Italy’s UEFA coefficient has been steadily falling; from the heights of Milan’s double Champions League winning side if the mid-2000s, Italy has now fallen below Germany, down to fourth. This has seen Italy lose the coveted fourth Champions League spot to the Bundesliga, and with, Udinese in all likeliness just the concession of an away to Arsenal to exiting this year’s Champions League before its even started, we could be about to see Italy’s coefficient fall even further. They are currently nearer to France in fifth place than they are to Germany, let alone the big two leagues, England and Spain.
It is of perhaps little surprise that the big transfer stories in Italy have been about players leaving Italy, rather than those inbound, looking to immerse themselves in Italian culture. Without even mentioning the on-going Wesley Sneijder saga to Manchester United, there have been a number of outbound players. Qatari backed Paris Saint-Germain has plundered Jeremy Menez and Javier Pastore from AS Roma and Palermo respectively, while Alexis Sanchez had his pick of European clubs, but chose Barcelona. And finally, Samuel Eto’o appears to be chasing a quick buck in Russia where Anzhi Makhachkala is prepared to pay a rumoured €400,000 a week for the Cameroonian star.
That is quite a list of outgoing players, although arguably no more life threatening than the summer of 2010, in which Cristiano Ronaldo and Xabi Alonso sought a return to the Iberian Peninsula. But, that same summer saw Alberto Aquilani, Yuri Zhirkov and Thomas Vermaelen arrive on English shores; while their success is very questionable, it showed intent. But who is moving to Italy this summer? Zlatan Ibrahimovic is returning to Milan, having spent last season on loan there, while Arturo Vidal is a surprisingly good signing for Juventus. There is one club who have brought in a few foreign players – Luis Enrique has used his Barcelona tactics to secure the signature of Bojan Krkić for Roma, while Erik Lamela joins from recently relegated Argentinian side River Plate and Dutch number one Maarten Stekelenburg was signed from a relatively cheap €6 million, especially when compared with the large amounts spent on David de Gea and Manuel Neuer this summer.
But, will these imports be enough to secure the interest in Serie A? Italian sides currently earn £74 million a season for the sale of their TV rights to foreign countries. To put that in context, the Premier League is paid £479m. Manchester United alone earn more than £100 million a season in TV rights, and although this figure includes both foreign and domestic TV rights, it gives you an idea of how much more highly rated the English league is compared to Italy. The argument goes, that if a country is not importing players, then it will help the national team as Italian nationals are given time to play.
It is easy to forget that just five years ago, Italy were crowned World Champions. But the starting line-up on that night had an average age of 29, and Italy are understandably finding it difficult to replace legendary players such as Fabio Cannavaro. Italy’s last competitive match, a 3-0 victory over Estonia featured just Gianluigi Buffon and Andrea Pirlo from that famous night in Berlin, while not a single Italian was on the 23-man shortlist for the 2010 Ballon d’Or Award. This is possibly due to Italy’s poor defence of their title in South Africa, where they finished bottom of a group that included Paraguay, Slovakia and New Zealand, but there were also no Italians nominated the previous year either.
So what does the future hold for Serie A? They are struggling on each of the indicators I mentioned earlier. It seems an age ago that Internazionale were European Champions, and given the relative strengths of Real Madrid, Barcelona and Manchester United, it seems unlikely that they are going to repeat it any time soon. Every league goes through troughs, and lean spells, and as mentioned before, perhaps this will be the push the national team needs. Don’t be surprised to see them challenging again in 2014.
Tom Bason @toomb86