Once upon a time, the top domestic football league; Serie A in Italy was the place to be in world football. In fact, it was only about 30 years ago.
Led by A.C. Milan and their invincible period of 1989 -1994 (an era where the club won 3 European Cups), Serie A boasted many other champions. Between 1989 and 1995 the UEFA Cup only left Italy once – to the Netherlands with Ajax.
In terms of the elite players, Serie A came up trumps in this department too. Diego Maradona, Michel Platini, Roberto Baggio, Gabriel Batistuta, Ronaldo, George Weah, Marco van Basten, all these superstars plied their trade with the top Italian clubs in the 80s and 90s.
Certain top English players too spent time in Italy; with mixed fortunes; David Platt and Graeme Souness found success with Sampdoria, while Ian Rush and Paul Gascoigne struggled at Juventus and Lazio respectively.
After the turn of the century however, fortunes started to change in Italy. It’s no coincidence that at this time England’s Premier League was starting to generate more and more income.
The collective TV revenues from Sky sponsorship deals set the Premiership on its way to become what is now the world’s richest domestic football league.
But why did things start to unravel for the Serie A?
Lack of vision and investment
When Serie A had packed stadiums in the late 80s and 90s they failed to follow the Premier League’s lead and invest in the leagues clubs.
Stadiums were always in need of refurbishment and there are still many Italian clubs where standing is permitted; something UEFA does not advocate.
The 1985 Heysel tragedy highlighted the dangers of standing at football stadiums. The Premiership, by contrast, learned from the similar Hillsborough disaster of 1989.
Not only do all the clubs have full all-seater stadiums, many are modernising and expanding their existing stands to facilitate the elderly and disabled. Manchester United, Liverpool, Tottenham, and Manchester City have all made development to their grounds in this regard.
Why did Roma, Napoli, Lazio, and even the Milan clubs not do the same? The San Siro in Milan is a big historic stadium, but modern and inviting for the fan it certainly is not.
Failure to stamp out hooliganism and racism
Poor or lack of seating in stadiums means standing areas for large gangs of people. This can easily lead to unruly behavior.
It also means that families will stay away, and they are the demographic that will spend money on merchandise. The San Siro has a large fence behind both goals to try to counteract hooliganism as many fans throw items such as fireworks or even coins on the pitch when their team is losing.
Racism is rife in football and UEFA have been staunch in their No to Racism campaign for a few years now.
Italy most definitely has its share of racism problems. Recently ex-Roma and German defender Antonio Rudiger was racially abused by Lazio fans during an Italian Cup game in March, while Pescara’s Sulley Muntari was also targeted at Cagliari and Juventus defender Medhi Benatia was called a “shitty Moroccan” live on television.
Rudiger told Sportbild –
“I take this very seriously because I cannot and must not ignore something like this. I am part of this too. Racism is a serious issue here.
Incidents like the ones with Benatia and me simply happen too often in this country and that is why something must happen now.
When the Italian FA is not doing anything then Fifa must act. It is easy to come up with the ‘No to racism’ campaign but when you don’t do anything concrete then that does not help.”
Even Italian homegrown star Mario Balotelli suffered repeated monkey gestures from his own fans while at Inter Milan.
What top non-white player would ever want to play in Serie A? Not exactly a wonderful advertisement for Italian football is it?
Lack of international marketing
The Premier League has made itself attractive to two vast markets; the USA and Asia.
Serie A took far too long to broadcast games in both continents, and when they did it was too late and they were already playing catch up.
This is very shortsighted considering the Italian heritage in the USA alone.
Also, many Italian clubs were slow to embrace social media and some only made their websites available in English recently.
Corruption and club scandals
In 2006 Serie A giants were stripped of two Scudetto league titles and relegated to Serie B because of their role in the Calciopoli scandal; the biggest match fixing case in football history.
They were not alone is this controversy either. Lazio and Fiorentina were supposed to join them, but their relegation verdicts were reversed on appeal.
Both teams were handed stiff point reductions for the following season, along with AC Milan. This scandal revealed the endemic corruption in Serie A, and that has tainted Italian football’s reputation since then.
Less money means less competitive
All of the above factors have contributed to less money circulating Serie A.
The stadiums are rarely full these days. Clubs have less money to compete with other major European teams for players in the transfer market.
With that, players are starting and finishing their careers in Italy but playing abroad for their peak earning years. These days, Serie A languishes behind the Premiership and La Liga in terms of attracting talent.
Hope for the future ? Juventus are showing the way
Ironically it is Juventus that has become Serie A’s most successful club.
Perhaps the relegation forced them to realign their thinking, because they now operate like a successful Premier League side.
The moved stadium from the dilapidated (and since demolished) Stadio delle Alpi to the ultra modern and more efficient 41,000 all-seater Allianz Stadium.
Juventus clearly dominate the weakened Serie A these days winning the last 6 league titles and have been runner up in the Champions League twice in the past three seasons.
Global Accountancy firm KPMG ranked Juventus as the 9th most valuable club in Europe in 2017.
AC Milan and Inter Milan have managed to maintain a level of European success on the field but their profitability and marketability are still far behind Juventus, who have even rebranded the club logo.
At their lowest and most embarrassing moment, the Turin giants changed their strategy and attitude. Serie A badly needs to learn and follow suit.
Written by Nicholas Behan
Follow Nicholas on Twitter @NicholasBehan
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