Collapse of a system
Italian football is facing a time of crisis in terms of both financial and sporting performances. Clubs are struggling in the European Cups, they have lost power in the transfer market, and the appeal of the league for foreign investors has plummeted – they are choosing La Liga and the Premier League to spend their money on. This is a consequence of poor management and short-sighted planning during the golden years between the late 80s and throughout the 90s, in which Italy could have set the table for a long period of domination over Europe.
But while the rest of Europe’s forces tried to keep pace updating infrastructures, building stadiums and refreshing old laws and rules, Italian clubs never cared about the future. It was all about moving the money, and as long as the investors had it, the system survived. Italian transfer market peaked just before the 2001/02 season, when the most expensive transfers in Italian football were made. Then some clubs went bankrupt or under forced financial control and only Juventus, Milan and Inter could keep up with the expenses, mainly thanks to the wealthy family controlling them.
Results in the European Cups after 1999 show the collapse of the Italian football system, especially the Europa League ones: while the major competition measures the potential peaks for a league, the lesser one shows the average strength on the continent. Italy still won 3 Champions Leagues after 1999, but took part to less than half the finals, and no team made it to a Europa League final in the last 13 seasons, after 10 finals out of 11 with at least one Italian club.
The trend is extremely negative: after losing to Germany the third position in the UEFA ranking, the country of Calcio looks to be going further down, with the gap widening and Portugal, France and Russia all closing in from behind. Clubs can’t generate revenues and have old, ancient stadiums (except for Juventus). They rely mainly on TV rights’ money, but other leagues are becoming more interesting than Italian football for foreign channels and the local market is already saturated. Some choices need to be made soon for the survival of Italian football. In my opinion, the easiest and quickest move the Italian League board could make in the short term is changing the Serie A format.
In recent years, the clubs taking part to the Europa League have often played their reserves in order to save the typical starting XI from fatigue and injuries. Then performances of the Italian clubs suddenly dropped to non-relevant. Sampdoria started their 10/11 European campaign by losing the Champions League group stage qualification against Werder Bremen and going to Europa League: having to play two competitions dragged them down in the domestic league, where they were relegated. This season, Udinese had a bad start to the league for the same reason, while Napoli took a neat decision renouncing to play Europa League at their full power to focus on the title race.
Premier League and Liga have different ways of dealing with the cups: the English clubs have more financial power to ensure stronger rosters, and also an incomparable schedule of training. The Spanish league is far less competitive than the Serie A, so that high-profile clubs can concentrate on the cups rather than the league in busy weeks. While French football is struggling as well, Portugal and Germany are rapidly gaining points in the UEFA ranking. And both of them have less than 20 teams in their top level.
Currently, the top level of Italian football has 20 teams and 38 rounds. Between August and December, the teams involved in the European Cups have to play a minimum of 24 matches (18+6), plus possible additional qualifying rounds and a few rounds of Coppa Italia. On average, they play one match every five days. Italian Serie A has 20 teams since summer 2004, when the number was raised from 18. The change was the consequence of the “Catania case” that inflamed the 2003 summer.
Catania fielded a suspended player during a match they won in the 2002/03 Serie B season, claiming that the suspension was already served. They were retrospectively stripped of the victory after the season had ended, taking away from them vital points needed to seize safety and they were relegated. The club appealed and received a favourable sentence later in the summer and were declared safe again in the Serie B.
All relegated clubs then appealed against the verdict and the FIGC, fearing the 2003/04 season could not start until the trials were over, went pilatesque re-admitting all clubs in the league (except for bankrupt Cosenza, replaced by Fiorentina). So the 2003/04 Serie B had the exceptional number of 24 teams, which needed to be re-distributed. The League took the opportunity to reorganise also the top level and allowed two more teams into Serie A.
That change pleased the big clubs which, with four more rounds to be played, could ask for more money to sell their TV rights (sold individually by clubs until 2010/11). TV Channels were also pleased with the chance to modify the schedule to broadcast more games. This was a short-term solution to keep the money flowing to the Serie A clubs, but in the end it killed Italian teams in the European competition introducing a busy schedule that they could not afford to face.
A possible solution, quick both to be applied and to be effective would be reducing the teams in the league. A 16-team format would take 8 rounds off the current calendar. The benefit would be immediate and matches could be scheduled to avoid clashes with the European fixtures. Six free rounds in the first half of the season (matching the six group stage Matchdays), and two in the second part, between quarter-finals and semi-finals first and second legs.
The change would also bring benefits in the domestic competition: all teams would have a goal to fight for until the end, preventing lazy draws or easy points to be given away, as always happens in last matches. The league would be more challenging, thus becoming more appealing for foreign TV channels interested in buying broadcasting rights, or for foreign investors that may bring their money to Italy as some are already doing in England or Spain.
I can see France, Spain and England turning to less teams in their top levels in the next 10 years (for different reasons), and few countries will go in the opposite direction. Italy should anticipate such move and start coming back in the European battle. But currently the governing bodies in Italy are unable to make effective decisions and the system is frozen waiting for the shining sun to melt the ice.
Everything still revolves around the TV rights: small teams know that only surviving in the Serie A they will have the chance to see some money therefore they would not support a reduction in the number of teams which would increase their chances of relegation. But also big clubs don’t want their (huge) cut of the rights to be reduced because of fewer scheduled games.
Remember the Starks
All of the parts are short-sighted and cannot see that the future is looking darker and darker for Italian football. The big four (Juventus, Inter, Napoli and Milan) should ally to make changes but all they do is debate their share of the TV rights, since these are their only true income. Italian teams are not capable of producing revenues from merchandising or the stadium experience, so all they have are broadcasting rights and they tend to cling to them desperately.
Last week Juventus’ president Andrea Agnelli addressed the other clubs and stated his will to make reforms in Italian football, worrying more about sporting justice than rules themselves. But relationships between the biggest clubs are not easy: Juventus are the leading team in terms of results and power, but they are on bad terms with Inter, Fiorentina and Napoli. The Old Lady’s new policy is not friendly towards other clubs (understandably after Calciopoli). Milan are going through a period of uncertain management as the Berlusconi family is yet to decide what to do with their football investment, and mid-table teams have not enough influence to make things change.
But change is needed because, for Italian teams, after the brilliant and long summer of the 90s and a decadent fall in the 2000s, winter is coming.
This piece was kindly contributed by Jacopo Piotto. Jacopo is a football broadcasting professional and Stats collector at @deltatre. As well as a Serie A Guest Writer at @WhoScored.
Follow him on twitter (@jacopopiotto)