Five reasons the Serie A is not dead

This column began with the idea of examining the many ways Italian football has failed itself – spectacularly so in some cases.

Serie A

Andrea Belotti (left), Gianluigi Buffon (centre) and Mauro Icardi (right) Source: Getty Images

But it would be unfair to run that story without a meaningful caveat first. Having been an avid follower of Serie A for years, and finally getting a chance to live in Italy, I am pleased to report it’s not all doom and gloom.

So while Italian football may not be thriving as it once was (all-conquering Juventus aside), reports of its death have been greatly exaggerated. What still exists is a wonderful, organic love for the sport.

And while the leagues of England, Spain and Germany now hog the headlines internationally, there’s something still worth watching here. You just have to know where to look.

1) Tactically, it’s as strong as ever

The glory days of the Italian dugout are gone apparently – the battles of Lippi, Capello, Trapattoni, Zaccheroni and Saachi exist only in our memories. But the ideas of those giants haven’t been lost to Italian football. It remains a superb tactical league where innovation and experimentation play a pivotal role. Critically, with players drilled in the art of tactics (especially the use of space) from a young age, managers can push their on-field organisational limits. Teams aren’t just taught when to defend but how and where to defend. It’s a big difference and even top coaches – like Massimiliano Allegri (Juventus), Maurizio Sarri (Napoli), Luciano Spalletti (Roma), Gian Piero Gasperini (Atalanta) and Simone Inzaghi (Lazio) – have to be plugged in every week. It was something that Jose Mourinho consistently remarked upon during his time in Italy and has led Italian coaches (Antonio Conte, Carlo Ancelotti and even Claudio Ranieri) to great recent success elsewhere.

2) Media coverage is crazy, but wonderful

With the exception of ordering an espresso (Just say “Un caffe”, which will cost €1 for all eternity), nothing is straight forward in Italy. Analysis of football is no exception. At times, it is excruciating – a line-ball off-side call can send a gaggle of old men in a TV studio into a school-aged hissy fit. But that’s just a reflection of the nation as a whole. Whether it’s football, fashion or hand-made tagliatelle, the small details make-or-break the end result. The coverage of La Gazetta dello Sport divides opinion in Italy, but no newspaper anywhere in the world plays such an important role in how the public relates to football. In fact, the whole media scene is like something from a Fellini classic. But that mix of detail and drama is what makes it so good.

3) Great foreigners are still here – they’re just younger

It’s true that the all-conquering Premier League and the big guns of La Liga now dominate the international transfer scene. But if there’s one facet where even those clubs don't have a total monopoly just yet, it’s in the grooming of young talent. The tactical intensity of the league and the managerial know-how at all levels – right down to the junior ranks – mean it’s a brilliant place for a promising young player to learn their craft. Nations like Croatia (Marko Pjaca, Marko Rog, Marcelo Brozovic, Andrija Balic and, until recently, Mateo Kovacic) and Brazil (Gerson, Felipe Anderson and Gabriel Barbosa) continue to send many of their best youngsters to Serie A. Don’t forget that Paul Pogba was here a year ago, too.

4) ...and the young Italians coming through can seriously play

Of the national team squad named to face Albania in World Cup qualifiers this week, a staggering 13 were aged 24 or under. You already know about Gianluigi Donnarumma, odds-on to succeed Manuel Neuer as the world’s best when the Bayern man eventually declines – and in fellow teenager Alex Merit (SPAL), he might have a long-term deputy. On loan from Atalanta, Roberto Gagliardini is proving an elegant addition to Inter Milan’s midfield. Simone Verdi’s exquisite performance for Bologna against Chievo Verona on Sunday (scoring one, setting up another and totally out-shining Mattia Destro) showed he might be coming of age. Check out Torino’s free-scoring Andrea Belotti – they paid €7.5 million for him but, with 22 league goals this season already, will likely get four times that amount this summer (Barcelona are rumoured to be leading the race). Moise Kean is only 17 and, despite having only two Serie A appearances for Juventus, is already tipped for greatness. There’s countless others worth mentioning, proving Serie A isn’t the retirement home many seem to think it is.

5) So many teams have wonderful, untold stories

We’ve been conditioned to looking towards the top of the table in Serie A – but that’s missing half the narrative. Italy is a provincial country, with towns and villages boasting magnificent tales, often involving the football team. The recent rise of Sassuolo last year and Atalanta this year (they’re sixth, above Milan and Fiorentina) has been fantastic to watch. Tiny Empoli, a town with just 48,000 Tuscan inhabitants, look set to remain in Serie A again. Italy’s most tragic club, Torino, have almost finished piecing their beloved Filadelfia stadium back together. Lower down, famous baseballer Mike Piazza is building fallen Lega Pro side Reggiana from scratch. Fan-owned Parma, also in third tier, are aiming to win a second straight promotion. And if you’re looking for an “Australian” link, Melbourne businessman Mario Biasin and Anthony di Pietro saved Serie D club Triestina from bankruptcy last year – and the club is now on the brink of going up.

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5 min read
Published 23 March 2017 at 6:29pm
By Sebastian Hassett