Where Italian football lost its way

Criticising Italian football is a dangerous thing. It stokes the passions of too many, even in Australia, to be on the receiving end of a lazy critique.


Juventus players celebrate last season's Serie A title Source: Getty Images

To that end, over the weekend, we detailed the five forgotten charms of Serie A – detailing some of the reasons why you can still find some joy in the Italian game. And that is by no means an exhaustive list. 

However, not even the most blind optimist would admit that Italian football is in a prosperous state and everyone has a different theory as to why the game has stalled here: bad luck, bad judgement, bad morals or bad decisions. Sometimes all four. 

But to trace the real heart of the problem, one must go all the way back to the mid-1980s. It begins with the planning phase for the 1990 FIFA World Cup.

Promises were laid out for 12 different stadiums across the country: ten were to be upgraded to various extents and two, Turin’s Stadio delle Alpi and Bari’s Stadio San Nicola, built from scratch. 

For context, within 20 years, the 71,000-seat "Delle Empty" had already been demolished, replaced by the svelte, compact and privately-funded Juventus Stadium.

The San Nicola still stands, but is loved (for famous architect Renzo Piano’s unique design) half as much as it is loathed (because it fails virtually every fan-friendly test imaginable). 

Coming in at roughly $1 billion – a figure 84 per cent over budget – it’s hard to figure out what the tournament’s construction funding was actually spent on beyond some elegant-looking roofs in Milan, Naples and Rome. 

Sadly, 27 years on, it is only the Stadio Luigi Ferraris in Genoa (virtually re-built entirely) and Stadio Friuli in Udinese (finished only 16 years before the tournament) that are fit for purpose.

Notably, they are two of the few that don’t have a running track - the legacy of a horrific deal with the Italian Olympic Committee to help source extra funding in 1990.

Yet in almost three decades, most of those tracks have never seen an athletics meet (some don't even meet official requirements). 

The rest of the stadiums are either old, dilapidated, badly located or poorly designed. Full of nostalgia they may be, but it’s a football experience that probably belongs on black and white film. 

So why does all this matter today? And how does it affect what happens on the field? 

Unfortunately for Serie A, stadiums are the reason why they have been left behind in commercial terms. Without an appropriate facility, you can’t leverage its true value, which is a necessary evil at the elite end of the football world.
Most Italian stadiums are in use about 20 or 30 times per year – purely for football-related events. But nearly every stadium in England or Germany is in use over 300 days per year, doing everything from corporate functions to social events. This requires little more than setting up and cleaning up. 

Even more so, lavish corporate boxes at these stadiums are basically a licence to print money (let alone generate influence among the big end of town) on match day.

It took the European market years to understand what the Americans had known for some time - now it’s an essential part of the business model. But in Italy, it hardly exists. 

Globally, this corporate market exploded at the turn of the millennium, precisely when a raft of new stadiums were being built or re-modelled.

To think that Italia 90 and France 98 were only eight years apart is frightening, when one considers the quality of legacy stadia in both nations; French venues needed just a lick of paint to host last year’s European Championships. 

So just as this new stream of money began flowing into the coffers of other nations, Italy would be left to rely on its two staples: domestic television revenue and the whims of private owners.

Hardly aided by the stagnating national economy, by the mid-2000s, Serie A was priced out of the market for elite players. 

Added to a string of crises regarding match fixing and the influencing of referees and administrators, culminating in Calciopoli and the relegation of Juventus in 2006, Italian club football had – in barely five years – lost its brilliant glow. 

Local fans began to do what they had never done before: question their calcio. Attendances levels began to seriously drop off. 

Without the heroes of decades past, all that was left was a vastly inferior product to that of neighbouring countries, played in worse stadiums (on poorly-kept pitches), with less fans, who sat further from the action, with odd camera angles (another problem with old venues) and strange kick-off times (controlled by the local broadcaster). 

These issues became steadily exacerbated by many others. Italian football had never previously needed to sell its narrative to an international audience (Maradona, Van Basten and Baggio did that automatically), but without the stars, it didn’t know how to sell itself. It still doesn’t. 

A mixture of arrogance and ignorance combined dangerously, doubly so in a nation where change is almost impossible.

New media markets dismissed Serie A in favour of those delivering an easily-digestible hit: big stars, big entertainment, crazy-loud fans and narratives to die for.

Acts of racism and hooliganism – long banished (for the most part) from the other major leagues – reinforced the “outdated” perception. 

Only now has this reality fully set in. A genuine move for change, however, is going to be incredibly difficult to materialise. 

Ironically, while Juventus might be dominating Serie A, having won five Scudetti in a row, chairman Andrea Agnelli actually forecast problems for the league at the beginning of that run. 

"Turnover in Italy has stopped increasing while the turnover of our European rivals, Spanish and English clubs in particular, has doubled," he said in the club’s 2011-12 annual report.

"In the 1990s we were able to sign the best players in the world. Today that’s no longer the case."

Yet, one might have thought that success would have led Agnelli to ease up. Anything but. 

"We are in no-man’s land. Half in the last carriage of first class. Half in the first carriage of second class. The risk is to stay trapped in the middle," he said in last year’s annual report.

"We’ve got to become more mainstream, more pop. Our models are clubs from the Premier League, La Liga and the Bundesliga. China and the US are two new strategic markets.

"We have new targets who are not your classic football fan: millennials, women and kids. We have to ask ourselves what is the little girl in Shanghai and the millennial in Mexico City thinking."

Beyond Juventus, Inter Milan are trying to re-cast themselves in the Chinese market thanks to their new owner.

Roma’s plans for a new stadium took an American, James Pallotta, to make it happen. There’s the odd innovation or exploration elsewhere, but not nearly as much as it needs. 

And after all that money was squandered on Italia 90 infrastructure, it’s no wonder no jurisdiction wants to fund football. That stance led to serious club-government scuffles in Naples and Cagliari about stadium upgrades that are badly-needed, to say the least. 

Indeed, while there are many things still to enjoy about Serie A, the cracks in the roads have become potholes, ones now steadily filing with water.

And so long as nobody bothers to repair them, the beautiful game in this beautiful country will continue to hurdle down this sad road of neglect.

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7 min read
Published 27 March 2017 at 4:41pm
By Sebastian Hassett