World Soccer
Monday May 4th, 2009

Serie A's status suffered another blow with the failure of any Italian clubs to make the last eight of this season's Champions League. Is Italian soccer on the slippery slope of irreversible decline and fall? The question inevitably asks itself in the wake of Serie A interest in the Champions League being ended by teams from the English Premier League for a second successive season.

With Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United making short shrift of Roma, Juventus and Inter Milan in the first knockout round, Italy found itself without a single team remaining in the Champions League. This was an even worse performance than last season, when Roma made it to the quarterfinals only to be dispatched 3-0 on aggregate by Manchester United. All in all, in the space of six years, English clubs have achieved a total and seemingly inevitable turnaround.

Cast your mind back to the 2002-03 season, when Milan, Inter and Juventus all reached the Champions League semifinals, in the company of Real Madrid. Milan won the eventual final, beating Juventus in a penalty shootout -- at Old Trafford, no less. If, in '03, English fans had to stand idly by as two Serie A sides fought out the final on English soil, there is every possibility that Italian fans will be doing something similar this year should two Premier League clubs meet in the final at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome.

So what has gone wrong? Adriano Galliani, right-hand man of Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi at Milan, has a ready-made answer. "Today's league tables coincide with club turnover," claims Galliani. "We're playing in a new championship now; it's called the Money League. How come Portuguese teams, Dutch teams or even a side like Red Star Belgrade win nothing these days?"

Galliani is the first to admit that Italian soccer has been slow to move and react to changing times. And he has been saying it for at least five years now. "The main reason for our crisis is basic economics," he explains. "Our biggest problem is that clubs like us share a stadium and don't have one of their own."

As an example of what he is talking about -- by way of lost revenue through Milan sharing the San Siro with Inter -- Galliani points out that as soon as major sponsors discover that the stadium "changes color" (switches club) every week, they pull out of major sponsorship deals. It would simply cost too much to have to mount and then dismantle semi-permanent advertising hoardings linked to the two different clubs on a weekly basis.

Galliani says that it is inevitable that the best players in the world will follow the money ... all the way to the Premier League. He points out how, back in 1990, Real Madrid was very keen to buy Milan's great Dutch striker, Marco van Basten, but in those days, Milan's revenue far outweighed that of Real so the club could afford to reject a Spanish bid.

If an offer like that were to come along today -- and the club's apparent willingness to sell Kaká to Manchester City this past January would seem to prove the point -- Galliani admits: "We would simply lose the player."

There are those, though, who feel that, while money may explain a lot, it does not tell everything. Former Germany and Bayern Munich coach Jürgen Klinsmann, someone who knows Italian soccer well having spent three seasons with Inter in the early 1990s, offers another less comfortable explanation for Italian failure in the Champions League.

"It simply means that Italian teams have fallen behind," believes Klinsmann. "It's all very well being the great tactical maestros, but that's no longer enough because football today lives by movement off the ball. In England and in Spain, the pace of the game is much faster, more aggressive and direct. In Serie A, the game is still slow and closed down.

"I have to be honest, I watch a lot of Serie A and you can see these problems. And then you see Italian teams pay for it when they play in European competition. Milan was a disaster [against Werder Bremen in the UEFA Cup], while Juventus and Inter are out quite simply because they are a reflection of the overall level of Serie A. I think, too, that the entire Italian soccer movement is suffering from complacency after winning the World Cup. Teams aren't hungry anymore."

In analyzing this season's European campaign, many commentators tend to agree with Klinsmann, arguing that the economic divide between Serie A and the Premier League cannot explain every shortcoming.

"Is it all black?" asked Gazzetta dello Sport two days after the Italian whitewash. "No, provided we do not hide behind excuses like the lottery of the penalty shootout or the number of shots we had that hit the woodwork. Luck played a minimal part in our painful Champions League lesson. Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal fully deserved to win.

"European competition has told us that we badly need to reform our football parameters. Economics and not owning our own stadiums do not explain everything. Cristiano Ronaldo earns $7 million less per year than Zlatan Ibrahimovic, while the total current Inter wage bill is twice that of Manchester United. We did not lose because we are poorer, rather because they were better."

In an interview with World Soccer, Giuseppe Bergomi -- the former Inter defender and winner of a World Cup winner's medal as an 18-year-old in Enzo Bearzot's '82 side -- feels that there are many things which need to change in Italy.

"When I watch a Premier League game, say it is Fulham vs. Manchester City, I enjoy myself," he says. "The game has pace and rhythm, the fans get behind their teams, they don't spend their afternoon trying to get at some player. We Italians, however, have an addiction to controversy; our fans don't accept a defeat."

Bergomi argues that pressure created by impatient Italian supporters tends to cripple Italian teams, stunting the development of young players and making teams very cautious when they play away from home in Europe. "I think the Premier League teams take to the field with a lot less pressure and it influences the way they play, faster, more athletic and with less pressure," he continues. "The foreign players in the Premier League adapt to this instantly.

"We're still the best, tactically speaking, but sometimes the excessive obsession with tactics gets in the way, it blocks the player. In contrast, Premier League players in England are freer in their minds, they just go out there and play. Look at the three Italian sides in the Champions League -- their mental approach was all wrong. Inter, for example, only began to play well after it went down 1-0 in the return leg. At that point, with nothing left to play for, it finally came out and played, but it was too late."

These days, Bergomi is an analyst for Sky Italia and covers Serie A matches every week. He points out, as an example of what is wrong with Italian soccer culture, that he now requires police protection at certain grounds, such as the Olympic stadiums of Rome and Turin, because fans, annoyed with the way in which he has called a key incident in a game, tend to be on hand, ready to abuse and even assault him.

"There isn't the right mentality," he says. "I mean, if I say during a commentary that that is definitely a penalty for team Y against team X, then for lots of fans I'm not giving my expert, objective opinion. No, no, for lots of fans that means I am simply against team X, their team."

Bergomi argues that there is not that much between Italian and Premier League sides in technical terms. He says, however, that the whole ambiente (environment) has to change. Club ownership of the stadiums, removal of pitch-side barriers and the creation of a more "family" atmosphere are imperative.

"If I didn't have to go to matches for my work, I'd never go to the stadium at all these days, it so uncomfortable in Italy," he says. "You've got to make it a real pleasure for people to go to a match."

Unfortunately, the odds on a change in attitude are not encouraging and, to some extent, Italy's World Cup win in Germany helped mask many of the fundamental problems.

For the best part of this decade, Italian soccer has been systematically rocked by a succession of scandals, from match-fixing and drug abuse, to financial irregularities in club affairs and recurrent episodes of fan violence. The writing has long been up there on the wall. Written in bold. With capital letters. And underlined.

However, to some extent, the governing class of Italian soccer mirrors that of the entire country and they have been slow to enact effective change, perhaps distracted by that win in Germany three years ago. Upgraded infrastructure, leading to increased revenue, would be a big help, as indeed would more emphasis on the development of youth-team players -- and not for the youth team but for the first team -- together with a less defensive style of soccer.

Such developments and more are all required to help create a different mentality. Twenty years ago, Arrigo Sacchi might have thought he had changed the Italian mind set with his Milan team of Ruud Gullit, Frank Rijkaard, van Basten, Franco Baresi and Paolo Maldini. In reality, the success of one glorious side was not enough to start a footballing revolution. Perhaps it is time for a new Sacchi.

This article originally appeared in the May 2009 issue of World Soccer magazine. To subscribe, click here.

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