Serie A - Is the Giant awakening?
Football : The rise and fall of Serie A
Do you remember when Serie A, the Italian league, was by far the best league in the world? The days of Ronaldo and Zidane, Shevchenko, Batistuta, Veron, Crespo and Baggio. The days of the Seven Sisters; Seven incredibly strong teams, all equipped to win the league and trying to dominate in Europe as well.
Those days are long gone. The golden era of Serie A is a distant memory. Something that younger fans won’t even remember. Now it’s all about the English Premier League and the Spanish La Liga. Even the Bundesliga and the French Ligue 1 seem to have more appeal.
What happened to the Bel Paese football? What is the current state of affairs? Are there any signs of the giant awakening?
The End of a Golden Era
In Italy the passion for football has always been evident. Everyone talks football. Every kid plays football. Every media outlet discusses football. Every day. All year long.
Italian teams have always been regarded as giants of European football. Serie A has always been a very competitive league; and Italian teams have traditionally performed well in Europe too.
The Great Torino side of the 50s. Inter and AC Milan in the 60s. Juventus in the 80s. AC Milan again in the 90s and 00s. All these teams proved their dominance on the European stage. Their strength came mainly from playing in a highly competitive league. If you wanted to succeed, you had to buy the best players in the world. There was no way around that.
Legends like Ronaldo, Platini, Zidane, Maradona, Zico, Ibrahimovic and Van Basten came to Italy and made a name for themselves. Mix them with some of the finest names in Italian football and you’ll understand how good a Serie A Sunday was.
This slowly came to an end. The rise of other European Leagues and the huge influx of foreign investment that came with it ushered in a new cycle for football. There were major financial problems for huge teams like Lazio, Parma and Fiorentina and things culminated in the Calciopoli scandal in 2006. A stormy end to the golden age.
In 2006 the Italian Football Scandal involved the two top tiers of Italian football and some of the biggest teams in Italy; Juventus, A.C. Milan, Lazio and Fiorentina to name a few. The scandal shook up the established order of Italian football. It meant that the once very balanced Serie A was left with an incredibly strong Inter Milan team, a decent Roma team and an ageing A.C. Milan team.
At a time when other leagues were investing heavily in infrastructure, marketing and branding, Serie A was dealing with the worst scandal in Italian sports’ history. Money started pouring into the Premier League and other giants like Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Real Madrid also strengthened further. Their dominance proved to be too much for the struggling Italian teams. Serie A entered in one of its darkest ages, with only Jose’ Mourinho’s Inter side able to win a Champions League in 2010.
The Dark Age
If you have glanced over the Serie A table in the past 6 years, you will have noticed that one team has a total monopoly; Juventus has risen from the 2006 scandal to take total control of Italian football with 6 straight titles, 3 Coppa Italia titles 6 Italian Supercup titles and 2 Champions League finals.
Juventus has owned Italian football in the past 6 years because they are the best team, with the best players and with the best infrastructure. They have built their own stadium (something almost unique in Italy at the time) and bet on potential superstars like Paul Pogba, Arturo Vidal and Paulo Dybala. Combine those with the experience of players like Buffon, Bonucci, Pirlo, Pjanic and Higuain and you understand why nobody has managed to stop them yet.
The rest of the league has been struggling with financial problems. Ageing teams, wrong strategic decisions. The teams in Milan have been dealing with the painful process of change of ownership, the teams in Rome have been struggling with all sorts of problems and Napoli and Fiorentina weren’t ready to challenge the Vecchia Signora.
This meant a boring and unattractive league for the majority of the last few years, but it has also prompted a lot of the teams to go into full-on rebuild mode. They realised that the model Juventus was following was the right one.
Italians teams have started looking at football through a more modern lens, and as such, in a less romantic way. Teams have started thinking of themselves as businesses, which means they are building a firmer footing with which to take on the big names of European football once more.
It's still early days, but Serie A seems to have finally started the process that will lead it out of its darkest age.
The Sky's the limit
Let’s be honest, Serie A is not back yet.
The only top team at European level is Juventus. They reached (and lost) two Champions League finals in the last 3 years and continue be a contender. Achieving something in Europe has to be their main goal this season,especially after 6 straight league wins.
One team that would be very happy to interrupt the Juventus streak is Napoli. The Azzurri are probably playing the best football on the Italian scene. They have a good coach in Maurizio Sarri and a block of incredibly talented players in Dries Mertens, Lorenzo Insigne, Arkadiusz Milik, Allan and Jorginho. They have been playing together for 2-3 years now and will be a serious contender for a league title that’s been absent from Naples since 1990.
If Juventus and Napoli will be the main two teams duelling for the Serie A title this year, Inter and A.C Milan are very ambitious too. The two teams are both now owned by new Chinese outfits. There is evident frustration at having being kept out of the title race for so long.
Inter Milan come off one of the worst seasons in their history, but they have put their hopes in a new, solid coach in Luciano Spalletti. In the meantime, A.C. Milan responded with a pharaonic transfer market session; Over €200M spent and the incredible acquisition of Leonardo Bonucci from Juventus. Milan is back, its teams are back and they want to qualify for the next Champions League.
The fight for the 4 Champions League spots this year is going to be fierce. Juventus, Napoli, Inter, A.C. Milan, Roma, Lazio. Not one, but two of these giants won’t be on the main European stage next year. Roma has lost their skipper and legend Francesco Totti, their coach and other key players like Mohamed Salah and Antonio Rudiger, but they promise to be feisty. Their city rivals, S.S. Lazio, proved in the past 5-6 seasons that they don’t need huge names to achieve incredible results. They will put all their hope in the prolific striker Ciro Immobile and in their surprising coach Simone Inzaghi.
Behind the six giants of the Serie A, there are a number of teams that every year want to surprise. Fiorentina is in complete rebuild mode, but some of their youngsters promise to be future superstars (keep an eye on Federico Chiesa, Gil Dias and Valentin Eysseric). Torino makes pride and honour their best weapons, couple them with some interesting players and a superstar like Andrea Belotti and you’ll see why they are always an interesting team to watch.
Other teams will get stuck into this Europa League / mid table battle. Sassuolo and their youngsters, Atalanta trying to repeat a miraculous previous season and maybe Genoa, Sampdoria and newly promoted Verona too.
This year the battle will be fierce. Almost every club in the league has spent a lot of money this summer and the level of Serie A seems to be finally increasing again. There is the right mix of superstars and rising talent to make it interesting once more.
The Giant’s Awakening
It’s still too early to jump to conclusions. Serie A is still incredibly far from the best leagues in Europe, but something is changing.
The mentality is changing. Clubs have started investing again in their teams and infrastructure.
Sleeping giants are working hard to get back to their previous status levels. The teams that have dominated the scene over the past 5 years are working hard to maintain their level. This in turn means that the general level of the league is improving.
Behind the teams on the rise is a long list of solid realities. They understand that the only way to survive is to have a clear strategy and to be brave. They brought back passion to smaller cities and generated fairy tales like the newly promoted SPAL and Benevento.
Serie A is not back just yet, but the supporters love of the game is still there. Italians still live football as passionately and sincerely as they always have done and the teams are doing their best to put on a show.
This might be the first season of a Renaissance period for Serie A. It will be competitive and uncertain until the very end. There are players that promise to be the next superstars and a new class of Italian players that want to live up to their predecessors' achievements.
Serie A is coming. I wouldn’t miss it.