An Italian football renaissance? The fall and rise of Serie A

At its zenith around the late 1980’s and 1990’s, Italian football was the one to beat for the other top divisions around Europe.

 

Indeed, you only need look at the winners and runners-up in the European Cup and UEFA Cup from that period to note just how dominant the Italian club game was.

Between 1989 and 1998 there was at least one Italian side in the centre-piece of the club game – the European Cup – barring one season – 1990-91.

Indeed, they weren’t there to just make up the numbers, either, with the great AC Milan side winning it on three occasions and Turin side Juventus winning it once themselves.

 

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Meanwhile, Milan would also end up as runners-up on two more occasions in the final whilst Juve lost out twice more themselves in both the 1997 and 1998 finals.

It wasn’t just they who made the finals, though, Genoa based side Sampdoria reached it once, too, highlighting that the Italian game had strength in depth – not just amongst the elite names.

To further demonstrate that, though, you only have to look at the list of UEFA Cup winners from that period.

Napoli, Parma, Inter Milan (three times) and Juventus (twice,) all took home the second biggest trophy in Europe – a competition far more revered then than it is now in its current guise as the Europa League.

Indeed, just after our concerned period, Parma won it again in 1999 with a young side consisting of the likes of Gianluigi Buffon, Juan Sebastian Veron, Fabio Cannavaro and Hernan Crespo affirming the fact that there was quality wherever you looked across Serie A as we turned into a new millennium.

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The expectation, then, was that Italian football would continue to dominate into this period but factors around Europe were beginning to chip away at the strangle-hold the nation had.

In England, the Premier League – and all its financial might from TV revenue was beginning to really flourish. Its determination to become a truly global brand was becoming ever clearer as the clubs moved to a more continental feel with both coaches and players coming in from abroad and changing the typical kick-and-run mentality of English football in the early 2000’s.

Meanwhile, owners (and rich ones at that,) suddenly came under the spotlight as the likes of Manchester United and, most notably Chelsea, fell under the control of mega-rich businessmen.

It is here where the English game began to boom – on the pitch between 2005 and 2012 only one Champions League final didn’t feature an English side whilst the evident financial clout of the clubs has turned the Premier League firmly into the biggest money-spinning division in the game – something, naturally, that has been hard to compete with up to only very recently which we’ll get to.

The Premier League, then, was having a pop at Serie A’s crown but, meanwhile, La Liga in Spain – which has the two biggest sides in the game – was also beginning to stir.

Indeed, towards the end of the millennium Real Madrid were starting to make waves in Europe again. They hadn’t won the European Cup for 32 years until they, conveniently enough, beat Juventus in 1998.

Los Blancos were seemingly back and, funded by Madrid business man Florentino Perez – still the club’s president to this – they began their ambitious Galacticos project which yielded another two European Cup wins in both 2000 and 2002.

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Madrid, then, were starting to reign supreme but toward the end of that decade, their most fierce rivals – Barcelona – were ready to dethrone them with arguably the finest club side that has ever been seen.

In a nine-year period from 2006 to 2015 the Catalans won a scarcely believable four European Cups as the very best products of their La Masia academy came to fruition. Andres Iniesta, Xavi, Carles Puyol, Sergio Busquets, Gerard Pique, Cesc Fabregas and Pedro all came through at the right time alongside a certain Lionel Messi to create the perfect footballing storm – orchestrated by fellow La Masia graduate Pep Guardiola.

Footballing dominance, then, was beginning to shift away from Italy.

The financial power of the Premier League and the sheer brilliance that was coming out of La Liga had knocked Serie A off its perch and then came the sucker punch.

For sure, mid-noughties Italian football was by no means weak. AC Milan had a top side in 2005 that somehow managed to lose the Champions League final to Liverpool but, just one year later, came the match-fixing scandal revelation.

Suddenly, Juventus were gutted of titles many of their players as Zlatan Ibrahimovic, for example, took off on the news of their relegation. Milan were deducted points – as were Lazio and Fiorentina – leaving many to suddenly want to avoid getting involved with Italian teams.

Serie A was crying out for new investors to come in and help boost the clubs’ financial power to buck a trend that had begun with the likes of Zinedine Zidane leaving Juve for Madrid in a world record deal.

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Ronaldo had gone to Madrid, too, from Inter Milan whilst later on in the decade Andriy Shevchenko and Kaka left AC Milan for Chelsea and Real Madrid respectively.

Top players were leaving all the time and when the clubs needed investment most – the match fixing scandal seriously put potential owners off.

Indeed, past 2007 when Milan won the Champions League it was only Inter who could and would find themselves flying the Italian flag successfully on the continent – winning the title in 2010 as part of a treble – in a period that was particularly dearth of success for Italian clubs.

Firmly, then, the pendulum has swung to the leagues in England and Spain but, in recent years, there’s begun to be some momentum building in Serie A once more.

It all began, too, in 2015 as Juventus became the first side from the country to reach the Champions League final in five years.

Of course, they ultimately lost it to Barcelona – as they did similar to Real Madrid in last season’s showpiece – but it suggests that the country is starting to produce top class sides once more – Juve would surely win the Premier League title.

For sure, you can argue that Serie A is still not as good as it was at its height and, you’d be right, but it’s certainly in a better shape than it was – and it’s getting better still.

Indeed, last season’s edition of the competition saw Roma and Napoli run Juventus mightily close. The Giallorossi notched 87 points to the Bianconeri’s 91, whilst the men from Naples racked up 86 points – both tallies that any other season would have surely seen them win the league crown.

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Meanwhile, one of the stories of the previous European campaign – Atalanta – finished fourth as their young side defied pre-season predictions of mid-table at best to beat the more illustrious names of both AC and Inter Milan.

Strength in depth, then, seems to back in the league – as it was in the 90s – and, crucially for the future of it, that’s being fuelled by young Italian stars.

Domenico Berardi of Sassuolo, Andrea Belotti of Torino and Federico Bernardeschi of Fiorentina are all going to lead the national side into its next chapter and, more than likely, will progress to the ‘bigger’ clubs in Italy rather than move abroad – another important reversal of a previously detrimental factor the game in the country – and something that has been demonstrated by Andrea Conti’s move from Atalanta to Milan.

And then, at last, money finally seems to be being poured into the division at a rate that is at least starting to resemble those in Spain and, especially, England.

Juventus haven’t really had the problem financially that the other clubs have and continue to do good business but it’s those looking to take them down that are splashing the cash.

Most prominently, AC Milan have got deeper pockets and have nearly completely changed the look of their first XI already with the likes of Hakan Calhanoglu, Andre Silva and Leonardo Bonucci all arriving in top class looking deals – rather than those players going to clubs elsewhere in Europe.

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Inter Milan, meanwhile, like neighbours AC, were taken over earlier this year and also have cash to spend as they bid to take the league title back from Juventus.

For 2017/18, then, we’ve got a league that could potentially have five, even six, title pretenders – which sounds a lot like the Premier League. We’ve got a league that’s now awash with top young players that look set to stay in the division rather than move abroad and, perhaps most crucially, a league that’s got the finances to compete once more.

Italian football has been through some pretty dark times over the last few years, then, but it looks as though we’re on the brink of a good suitably Italian renaissance.

What’s your take on Italian football? Let us know!

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