What has happened to Serie A?

Written by Carl Walker

I could think of nothing better as growing us a child than on a Sunday afternoon, tuning into Channel 4 and watching the live Italian Serie A game. Growing up we didn’t have Sky, so Channel 4 was brilliant for football, especially Italian Football which at the time was the best in the world.

A lifelong Manchester United, but when Italian football was on I have always had a soft spot for Roma and I was lucky enough to watch them clinch the the Serie A title in 2000-2001. Batistuta and Montella up front with the evergreen Francesco Totti behind them. Joy unrivalled. Pitch invasion followed and Roma was finally crowned champions in front of their own fans after a 3-1 win over Parma on the final day of the season.

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In the late 90’s and early 00’s Serie A was easily the greatest in the world. Teams like Inter Milan had Ronaldo, Recoba and Zanetti. Juventus had Del Pierro, Nedved and Zidane. Lazio had Salas, Veron and Nesta. Every single team was laced with stars and it was almost a different winner every season until the mid 00’s. Excitement every season, much like the Premier League now. It was the powerhouse of European football at that time.

This was also reflected in the Champions League. Between 1990 and 2010, Italy had six winners. The most of any nation in Europe. AC Milan’s dominance certainly helped winning it four times in this period. Italian clubs also found themselves runners-up on five occasions during this period. Individual honours also followed. Six of the Ballon’dor winners in the 90’s came from Serie A.

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Now Serie A currently sits ranked as the fourth best League in the world, falling behind the Premier League, La Liga and the Bundesliga. So what went wrong?

As football evolved, Italy didn’t. Stubbornly stayed as it was, believing that it still had the pull of being the best league in the world. In the early 00’s saw the start of the decline. Money was ploughed into other European leagues abroad like England and Spain making them rich and being able to offer increased wages.

Real Madrid and Barcelona became super rich and Madrid went on a mission of creating the ‘Galacticos’ which meant the best players were bought from Italy. Zidane and Ronaldo both left Juventus and Inter respectively and more followed as the years rolled on.

The Premier League, which was now becoming the most exciting league in the world, had increased money due to TV deals with Sky and the BBC and this also allowed clubs to take some of Italy’s finest. Juan Veron joined Manchester United. Hernan Crespo and Adrian Mutu joined Chelsea for astronomical fees at the time.

The calibre of player is not the sole reason for the decline, bad ownership of clubs has been crippling clubs from Serie A for a long time now. In Italia 90, the world cup was a success. A real celebration and if Italy had gone on to win it, it would have been a real celebration.

Stadia and infrastructure were in place which showed the world what a wonderful place Italy is. The stadiums that the clubs play in are often not owned by the club, leaving the facilities to be on low or no maintenance, effectively crumbling around the fans, and the fans have not put up with it.

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With these clubs not owning the stadiums, it means they have little say on ticketing prices and match day merchandise, another revenue stream that the Premier League have grabbed on to successfully. Match day revenue in the Premier League is easily the highest in world football. There are also very little match day hospitality and corporate facilities available.

Even during these years of low investment, the clubs thought the fans would stick by the clubs, and they did for the most part but in 2006 it was the final straw as Italian football plunged into more darkness. The Calciopoli match-fixing scandal.

The police investigation into the scandal found that some Italian clubs, including major ones, had been found in serious breach of rules regarding relationships with various refereeing organisations. Juventus, Fiorentina, Milan, Lazio and Reggina were all accused and found guilty. The punishments were varied dependant on the level of participation but the most severe punishment was handed out to Juventus.

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Juventus were relegated to stripped of the 2004-2005 league title, relegated to Serie B and deducted 9 points at the start of the season. Juventus also had their Champions League qualification taken from them but they managed to keep a core of players that would allow them to return to Serie A swiftly.

Attendances began to dwindle slowly, and it was Inter Milan and AC Milan that eventually benefited from Juventus absence. Inter Milan won four league titles in a row before AC Milan claimed it from them in 2010-2011. Juventus has subsequently returned to the summit.

In the last five seasons, there have been serious questions over the quality of Serie A, Juventus have monopolised the league each season winning it at a canter and some of the giants of the game are struggling in mid-table such as Inter and AC Milan. Wealthy owners have kept these clubs afloat for many years now, but they just can’t compete.

Football once again has evolved and Inter and AC Milan are unable to compete in the marketplace. Loan signing have been the norm with the like of Fernando Torres signing on loan and the majority of signings have been players that didn’t make the grade at other clubs such as Suso or players past their peak years like Miranda at Inter Milan.

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Failure to qualify for the Champions League has also seen revenue to these two greats fall. AC Milan have not featured in the Champions League since 2013-2014 and Inter Milan have not featured since 2011-2012. This season is the third successive season that neither Milan club has qualified for the competition and with the way the league is shaping up this season it will be four in a row come May.

Since 2010, no Italian team has won the Champions League. Juventus came runners up in 2015. Except for that Italy has only gone as far as the quarter finals on three separate occasions. Inter 2010, Milan 2011 and Juventus 2012.

In their places in Serie A, Roma and Napoli have re-emerged. Roma and Napoli have pushed Juventus all the way in the last few season put have fallen short. It genuinely hurts to see clubs like this Inter and AC not playing in the top competition in Europe. What can be done to change this?

The first thing I would suggest is that clubs need to follow the example set by Juventus and buy their own stadium. AC Milan and Inter both now have, or soon will have in AC’s case, have foreign investment coming in. Inter and AC both share the San Siro, there was a plan for new stadiums for each club but it looks as though the San Siro will remain the home for them for now.

There are some clubs who have started to follow Juventus’ lead and explore the same or similar avenues. Roma are looking at a new stadium in the next few years and Udinese and Sassuolo are re-vamping the stadiums they currently have and updating facilities.

Smarter ticketing, like what the Bundesliga have in place, and increased match day hospitality will help create and generate new revenue for the clubs as well as marketing on social media. Juventus, AC Milan and Roma all currently push their social media accounts quite hard for their fans, this helps the fans feel connected to the clubs and the players.

Marketing is where Serie A could really increase its stature and increase revenue. Exploring markets in the far east and America as the Premier League has done turns the product itself into a global marketplace rather than a national or continental marketplace. The Supercoppa was played in Doha this season between Juventus and AC Milan, similar avenues for some of the cup competitions and pre-season games could be explored.

This again goes for TV rights. Serie A’s TV deal is the second largest behind the Premier League and signing deals in untapped markets like the far east could see this increase. Inter Milan was purchased by an Indonesian businessman in 2013 and now have a large fanbase on that continent due to this.

Foreign owners don’t always guarantee success though as we have seen in England. Some clubs have been pillaged by these owners who know nothing about running a football club and are nothing more than profit mercenaries. Aston Villa have now dropped into the second tier after years and years of poor management, Blackburn too and they are unable to get out of the division and fans now boycott games.

Due diligence needs to be in place from the Italian FA and the rules need to be stringent for these foreign owners looking to invest in Serie A. If it’s not the situation could get much much worse. If they don’t meet the requirements, they can not invest. Simple!

There are some signs of a revival in Italy, clubs have seen the need for change and look to be implementing it in one way or another. Serie A may never regain its former glory of being the powerhouse of world football, especially not with the money in other leagues now, but to have the big teams and especially my Roma dining at the top table of European football again would be more than welcome.

How do you rate Serie A as a league? Let us know in the comments below!