Calciopoli was a dark period for Italian football. Major clubs were relegated or had points deducted and big players left for England and Spain. Naturally, this had a knock-on effect on the dynamic of Serie A. As the only major club left relatively unaffected, Inter won three Scudetti in a row. The two titles the Nerazzurri won on the pitch (2006’s league was awarded by tribunal to Massimo Moratti’s men) were two of the most predictable title races in recent times. None of the traditional title competitors could rival Inter’s stellar line-up or their strength in depth, instead decimated by the players who left after the scandal in search of Champions League football.
It would be easy to say that was the only problem with calcio in Italy. To pin the decline of Serie A solely on players leaving and Inter sauntering to a couple of Scudetti would be misguided. The cause went deeper than that. Fans, both at home and abroad, had lost their trust in the game. With the majority of clubs already failing to fill their ground for matches against those outside the top four, this was an unwelcome development. Uncertainty spread over the beautiful game in the Peninsula. Were the matches these fans attended fixed beforehand? Which team had bought the referee for today’s game? Questions that were sure to be going through the minds of the paying tifosi even after the Calciopoli dust had settled.
Incidents of violence hit the headlines in this period too. Unfortunate deaths of supporters and police officers had the worldwide press condemning the game in Italy. It certainly doesn’t help when fans of one of the country’s representatives in the Champions League are involved in what was almost a full blown riot against Manchester United – a club that will have a media representative from most countries reporting on its matches. Add to that the untimely incident that saw Lazio ultra Gabriele Sandri killed and the subsequent rioting of Atalanta ultra’s during their home game the same day against Milan in protest that the weekend’s fixtures weren’t called off in memory of him. All of this simply served to give Italian football a bad name.
However, despite the many problems on and off the pitch, last year also saw the shoots of recovery begin to emerge. Due in part to Inter’s indifferent end to the season and Roma’s perseverance in pushing the Nerazzurri however hopeless the pursuit seemed, there was a thrilling final d-day in the 2007/08 Serie A campaign. Despite a seemingly fruitless chase throughout the season, the bizarre nature of Inter’s league form meant that Roma went into the final day still with the mathematical chance of winning the Scudetto. Couple this excitement at the top with the climax in the relegation battle where any two from Empoli, Parma and Catania would go down and fans and pundits didn’t know where to look that day. Particularly since the final day games of Parma vs Inter and Roma vs Catania had ensured any kind of results would ensure drama – a memorable final day in stark contrast with an altogether frankly forgettable rest of the season.
The competitive edge that had been so lacking in the past couple of seasons looked to have bounced back in dramatic late fashion towards the end of the 2007/08 league campaign. Fiorentina secured the fourth Champions League qualifying position, upsetting the top-four equilibrium by confining Milan to UEFA Cup football. Although the peninsula lost one of its strongest representatives in modern history in Europe’s elite competition, there was no doubt about how healthy the domestic league situation was looking in terms of competition for placing – both at the top and bottom.
And it’s that competition for places that looks to have continued right into this season. The result in the Derby della Madonnina opened up the Scudetto race once again and we look set for a fantastic fight for domestic glory this year. Serie A has never looked so vibrant post-Calciopoli. The quality that teams away from the main four are now playing, is in turn providing many surprise results. So much so, that it’s becoming difficult to continue to label these results as a “surprise” – unlike the Premier League, where 90 percent of the time the big four only lose against each other. Napoli bought very well in the summer, Christian Maggio was an inspired signing and his recent inclusion in the Azzurri squad for the upcoming qualifiers is justification for the fine form he has shown. Lazio’s transfer campaign was criticised in some quarters, yet they now seem to be on the road to recovery post-Sergio Cragnotti era. Delio Rossi has identified the problems thrown up by a difficult 2007/08 and taken action to solve them. Throw an Antonio Di Natale-led Udinese, and Antonio Cassano’s Sampdoria and you can see why it looks very promising for Italy’s top league this year. In addition, the TIM Cup draw has prevented another Inter-Roma final, and with only a maximum of three trophies available to many clubs, there’s every chance we will see a very competitive domestic cup too, something sadly lacking from the Italian game in recent years.
Off the pitch and steps are being taken forwards continuing to try combat the hooligan element that regrettably exists in the Italian game. Extreme as it may sound, but banning away fans from attending certain games is a punishment that the governing bodies should be looking at handing out to all misbehaving fans across Europe. So far, it has worked very well in Italy. The levels of violence have, as you would expect, decreased since it was introduced last season. It also gets the message across loud and clear – violence will not be tolerated in football.
The clubs themselves are helping to set an example too. Last year we witnessed something incredibly rare, but it was nonetheless a special moment that demonstrated exactly how much football means to the Italian public and the opportunities it can provide. The fans of both Rome clubs stood in unity to commemorate the loss of Sandri. Banners were unfurled and the two captains stood side-by-side with the Ultra leaders of both supporter groups before kick-off. What is usually one of Italy’s most heated derby matches was played out peacefully, yet still retained the competitive edge.
All of this makes it dreadfully disappointing that no broadcaster in England has picked up the rights to Serie A this year. Unfortunately, Italian clubs do not look likely to compete with the Premier League or La Liga in terms of income and investment, and as such transfer fees, any time soon. For those who do not believe me, you only have to look to the North East of England, where this summer you would have found Sunderland finish the transfer window with a higher net spend than Milan or Roma. The same Milan that won the Champions League only one year ago, with all the reported riches that the competition brings, and the same Roma that finished second last season. As a result of the lower income, Italian clubs have had to tighten their belts. This in actual fact is perhaps not such a bad thing. While it makes it tough for them to compete on the European stage with their English and Spanish counterparts, it does make for a more stable financial situation in the league. With financial markets suffering their biggest collapse in 20 years on Monday, there’s absolutely no question this will have an effect on the numerous investors who thought they could cash in on the TV money thrown at the Premier League. Perhaps the relative financial serenity within the top level of Italian football is something the fans should be thankful for.
Serie A is on an upward slope. It may not be moving up at the greatest of speeds, but the chances of it hitting the peak remain very high indeed.