I’d like to believe that one of the reasons why Football Italiano exists is that football fans as a whole are smarter than they’re normally given credit for. Sports journalism, and specifically football journalism, seems to garner less respect than the trade of writing and reporting does in other branches, and the result is that too often commentators on sports can get away with statements which are disrespectful of the intelligence of their audience – and no-one seems to care. A sad example of this was given to us in the comments exchanged between Neil Custis, Martin Samuel and Oliver Holt (from The Sun, The Daily Mail and The Daily Mirror respectively) a few days ago on the state of Italian football on Sky Sports’ Sunday Supplement programme. The link can be read (and watched) here:
Their contention that Serie A is currently offering football of a very low level and that the English Premier League, conversely, represents la crème is so poorly formulated that it deserves being considered on this site.
The thesis in itself would probably seem far less objectionable if it were not carried forth on such pompous and self-satisfactory tones. Custis’ idea that ‘Serie A has been rubbish for four years’ is remarkable for its dismissive hubris, but what is really astounding is that practically no arguments in support of this notion are brought forth. Said argumentation would be at the very least necessary, since a brief overlook at the recent international achievements of Italian clubs and players suggests the opinion to be untenable. The winner of the Champions League and Club World Cup before Manchester United was Milan. The two Ballon D’Or winners before Cristiano Ronaldo (Kaka in 2007 and Fabio Cannavaro in 2006) came from Serie A, and one of them was actually Italian. He happened to win that award because less than three years ago he had conquered – just in case Custis forgot this – the FIFA World Cup, by a distance the most prestigious trophy in football. And before anyone objects that international football has nothing to do with domestic leagues, it is worth remembering that every single player in the national team which conquered that trophy came from Serie A. It seems pretty perplexing that a professional – one as experienced as Custis – should dismiss all of the above as ‘rubbish.’
Even when it comes to asserting the EPL’s superiority in the immediate present, the argumentations brought forth by the three journalists are evanescent. The only real basis for their statement seems to be the first knockout leg in the current Champions League, which ended with favourable results for the English teams as a whole. This line of reasoning is unsatisfactory for two very important reasons, the first of which is only too obvious – the results are still very open. Neither Chelsea nor Arsenal are going to face an easy task away in Turin and Rome, and as for Manchester United, a goalless draw is anything but a positive result to return home with. In fact it gives an edge to Inter, who will walk into Old Trafford needing only a draw to go through (provided of course it is not another 0-0). How then, does United have ‘no worries at all’ for the return leg? Not only does this claim misread the result (unless possession started counting for score as of late), it disrespects one of the most fundamental qualities of football – its inherent unpredictability. Milan were supposed to have no worries when leading 3-0 in the 2005 Champions League final against Liverpool, and we all know how that went. Manchester United do not even have a lead, and they should see the match as already settled?
Yet even if the results had been decisive, using this first leg as a cornerstone for evaluation is still a rhetorical indelicacy. It simply seems too conveniently selective for such a broad generalisation, the assumption behind it being that the strength of a league can be directly measured by the strength of its top four teams. It is probably true that the top four English teams are currently better than the top four Italian teams. What this argument fails to acknowledge is that different leagues also have different distributions of power, and that while the EPL has a chasm between middle and top-level teams, the margin between these two categories is much finer in Serie A, so that a team like Fiorentina can beat Milan to the Champions League race (as happened last year) and a team like Sampdoria can pummel Inter 3-0 (as happened last Wednesday in the Italian Cup). This ties in to Holt’s surprise that Inter, when he saw them play against Bologna, seemed ‘a poor side.’ But what Holt fails to gather is that the match was less revealing of Inter’s weakness than it was of Bologna’s strength – a team struggling in the lower regions of the table which nonetheless can bring a fight to the very best teams, much like Cagliari or Atalanta have done (and let us not start on Genoa). This kind of competitiveness – this pathos – is simply not present in the EPL, where by Custis’ own admission ‘teams aren’t even getting shots, let alone forcing saves’ when playing against the likes of Manchester United.
Given the instability of the results in Serie A and the impregnability of major teams in the EPL, it has to follow that Custis and I must have a very different idea of what makes for entertainment in football. His argument is not only that English teams are ‘stronger,’ but that the EPL is fun to follow where Serie A is boring. The reasoning behind this is to me mysterious. Halfway through this season there were no less than nine teams in Serie A holding a serious bid for one of the top four spots, the results of individual matches are far more unpredictable than they are in the EPL, the goals are as beautiful as any and most of the big games have given us flurries of them (Juventus versus Milan ended 4-2, Inter and Milan had a 2-1 on both games, and most recently Inter-Roma closed on a 3-3). Again, the proposition would probably benefit by being formulated with a little less arrogance. “If anyone is having any trouble sleeping,” Custis sneers, “tape a Serie A game and watch it just before you go to bed and you will be off like a light.” I do not object to professionals using humour (if anything I advocate it, even when it’s as bland as that), but it comes off at the very best as misconceived to make such pompous statements when the Coach of the English national team is Italian.
In the midst of all these self-congratulatory pats on the backs, Martin Samuel of the Daily Mail put forth the only reasoned proposition of the show (with no disrespect intended, but if Custis has ‘yet to see’ a good game by Alessandro Del Piero as he claims in the video, then he either missed the Real Madrid games – three goals in two games and the Bernabeu giving him a standing ovation – or makes it a habit to watch games without switching the television on). The claim that the EPL reigns supreme because it has the best foreigners is in fact an interesting one. But it is also very hard to assess. It may be true that the EPL has a greater number of good foreign players, but that their average quality should be superior is much more doubtful. A casual look at the Brazil roster as named in the last friendly against Italy reveals that their entire strike force (Kaka, Adriano, Ronaldinho, Julio Baptista, Alexandre Pato) was based in Serie A, with the sole exception of Robinho holding up a flag for the EPL. The rest of their team was significantly made up of peninsular players as well, from Julio Cesar and Juan to Douglas Maicon and Felipe Melo. Then there are all the Argentineans playing for Inter. Serie A may have a lesser share of talents from the old continent (like the Dutch, who are notoriously absent from this league), but the South American region is theirs – and it is no small percentage of the world’s great champions.
There is also the flipside of the coin. Italian teams, as a rule, are based around a solid core of Italian players. Samuel points his finger at Inter’s highly cosmopolitan roster to claim that Serie A has as many foreigners as the EPL, but he fails to acknowledge that Inter are not the rule but the clear-cut exception – one held under critical eyes in Italy for precisely that reason (and one which, notwithstanding, starts Mario Balotelli and Davide Santon, two very bright young promises). A look at the rest of the Italian league reveals a very different scenario. Samuel states that Serie A is made of EPL cast-offs and cites, as an example, ex-Liverpool midfielder Momo Sissoko who is now playing for Juventus. But Samuel fails to mention that Juventus fields an important line of young Italian stars – Giorgio Chiellini, who is 24 and a starter with the Azzurri as a central defender, youngsters Claudio Marchisio, Paolo De Ceglie, and on the bench Sebastian Giovinco with a combined average age of 22. These youngsters play alongside their more experienced colleagues Gianluigi Buffon, Alessandro Del Piero, Nicola Legrottaglie, Marco Marchionni, Cristian Molinaro, Vincenzo Iaquinta and Mauro Camoranesi, for a combined Italian presence of massive influence.
Samuel’s original argument is trenchant but liable to being reversed – in other words, the idea that England has the best foreign players could be seen simply as an optical illusion generated by the fact that they have worse domestic players. There may be some occasional stars here and there like Steven Gerrard or Theo Walcott, but the general presence of English players is rather light – much more so than that of Italians in Italy. In fact, if FIFA’s new 6+5 proposal placing limits on the presence of foreigners were to be passed, a solid sixteen teams out of twenty in Serie A would be able to go on unchanged, and most of the others would require some pretty minor tweaking. This is not the case with the EPL, where only four or five teams would be unaffected, and Samuel knows this.
This is not to say that Serie A is better than its English counterpart. In fact, the real irony of this situation is that on many levels the Italian league does have a lot to learn from the Premier League, starting from the latter’s containment of racism and violence all the way to its institutional efficiency and transparency. The beauty of their game also has elements that Italian teams could pick up, though this potential opportunity is reciprocal. Something which both countries could do with improving is, in the meantime, is the average quality of their journalism. Some peaks of excellence notwithstanding, the coverage of the sport is often incredibly superficial. The discussion between Custis, Samuel and Holt takes place over a posh table in comparatively casual clothes – a presentation intended to give its viewers a sense of comfort and homeliness. The effect was achieved ever too successfully – their analyses were so shallow, their arguments so lacking in substance and their tone so brashly pompous that you could well have been overhearing a conversation in a pub. It certainly didn’t resemble an exchange between representatives of The Sun, The Daily Mail and The Daily Mirror. Perhaps it is time to go the other way round – get rid of the bagels, ask your men to wear a tie and request them to act like football is a serious subject. Then take another shot at a comparison between Serie A and the EPL – but a real comparison, one which shows respect for both its subject-matter and its followers, providing in-depth critique and supporting it with original arguments, not such an exercise in clichés. I would read that gladly. For the moment, unfortunately, Custis’ attempts at wit say much more about the mediocrity of televised sports journalism than they do about that of Italian football.
Understanding Italian football part one – Fantasia
Understanding Italian football part two – Furbizia