Serie A In-focus: The rise, fall and revival of Italian football
Matt Haynes | October 31, 2015
Those old enough to remember Italian football, when it was truly a European, even global powerhouse will have fond memories watching the likes of Ronaldo, Gabriel Batistuta, George Weah and Roberto Baggio blossoming into world-class players.
In fact, this iconic league was considered so much of a commodity that English prime-time television saw fit to dedicate weekend slots to accommodate a weekly feature programme and two matches. This Coral in-depth special investigates how a global football force declined and its gradual journey back to the top.
How Italian football forged its sterling reputation
The 1990s. What a decade this was for Italian football. Fresh off the back of Italia ’90 with the country still mesmerised from Luciano Pavarotti’s ‘Nessun Dorma’; the cultured anthem of the World Cup, it was a combination of this resplendent recitative along with Italy’s third-placed finish which seemed to partially motivate a resurgent revival of the domestic game.
Stirring the country, Pavarotti’s tones seemed to reverberate not just into the foundations of the nation’s infrastructure, but seemed to re-awaken a sleeping giant; Serie A.
Fresh from his exploits with Italy, Gianluca Vialli, who would soon go onto play for Juventus and Chelsea, led team Sampdoria to their first ever Serie A title, finishing top-scorer with 19 goals.
A season later, it was an incredible AC Milan side which trail-blazed their way into the record books, winning the title unbeaten – a run which eventually extended to 58 games. Under the stewardship of Fabio Capello, coupled with striker extraordinaire Marco van Basten, the Rossoneri ran riot; the latter netting 25 goals as Serie A top scorer.
This marked a period of Milanese dominance that continued despite them seeing Van Basten’s mercurial influence curtailed by career-ending injuries. The Rossoneri rallied in spite of losing their star centre forward midway through 1992/93, with Jean-Pierre Papin poached from Marseille as cover, and made it three league titles in a row, also completing the Champions League double in 1993/94.
Capello would go on to carve his name into AC Milan folklore. Following a season’s reprieve, they wrestled back the title in 1995/96 with the Italian pragmatist earning a stature similar to Pavarotti in a theatre of his own. He would go on to become one of the most revered coaches in football, applying his strategies to much success at Roma, Juventus and Real Madrid.
However, while this was happening, forces elsewhere were stirring from a stupor, beginning to gather momentum. Juventus were preparing to make their move. Roma were roused, AC’s neighbours and fierce rivals Inter Milan were compiling a team capable of challenging, under the leadership of the ninth richest man in Italy at the time; Massimo Moratti.
After Van Basten’s exploits, Serie A became an obvious draw for talent. Aforementioned Liberian-French talent Weah was lured from PSG to AC Milan in 1995, for a fee of £4.83m – a considerable amount of money back then.
He was joined at the San Siro by one of Italian football’s most illustrious strikers of this generation at the time; Roberto Baggio and a certain Patrick Vieira, who would later go on to become one of the best midfielders in the world with Arsenal.
Fierce rivals Inter responded by bringing in Paul Ince from Manchester United, as well as Benito Carbone, plus South American full backs Roberto Carlos and Javier Zanetti, among others. Rising force Parma welcomed Filippo Inzaghi, Hristo Stoichkov and Fabio Cannavaro.
All of a sudden, Serie A was a hotbed for talent, as some of the best players in the world flocked to Italy; a country which offered some of the best football, food, climate and fans across Europe.
The following two seasons saw Juventus establish themselves as one of the major forces on the globe, attracting the majestic Zinedine Zidane, Christian Vieri, Edgar Davids and Inzaghi to the club.
There was also an acceptance that Italy was becoming a magnet for South America’s finest; particularly those from Argentina. With the iconic Diego Maradona still fresh in everyone’s mind from his defining impact with Napoli a decade earlier, the mid-nineties saw Hernan Crespo and Juan Sebastien Veron link up at Parma, joining the prolific Batistuta, who had moved to Fiorentina at the start of the decade.
A players guide to adapting to Serie A
One major criticism of Italian football in the last decade, particularly since the turn of the century, is that it reverted back to a slow and hard-to-watch avocation. This symbolises an obvious transition between the nineties, where the football was much more free-flowing and attack-minded.
A decline in the availability of widespread attacking talent from the past, could have motivated a switch in tactics. Ironically, AC Milan, proponents of the superb, aesthetically beautiful football of the nineties appeared to lead the switch to a more defensive setup.
They built, arguably, the strongest foundation in world football at the time, utilising Alessandro Costacurta, Paolo Maldini, Alessandro Nesta and Kakha Kaladze behind brilliant Brazilian goalkeeper Dida.
Just in front, Demetrio Albertini and Gennaro Gattuso formed half of their iconic diamond midfield which hassled opposing players, never giving them any time on the ball, Andrea Pirlo became one of the best string-pullers in the Serie A, while one of Rui Costa, Kaka or Clarence Seedorf fed two of Andriy Shevchenko, Inzaghi and Crespo.
This was the side which gradually evolved through the early 2000s and became one of the most feared in Europe. An era which witnessed many vogue sides slip away, such as the likes of Sampdoria, Parma and Lazio, this decade gave birth to a number of others.
Although Roma, under the canny Capello won the first title of the new millennium, it was with an atypically pragmatic approach and well-balanced squad. Brazil trio Aldair, Cafu and Emerson were bedrocks of the Giallorossi defence and spine.
Awesome combatant Cafu was an ever-present and athletic marauder of the right touchline, effectively playing as a winger. Batistuta and a young Francesco Totti as captain led Roma’s line, while efficient Emerson holding the midfield together, providing equilibrium for the more advanced Japanese star Hidetoshi Nakata.
Boasting one of the best strike forces of the time, Juventus dominated the following two seasons. Talisman Alessandro Del Piero, David Trezeguet, Marcelo Zalayeta and the mercurial Marcelo Salas made up the perfect fusion of Latin forwards.
Abandoning the free-flowing tactics of the nineties, due to a multitude of reasons (explored in detail below) games became a chess match, with Carlo Ancelotti the Grand Master.
This was a response to a number of reasons. With Serie A no longer a draw for top players; the Premier League or La Liga a preferred destination, clubs, particularly those competing in European competitions, recognised a need to adapt.
Becoming experts in defence and slowing games down, this was a strategy used to good effect at a time when Italian football was struggling to hang on to a spot in European football’s elite. As unattractive on the eye as it was, this no doubt worked as a way of ensuring an Italian team kept advancing to the latter stages of the Champions League; AC Milan often the key protagonists.
The Italian ‘inside’ Job: bribery, corruption and scandal
A period which saw a decline in one of the country’s biggest exports was compounded by the events of 2006 that cast an even darker mark on Serie A, overshadowing Italy’s World Cup win that summer.
Dubbed ‘the worst scandal of them all’ by the media, a sports tribunal handed out some of the heaviest punishments that the game has ever seen just days after Fabio Cannavaro lifted football’s richest prize.
Champions Juventus were hit hardest, relegated to the second tier and stripped of their last two titles while starting the following campaign with a 30 point deficit.
Lazio and Fiorentina were also demoted, while AC Milan were spared yet penalised 15 points for the following season.
A scandal bearing most of the hallmarks of an Andrea Camilleri novel, Juventus sporting director Luciano Moggi was subsequently banned for life by the Italian football authorities for his part in “Calciopoli” and the match-fixing debacle.
Having found evidence of phone calls between the offending clubs with referees detailing outcomes of specific matches, the Italian football authorities had enough information to act accordingly.
In what has been met with a mixed reception, Italy’s highest court ruled in early 2015 that the statute of limitations regarding the accusation of Moggi’s part in the conspiracy had expired, meaning that he would escape jail time, leaving him free to pursue an overturning of his lifelong footballing exile.
Also acquitted of two other charges relating to sporting fraud, Moggi, speaking following his latest court ruling told Italian media: “My battle goes on.
“I will go to the European Court of Human Rights to have my sporting suspension cancelled and I will return to football.”
It was the final nail in the coffin for Italian football, which was already starting to see popularity plummet. While the 2006 World Cup win for the national team brought them back into global focus, the media had a field day with the events that were unfolding. Such juxtaposition was overwhelming.
The Azzurri victory also marked the end of an era. Legends of the Italian game Del Piero, Inzaghi and Marco Materazzi would see their international careers slowly wane, in what became a period of transition.
Also were gone the days when Serie A ruled Europe, giving way to a more exciting La Liga in Spain, which gradually began to dominate continental football with the country becoming the main pull for South American talents and many of Serie A’s finest flocking west.
Since the murky events of 2006, by contrast to the nineties, everything surrounding Serie A declined, however, they did establish one quite unorthodox unique selling point.
As the quality of football decreased dramatically, becoming slower and more tactical by nature, natural progression paved the way for the league being a final destination for players in the twilight years of their careers.
Italy as a country still had numerous draws, which clubs played on to prolong the lifespan of a footballer. AC Milan in particular took full advantage of this.
Known for its better than average all-year-round climate, high-energy cuisine and the lifestyle to suit their families, the Rossoneri especially used this to draw in David Beckham, albeit on a loan spell and Ronaldinho, who stayed with the club for three seasons.
It has been a long way back for Italian football. Only recently has it began to claw back the desired deference it once had. Although the guilty worked their way back to the top, it hasn’t been an easy journey for the likes of Lazio. Only recently have they began to establish themselves as a club who could be considered worthy challenges once more.
Juventus’ appearance in the 2015 Champions League final marked how far they had come in almost a decade, however, having dominated Serie A winning four consecutive titles since 2011, this was seen as almost natural progression.
For the best part of 90 minutes they also contained a world class Barcelona side. Serie A is also getting back to the competitiveness that it was once at, with those ‘in-vogue’ clubs of the nineties returning to prominence. Fiorentina, Sampdoria and Napoli; the latter especially provide credible threats.
Inter Milan, who, while Juve were rebuilding, took full advantage with Jose Mourinho in charge, winning the treble are on their way back to the top and have been subsequently acquired by Indonesian billionaire businessman Erik Thohir. It poses the question; is Italian football back on the rise?
Arguably one of the biggest exports to come out of Italy the television show remains one of the most-watched football progammes in the UK about a non-British domestic football league. At its peak it attracted over three million viewers, having debuted in the 1992/93 season.
Hosted by the dynamic James Richardson every Saturday morning on Channel 4 it became an almost overnight success as millions of UK-based viewers tuned in to get their weekly fix of gossip, goals and Gazetta. Fans could also tune in on a Sunday afternoon to view a live Serie A match, which saw interest increase considerably.
Channel 4’s procurement of the rights to air Italian football, which cost £1.5m was brought about by a number of factors.
Matches in the English top-flight were no longer free-to-air with BSkyB securing the approval to broadcast, Paul Gascoigne had just transferred to Italian outfit Lazio and the footballing quality in England was viewed as lower due to the 1985-91 ban from UEFA competitions because of hooliganism. It turned out to be a smart move.
Whether it returns in the future, remains to be seen. There is ample evidence to suggest that Serie A is back on the rise. Thohir’s investment in Inter Milan, 6/4 with Coral for a top three finish this term, may just be the catalyst that is needed to inject fresh impetus into a commodity which has sprung from near-anonymity.
Check out what else is trending now in Serie A