The rise of Serie A

It’s no secret, Italian football is regaining the days of its former glory. Without attempting to sound too hipster, but I told anyone who would listen for the past 24months and now it is apparent for all to see. Not many could have foreseen the spectacular demise of Italian domestic football, the national team was still basking in the glory of their World Cup triumph in 2006. A side in which every single player still plied their trade in Italy, in the premier competition, Serie A. The stage looked set for their dominance to continue but awaiting them back in Italy was the cancer that had manifested itself and infamously become apart of Italian football, Corruption. It had reached its peak and there would be an almighty price to pay, perhaps Italian football should’ve paid close attention to George R.R. Marin’s novel A Song of Ice and Fire and particularly to the words of House Stark “Winter is Coming” and it had a bite. Italian football was about to enter a dark period. Calciopoli, saw teams ravaged with points deduction and in the case of reigning champions Juventus, it saw their demotion into Serie B and the semi-dismantling of one of Europe’s greatest squads, ultimately it tarnished an already tainted reputation of the league. Picking up the pieces were bitter rivals and main title contenders, Inter Milan. They signed Ibrahimovic and Serie A became the tournament that everyone competes in but Zlatan wins. It would be foolish to put the lack of competition down to one man’s brilliance but squads around the league were not at their strongest aside from the giants of Milan and Juventus, with one of them having their wings clipped and the other constructed of an aging squad that did not have the legs to compete on all fronts, it left the door wide open for Inter Milan’s dominance and five (One courtesy of Juventus being stripped of the honour) successive titles followed. This wasn’t the same Serie A that had players like Zidane, Batistuta, Thuram and Crespo all in their prime, this was a league struggling to cope with the demons that had plagued and overshadowed their football for years.

Whilst the first season following Calciopoli may have masked over the deep lying cracks with A.C. Milan’s European success, this was a team that had sacrificed their hopes of a domestic title due to a points deduction and had the World’s best player at that moment in time in Kaka. The next couple of years saw a struggle in Europe, the two best players in the league (Kaka and Ibrahimovic) left to join Spanish giants, Real Madrid and Barcelona respectively, the league struggled to replace its talents, teams opted to invest in youth and perhaps in hindsight has led to the strength that currently exists in the league, but at that point the future looked bleak. It was only the magic of Jose Mourinho that brought Europe’s prized trophy back to Italy and the city of Milan as Inter defied all odds in a memorable Champions League run, yet his legacy was seemingly dismantled in the short space of four months once Rafael Benitez had worked his charm with the side. Whether Inter’s capitulation following their treble was down to Benitez or merely the simple fact that Zlatan Ibrahimovic was back in Italy playing for eventual champions that season, A.C. Milan which caused everyone else to give up hope is unknown. Unsuspecting to most however, especially those around Europe, in this dormant period there were teams slowly biding their time, building sides that would go on to be a force, not only in Italy but potentially in Europe. Down in the south, under the ownership of Aurelio De Laurentiis and the management of Walter Mazzarri, Napoli had built a side around the ‘three tenors’, meanwhile Juventus, who had got back into Serie A on their first attempt had begun to assemble a side fitting for the most successful team in Italian history and the summer of 2011 would be the most significant period in their rise back to the top. Juventus appointed former legend Antonio Conte after a successful period with Siena and the rest has been assigned to history.

Whilst the money that is available to Italian clubs is not in the same bracket as that which is spent on a regular basis in the Premier League and by Spain’s big two, the quality that was brought into the league was far greater than the value suggested. In the forgotten years, Palermo had acquired Cavani (then sold to Napoli) and Pastore, Bologna signed Gaston Ramirez, whilst Cagliari found a gem in Radja Nainggolan and Fiorentina had their own diamond in the rough, Stevan Jovetic. There seemed to be a concerted effort by clubs to buy in potential and for many the gamble paid off. The league began to strengthen in terms of competition, teams across the league had players worthy of playing in a competition that was home to some of the greatest footballers in the past.

One of the biggest criticisms that faced Italian football in its quest to be accepted as Europe’s elite again, was one that not only existed post Calciopoli but prior, there were those that labelled the league boring and thought the chess-like strategic battles were out of place against the free flowing football of those around the continent. Last season in particular however saw Juventus win a thoroughly enthralling Serie A title race, it wasn’t just the quality of their players that impressed, but the quality of their football and they weren’t the only ones. Gone now are the days of catenaccio. The dying (dark) art is practiced by few teams now, replaced with a diverse brand of attacking football. Much is made when matches in the Premier League act as an advert for the game across the world, in Serie A there were no shortage of fixtures that could’ve been aired for that purpose. Napoli vs Juventus at the San Paolo was one such spectacle, the game ended 3-3 following a thrilling come back from Juventus that preserved their unbeaten run, which would last the whole season.

So what makes Serie A so special now? One of the biggest factors has briefly been mentioned earlier, the resurgence of Juventus among Europe’s elites. This is a team, generally despised by all quarters and their success fuels a passion amongst the other clubs in order to unseat those who currently sit on the throne (however that is likely going to have to be delayed till next season at the least). Juventus’ rise has seen them acquire and retain world class talent throughout the team, in captain Gianluigi Buffon they arguably have the greatest keeper of a generation and a defence in front of him that is the most formidable in world football. The quality doesn’t stop there mind you, in midfield there is a trio of Vidal, Marchisio and Andrea Pirlo that rival just about any other midfield there is, the combination of speed, strength and guile between them seems perfectly balanced. This theme of balance seems to continue with other sides, whilst some teams do not possess the vast array of talented players that Juventus do, they have assembled squads whose team chemistry is greater than the sum of its individual parts. Fiorentina and Lazio appear to be the two perfect examples, both possess a star in Jovetic and Hernanes respectively but the likes of David Pizzaro and Borja Valero with The Viola are players that would perhaps be considered too old by others but have found a niche and work within their limits to propel the club forward. Lazio with Klose and Mauri are players in similar situations. This is not a league that resembles a retirement home but a league that appears to have found the fountain of youth. It wasn’t long ago when Andrea Pirlo was considered washed up following a deterioration towards the end of his time with A.C. Milan, yet Juventus have arguably brought the best out of him at the age of 33. He’s now the ultimate regista.

The league isn’t short of genuine world class talent either, looking away from Juventus, Napoli’s Edinson Cavani is widely regarded, along with Radamel Falcao, the best striker on the planet. Known as El Matador, Cavani has no lack of suitors and it is no surprise given that he is the complete forward. Yet, the mere fact he has stayed loyal to Napoli thus far speaks volumes about what he believes can be achieved with The Partenopei, the San Paolo has been restored to a cauldron and the quality on the field is arguably as good as it was when Diego Maradona would grace the 60,000 odd fanatics. Even with the departure of Lavezzi, his partnership with Marek Hamsik remains one of the world’s elite attacking threats. I’m surprised it has taken this long, but at one point there was going to be a mention for the King of Rome. Italian football may have dipped under the radar but there is no question as to the talent of the timeless Francesco Totti, who a month ago, celebrated twenty glorious years as the face of Roma and long may he reign supreme. His form for Roma this season has been exceptional, the calls for his return to the national side at the age of 36 is a testament to his form and the magic that still surrounds him and who knows whether there is enough to conjure another title back to the capital. At Inter Milan there is the mercurial Antonio Cassano, the bad boy of Italian football has been making more headlines on the pitch than off them this season, it is a shame the consistency hasn’t always been there through his career but he is truly world class when he wants to be (Please, do not transform that into a song). Riccardo Montolivo at A.C. finally seems set on realising his potential, he has been the catalyst for much of his side’s great work, his awareness on the ball is spectacular and he has the vision and ability to link play and drive his team forward.

The list goes on but it is time to move on to the next factor in the league’s inevitable rise back to the top and that is the future. Erik Lamela at Roma represents one of the most exciting talents in world football and adds another string to Argentina’s never ending bow of attackers. Mind you, he learns from the aforementioned Totti so really, there is no surprise. Napoli fans may still mourn the departure of Lavezzi, Lorenzo Insigne will no doubt in time make them forget. Having impressed on loan with Pescara a season before, the youngster has not looked out of place next to Cavani and Hamsik. Whilst in the red and black half of Milan, El Shaarawy and Balotelli appear not only to be the foundation of their sides future but that of the Italian national side. The pair have combined for 23 goals in 36 games and the combined age of 42 there is a force rising in the San Siro. Others to keep an eye out for include, Ciro Immobile, Mattia Destro, Marquinhos, Paul Pogba, arguably the best of all Stevan Jovetic and more, genuinely the talent in Serie A is frightening.

It’s all well and good having the players but the league is also fortunate to be home of some of the most exciting managerial candidates in world football. Antonio Conte is the obvious pick having guided Juventus to seemingly back to back titles, their first since being stripped of their last two. Conte’s 3-5-2 formation has worked wonders and the team seem to be impenetrable at the Juventus Stadium. The dynamic use of his fullbacks, coupled with his fluidity in midfield make them one of the most dominant teams in Europe and barring their result against Bayern, would’ve been favourites for the Champions League in the eyes of a few. Andrea Strammacioni is almost Italy’s answer to Jose Mourinho, fitting that he manages Inter Milan then, the side Mourinho guided to unparalleled success. Young and ambitious, Strammacioni believes in his way, his (too avoid sounding too much like Villas-Boas) ‘project’ passionate and methodical his rise through the ranks as Inter’s youth coach is a story that many want to be replicated here in England, yet the opportunities rarely seem to be handed over to youth coaches. His style has been hit or miss this season with Inter at times looking unbeatable as they did against Juventus, whilst in other games looking clueless as they did against Roma, Fiorentina and Tottenham in the first leg of their Europa League tie, the second leg all but solidifies my point. Vincenzo Montella at Fiorentina has gone about his business quietly and without much fuss but the talented squad he has assembled deserves a whole lot of credit. He’s another young manager, a legend at Roma in his playing days, there have been calls from their fans to bring the airplane celebrating striker back home. His use of experience and youth within his side as blended together like an innocent smoothie. The most notable difference between the three is that they all employ different systems and the variety of their tactics results in a league that is continuously filled with intriguing battles and sub plots when teams try to outsmart each other with their respective styles.

Invariably anything good that comes from modern football is paid with a price and yes, the money in Italian football has begun to increase, Juventus‘ new stadium gives them the platform to attract the best, whilst Roma’s foreign investors have done just that. As mentioned earlier, they are still behind in relation to Europe’s other leagues but there has been smart investment in young talent, astute free transfer signings and the odd bargain. What appears clear to me is that the decline of reputation gave clubs the opportunity to be able to allow younger talent to develop. Clubs have made very good use of the co-ownership scheme that is present in Italy, allowing smaller clubs to receive better fees for players that come through their ranks whilst still being able to keep hold of them for a year or two so that they can be groomed for the elite level and contribute to the success of the ‘smaller team’ in the agreement.

There has not been one sole reason why Serie A is returning to the glory days, there has been and will continue to be a plethora of them. Even more remarkably, this has been achieved with modest transfer budgets and the sales of star talent, quite frequently. The shadow of Calciopoli still looms but there is a bright light at the end of the tunnel. Once a devastating blow to Italian football, it was perhaps a much needed wake up call, one that had a silver lining in the dark cloud. It won’t be long till teams will once again boast the incentives for the elite to join, they are however currently managing quite well in producing their own. There seems to be a wave of change occurring, almost a realisation that the old way wasn’t working. Teams are managed better financially, for the majority as there are still those that languish in debt with no end in sight but these will hopefully become fewer and farther between as the seasons go by. The days of Batigol, Ronaldo, Nedved, Del Piero and all the other greats is now long gone but the new generation on its way appears ready to fill those enormous boots. So, don’t be surprised if in the near future there are multiple Italian sides competing for Europe’s major honours, the wait is long overdue and “Good things come to those who wait”