On Tuesday night, Udinese, the third best team in Italy, lost their Champions League qualifier to Braga on penalties. The result leaves just two Italian teams, AC Milan and Juventus, in the 32-club pool that kicks off Europe’s premier competition next month. Ironically, the penalty miss that effectively eliminated Udinese was a failed “Panenka,” a disastrous rendition of the technique that Andrea Pirlo executed perfectly in Italy’s penalty-shootout win over England at Euro 2012. Italy’s sweetest international moment since the 2006 World Cup resurfaced only to underline the symbolic culmination of years of domestic decline.
Of course, decline is a relative term. If you offered the current state of the Serie A (millions of viewers, still producing top-class players) to even the most fiercely optimistic fan of MLS (thousands of viewers, still producing a whole lot of rubbish), he would take it in an instant. But after years of constant success, Italy’s predicament feels a whole lot worse than anything MLS has ever had to cope with. Consider this: in the last seven years, Serie A has been rocked by two high-profile match-fixing scandals, the most recent of which brought league-championship-winning manager Antonio Conte a ten-month suspension. Two years ago, Italy dropped below Germany in the UEFA coefficient rankings and lost a Champions League spot. Inter Milan, European champions in 2010, finished sixth last season. This year, Portugal is sending three representatives to the Champions League, while Italy is sending only two. Meanwhile, in Spain, Barcelona is producing epic, era-defining football, and the national team is winning World Cups. In July’s European Championships final, Spain beat Italy 4-0.
Italian football is experiencing the most painful reality in professional sports: inevitable dethronement. In the 1990s, with the Premier League still growing into its TV-centered, post-Hillsborough self, the Serie A was arguably Europe’s most attractive league. Fabio Capello’s AC Milan team beat Barcelona in the 1994 Champions League final. Zinedine Zidane, perhaps the greatest player of modern times, starred for Juventus, which reached four European finals between 1997 and 2003. Ronaldo played for Inter and Cafu for Roma. Brazil had the best national team around, but all their players wanted to compete in the Serie A.
A country’s footballing success is difficult to measure. In England, for instance, the Premier League is alive and well, but the national squad, despite their ludicrous FIFA ranking, haven’t won a major international trophy since 1966. Arguably, the high quality of the Premier League has more to do with foreign recruits than with homegrown talent — England is excelling, but the English aren’t. But these concerns are strictly footballing, to gauge a country’s sporting health, it’s important to to take other factors into account: Is corruption or fan violence killing the spectacle? Are clubs financially viable?
In Italy, where corruption is both a sporting and a societal problem, these off-field issues are particularly salient. Just weeks after Marcello Lippi’s Italian national team won the 2006 World Cup, a sporting court relegated Juventus to Serie B. The Calciopoli (Footballgate) scandal, in which officials from Juventus, AC Milan, Lazio and, to a lesser extent, Reggina were convicted of manipulating referee assignments, triggered a massive player exodus: More than 30 players who had participated in that summer’s World Cup fled Italy, including Golden Ball winner and Italian captain Fabio Cannavaro, who decamped to Real Madrid.
Six years ago, however, the problems were confined to the courtroom: in season 06/07, Milan, inspired by Brazilian midfielder Kaka and Italian stars like Pirlo, Nesta, Gattuso, Inzaghi, and Maldini, won the Champions League, beating an English team, Liverpool, in the final. Juventus’ return to the Serie A in 2007 restored the old, pre-Calciopoli order. Slowly, star players returned to Italy. In 2010, Inter won the Champions League, albeit without an Italian in their starting lineup, and, two years later, Juventus, bolstered by a new stadium and the ridiculous passing of bargain signing Andrea Pirlo, won the scudetto (championship shield) in buccaneering style.
But problems festered behind the scenes. Even popular teams like Milan and Roma struggled to fill their stadiums — partly because football television packages are relatively inexpensive in Italy, and partly because the Serie A match-day experience is notoriously dangerous. In England, the authorities have mostly succeeded in eradicating the hooliganism that once plagued football, but in Italy – where ultras don’t need much of an excuse to protest outside their club’s training ground, and where, last season, a group of Genoa fans, dissatisfied with the team’s performance, stopped a game for 20 minutes and demanded the players’ jerseys – travelling to a game still comes with an element of risk. Italian football fans regularly set off illegal flares, and, in 2007, a week’s worth of Serie A matches were postponed after a small explosive killed a policeman attempting to stop a fight outside Catania’s home stadium.
Yet most serious football-watchers have learned to live with this side of the Serie A. Of course, that’s not to say Italian officials aren’t working to improve things – though the latest match-fixing scandal has somewhat undermined their post-Calcipoli anti-corruption efforts – but fans who love Italian football, and I count myself as one of them, are able to look beyond the corrupt chairmen and warring supporters. We watch Serie A (well, if we can – many American viewers won’t be able to this season, unless mainstream cable providers like Verizon agree to a contract with beIN Sport USA) because, despite the shenanigans, it remains a high quality league.
But for how much longer? With UEFA’s Financial Fair Play regulations coming into effect next season, big Italian sides, particularly AC Milan, are cutting back. Milan, one of European football’s traditional powerhouses, recorded an $80 million loss last season, and FFP requires every club participating in a UEFA competition to break even. To reduce salary expenditure, Milan sold their two best players, defender Thiago Silva and striker Ibrahimovich, to the nouveau riche PSG – a team that doesn’t seem the slightest bit interested in complying with the new financial rules. Last Saturday, Milan lost their first game of the season 1-0 to newly promoted Sampdoria. Hard-core fans unveiled a provocative banner, the gist of which was, “You better sign some half-decent replacements by Friday [transfer deadline day] – or else.”
None of Serie A’s traditional title challengers have managed a major transfer coup this summer. Juventus, who have spent months looking for a prolific striker, couldn’t offer Luis Suarez and Robin van Persie the type of money they’re paid in England. Italian clubs have operated in the red for decades, and now they’re paying the price. No one really knows what this means for Italian football in the long run, but there’s reason to worry. The Serie A can no longer offer fans the star power of Spain, the sheer intensity of Germany, or even the consistently bonkers entertainment that makes England’s Premier League the most popular football competition on the planet. Instead, the Italians are stuck battling corruption, and no one wants to watch that.