Italian football has experienced a tumultuous decline since the heady days of Football Italia, rocked by betting scandals (from Calciopoli to Calcio Scommesse), corruption, financial ruin and a perception of an aged, boring league struggling to overcome endemic problems of racism and Ultra-violence. It would be ludicrous to suggest that Italian football is rid of these impurities – this year Arrigo Sacchi bemoaned the “too many blacks in youth teams”, in August 2014 the FIGC (the Italian Football Federation) appointed Carlo Tavecchio as its head, despite his shocking reference to African players as “banana eaters”, and a few months ago Roma Ultras callously mocked the mother of the victim of the shootings at the Coppa Italia final of the previous year – but Juventus’ compelling journey to the final of the Champions League is symbolic of an upturn in the appeal of Serie A, its fairy-tales, exciting nature and bright future.
Few images of this year’s Champions League will endure to the same extent as Alvaro Morata volleying past Iker Casillas at the Santiago Bernabeu, to send Juve through to the final in Berlin. For Morata, it was sweet revenge on the club that deemed him surplus to requirements, in favour of his more expensive colleagues, but for Juve it was the pinnacle of an emotive process that was set in motion some 9 years previously, with the Bianconeri’s demotion to Serie B. Although the Old Lady was deservedly beaten by Barca, in the grand scheme of things the lack of superficial glory was perhaps not the end of the world. Juventus had managed to convert their Serie A dominance into European progression, beating a heavyweight and performing admirably against one of the best club sides ever seen. Whereas under Antonio Conte, invincibility in Serie A seemingly meant little in terms of relevance to European success, Juventus will not be overlooked again anytime soon.
But crucially the exploits of Italian clubs are not limited to the Champions League. Unlike the Premier League, Serie A teams have the sheer temerity to actually take Europe’s second-most prestigious competition remotely seriously – an attitude that is now being reflected in the coefficient points. Serie A lost its fourth Champions League place to the Bundesliga in 2012, but due to Juve’s final appearance, plus Napoli and Fiorentina’s semi-final placing in the Europa League, Italy was bettered only by Spain in the 14/15 term of points. Indeed, Italy performed better than England by over 5 points, more than half the current discrepancy between the two. If the latter’s bizarrely snobbish attitude towards the unfairly-maligned Europa League continues, this gap will be swiftly overturned, and Serie A will gain another Champions League spot, and a return to its rightful status as a truly elite European League.
Yet several myths are still perpetuated about Italian football – myths that were proved to be inaccurate last season. Although the Premier League is constantly hyped as the ‘Most entertaining league in the World’, and Serie A derided as a competition featuring only 1-0’s, with the occasional 0-0 thrown in, there were only 975 goals in this year’s Premier League. In contrast Serie A produced a rather more liberal 1024. It appears that the cliché of Italy as the heartland of the dour approach and unattractively efficient Catenaccio is no longer a valid one, with defences more vulnerable and attacking players more prodigious. And whilst Serie A is indeed still relatively popular with players a tad more ‘experienced’, there is something effortlessly romantic about 38 year-old, notable former truck driver, Luca Toni tying for the Capocannoniere, Gianluigi Buffon remaining imperious at 37, and Miroslav Klose and Francesco Totti turning out for Lazio and Roma respectively (even if the latter did regrettably take a selfie after scoring in the Derby della Capitale). But this comforting nostalgia is combined with a real sense that Italy is home to some of the most exciting young talents of European football – talents that will light up Serie A for years, or leave, resulting in colossal re-investment opportunities. The likes of Paul Pogba, Mauro Icardi, Paulo Dybala, Mateo Kovacic, Domenico Berardi and Felipe Anderson (all 22 or under) represent the flourishing technical players that are stereotypically not facilitated in Italian football.
The old guard, too, has been inverted in Italy, with Inter finishing 8th and their recently acquired neighbours 10th. They will be joined next season by minnows Carpi, from a town of just 67,000 with a stadium capacity of 4,000, and Frosinone, which if anything is even smaller. Needless to say, neither has played in Serie A before, and although the influential Lazio owner Claudio Lotito bemoaned “If you bring me teams who are not worth a f***, in two or three years we will not have a lira left”, the fans will not care, and if anything foreign interest will grow, attracted by the true underdog status of these clubs filled with home-grown players. In a year where despair was induced by Parma’s financial catastrophe, hope and triumph were being celebrated elsewhere. Unlike some of its more familiar equivalents, Serie A is a league that embraces tactical flexibility, with innovative young managers such as Stefano Pioli, Rudi Garcia and Vincenzo Montella (though he recently departed Fiorentina) all with their stock on the rise.
No, Serie A is far from a white dwarf, and much like Juventus this season, is captivating, enthralling and gaining the support of millions along the way.