In the 1980s and 1990s, football lovers with an eye for the exotic looked towards Italy with envy and for inspiration. They seemed to have it all – crowds, atmosphere, star players and to cap it all, a reasonably successful national team. Serie A was where it was at – and when Channel 4 in the UK started screening live matches on a Sunday – largely influenced by Paul Gascoigne’s Lazio sojourn – we all watched the big games and hoped that the English football league could, in some way, become as glamorous as its Italian cousin.
Well, it sort of happened, but today, Italian football is going through an identity crisis and even the national manager, Antonio Conte, is forecasting the death of Italian football.
After Italy struggled to beat Albania 1-0 in a recent game, Conte proclaimed that football is “dying out” in the country that was once the epitome of the modern professional game. Was this just a national team coach looking for excuses for poor performance, or should we be worried? The answer to that is yes, we should be concerned, because European, indeed World football needs a thriving Italy. UEFA cannot afford for the nation that gave us some of the top club sides in the world to become also-rans.
The current signs are not good, however. Italian clubs, stadiums and attendances have fallen behind those found in England, Germany and Spain, and are also threatened by France’s Ligue 1. Globalisation of the world’s favourite pastime, coupled with blanket media coverage that provides accessability to almost any form of football, has killed – or is killing – the domestic game in many European countries. We must hope that it does not deliver a dagger blow to Italy, because man cannot live by just EPL, La Liga and Bundesliga alone!
Why has Italy’s football slumped so alarmingly? One must consider the state of the nation’s economy to draw some comparisons. At present, Italy’s financial situation is parlous, with a high level of debt, 13%-plus unemployment (including 43% youth unemployment) and GDP that has that has contracted in 11 out of the last 13 quarters. This obviously impacts upon Italian football and its audience.
And it is the state of Italian football audiences that highlights the change in Serie A’s status. This season, attendances are averaging 22,429 – a 4% decrease on 2013-14. In 1985, gates averaged 38,872 and in 1992 (when Gazza went to Italy and the cappuccino kid, James Richardson, first came onto TV screens with his stylish pink newspaper), they were more than 34,000. The one-time image of bulging stadiums, a cacophony of sound from the “ultras” and streams of smoke creeping across the pitch is a thing of the past. Watch any Serie A game today and most have one thing in common – empty seats.
Italian stadiums, once the envy of the rest of Europe, have lost pace with modern stadium design. In the lead-up to the 1990 World Cup, the competition that really relaunched English football, the country set about a lavish refurbishment of its arenas. At that time, it was said that no other country could have embarked on such as scheme in support of its football. But shortly after this period, stadium architecture went through big changes and over the past two decades, the San Siro and its counterparts across Italy, have suddenly looked very tired.
That is apart from Juventus Stadium, the home of the only club that currently looks like regaining a place among Europe’s elite. As part of the grand designs of 1990, Juve and their city rivals, Torino, moved to the Stadio delle Alpi, an unpopular site that was, apparently, a bleak place to watch football. The out-of-town site, owned by the City of Turin, was exposed to biting winds from the Alps and consequently badly affected attendances.
Ownership of their own stadium (most in Italy are municipal) has doubtless helped Juve push on commercially. The club’s Continassa project includes the construction of a new HQ for the club with a soccer school and hotels. It’s this type of venture that can make Juventus the type of club that can compete with the current elite of European football.
Not that Italy’s clubs are paupers – in Deloitte’s latest rich list (January 2014), Juventus are ninth, Milan 10th, Inter 15th and Roma 19th. But all of these clubs have fallen from loftier heights. The warning signals were there when Milan and Inter had to sell Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Samuel Eto’o to ease their financial problems. But economic difficulties are by no means a stranger in Italian football – between 2001-02 and 2010-11, 25% of clubs playing in Serie had been made bankrupt.
Serie A clubs are simply not making enough money. They are over-reliant on TV money- some 60% of their revenues come from broadcasters – and they have yet to truly monetise the merchandising and spin-offs that football can offer. While the English Premier has over USD 4bn in revenues, Serie A nets around USD 2.2bn. And with attendances falling almost annually, this has meant that Italian players are losing ground with their counterparts in the other top European leagues. For example, Paul Pogba, one of Juventus’ star names, is earning “just” EUR 23,000 a week, way below what he could earn in England, Spain or even Germany. When Eto’o was at Inter, he was said to be earning EUR 160,000 per week – and that was just three years ago. Estimates suggest that Serie A is paying out half a billion euros less than it was in 2011.
This is making Italian clubs uncompetitive in European competition. This year’s Champions League is a case in point. Juventus were the only survivors of the group phase. Roma went out, admittedly in a tough group, and Napoli didn’t make it to the groups. Last season, Italy’s three representatives were all out by the last 16. The last team to get to the semi-finals was Inter in 2010, the year they won the competition.
The national team may also be entering a period of decline. The Azzuri’s performance in the 2014 World Cup was poor, making it two consecutive competitions where Italy have failed to get out of the first stage group. Today it seems hard to believe that they were winners in 2006 and European Championship runners-up in 2012.
Can it all change? Absolutely. On the domestic front, you only have to recall what English football was like in the 1980s to know that a country’s fortunes can be transformed. The big clubs, Juventus, the Milans, Roma, all have huge latent support. And Italy have had lean spells. In the 1970s, only one team (Inter, 1972) reached a European Cup final, contrasting greatly with what happened in the 1980s and 1990s. They can come again if they address the apparent lack of talent coming through, clean-up the game on and off the pitch, punish the offenders and transform the business model. It can happen: Italy is a football-mad country – do you really think they will stand by and watch its domestic game continue to devalue?