Serie A kicks off this weekend and despite the success of champions Juventus in the UEFA Champions League, not everyone is convinced that Italian football is on its way back.
Indeed, there seems to be a big gulf between Juventus and the rest of Serie A, as reflected in the summer transfer activity in Turin. Juve look just as strong as last season, despite the loss of Carlos Tevez, Arturo Vidal, Andrea Pirlo and Angelo Ogbonna. The departure of this quartet, resulting in freed-up funds from the wage bill, along with the cash windfall from Juve’s run to the Champions League final, has given La Vecchia Signora even more of an advantage over their rivals in the market. The signings of Mario Mandzukic (Atletico Madrid), Sami Khedira (Real Madrid) and Paulo Dybala (Palermo) promises to add some fresh legs to a team that does have an elder statesman look at the back. The Juve defensive line, one of the best in Europe, is getting old – Buffon (37), Lichtsteiner (31), Chiellini (31), Bonucci (28) and Evara (34). They still have relative youngster Paul Pogba in midfield – but Chelsea, among others, are still circling Turin and will continue to do so until transfer deadline day.
Juve have also been eyeing other big names with the sort of vigour that once characterised Italian football. In the past few years, the Italian football condition has meant that “second tier” signings have been making their way to Tuscany, Umbria and Lombardy. Juventus are trying to buck the trend, as evidenced by the club’s interest in Seb Draxler of Schalke and Mario Goetze from Bayern Munich.
Big teams, little teams
Another trend in Italian football is the rise of the minnows. While Juve build for European contention, Serie A, in 2015-16, welcomes two small clubs to its ranks in the form of Frosinone and Carpi. When you factor in Sassuolo, who will be starting their third Serie A campaign, there are some critics that believe the rise of such clubs is an indicator of the reduced status of the game in Italy.
There are others that take an “elitist” approach and claim that clubs like Frosinone and Carpi just don’t belong in Serie A, or even Serie B for that matter. Between the four towns of Empoli, Frosinone, Carpi and Sassuolo, there’s little more than 200,000 people. Instead of congratulating these clubs on reaching Serie A, many people just raise concerns that it reflects poorly on the nation’s football and that it will impact TV rights.
But football in any country can still comfortably accommodate the sort of democracy that can create fantasies like a small team from the Lazio region making it big. Not everyone agrees, however. Earlier this year, Lazio President, Claudio Lotito was overheard saying that the likes of Carpi and Frosinone were “not worth a cent” as he eyed the diminishing TV appeal of Serie A if tiny provincial clubs keep arriving in the top division.
Understandably, Capri were very upset about this. “Perhaps it is true that some people don’t even know Capri exists, but like it or not, we do exist,” said the club. “We have won four titles in five seasons, starting from the amateurs. Therefore, we deserve respect…the teams who wins titles are the ones with the best results, whether their name is Juventus, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich or Carpi.” A fair point and very much in the spirit of what football has, historically, been all about. The possibility of the unexpected.
Undeterred, Lotito has a goal of reducing Serie A to 18 clubs as part of a radical reform of Italian football – often when you hear this type of master plan, it means the big clubs are looking for a bigger slice of the pie to go along with their more exalted status. Lotito claims this is not an attempt at marginalising fast-trackers like Carpi and Frosinone, but to enhance revenue streams.
Even with the possibility of league tinkering, Carpi and Frosinose face huge challenges to stay in Serie A in 2015-16. Over the past decade, one promoted team has gone straight back to Serie B in seven of 10 seasons.
Frosinose, at least, will be able to play on their own ground, unlike Carpi who have to host Serie A in nearby Modena because the Stadio Sandro Cabassi stadium has a capacity of just over 4,000.
Carpi’s story is quite inspirational, rising up through the ranks after being relegated to the fourth tier of Italian football in 2000. Last season, they averaged just 3,000 for home games. They were promoted from Lega Pro to B in 2013 and spent two seasons at that level before making the surprise leap into Serie A. Carpi is a place that has had to contend with natural disasters, so they can take the odd jibe about the inappropriateness of their new surroundings. In 2012, a devastating earthquake hit the town and if you take a look at websites that record such data, Carpi has experienced 10 quakes over the past year.
Frosinone’s story is equally remarkable. They went into 2014-15 hoping to stay in Serie B, let alone win promotion after moving up from Lega Pro. It’s a town that has, occasionally, been devastated by invasion and war. It was bombed 56 times by Allied aircraft during world war two and rebuilt in modern times. It is 75 kilometres from the Italian capital. The Stadio Communale Matusa is, quite typically, municipally-owned and holds 10,000 people.
How have these underdogs prepared for 2015-16 among the big boys? Carpi’s side is unlikely to look much like the team that ended 2014-15. They’ve signed around a dozen new players and let go just as many. Among the new faces is Chelsea’s Wallace, who came via Vitesse Arnhem and a loan spell at Inter and goalkeeper Zeljko Brkic from Udinese. Frosinone have been less active but their team will undoubtedly be much changed from the promotion XI. They seem to have taken quite a few players on loan, such as Juventus goalkeeper Nicola Leali, Ghanian midfielder Rahman Chibsah from Sassuolo, Roma forward Daniele Verde and Inter front-man Samuele Longo.
Nobody will give either Carpi or Frosinone much chance of surviving (they’re both 500-1 to win Serie A), but they only need to look at Sassuolo for inspiration. They will need to “seize the day”.