ONCE UPON a time, Italian clubs ruled Europe, not just on the pitch but also through their purchasing power, attendances and in players wages that attracted some of the world’s top stars. Serie A was the envy of most European leagues, notably in England where people became fascinated by the glitz, glamour and smoke bombs of Italy’s Calcio.
Between 1989 and 1996, an Italian club won a major European prize in all bar one season and in the year they didn’t take a trophy back to Italy (1992), Sampdoria and Torino were runners-up in the European Cup and UEFA Cup respectively.
Today, Italian clubs have substantial debts, they struggle to compete in the UEFA Champions League and financially, they trail behind Europe’s leaders. While Juventus have made a good fist of hanging onto the tails of the Real Madrids and Barcelonas, their financial model doesn’t produce enough in revenues to go seriously nose-to-nose with the Spanish giants.
The Deloitte Football Money League 2020 underlines, once more, the gulf between Italy’s top clubs and their European peers. Furthermore, they don’t seem to be making up much ground on the elite, even though some clubs look like they have plateaued in terms of revenue generation: Real Madrid (+0.7%), Manchester United (+7%), Bayern (+5%), Chelsea (+1.3%) and Arsenal (+1.6%).
Juventus’ revenues went up by 16% to € 460 million and they moved back into the top 10. La Vecchia Signora continue to dominate Serie A, strengthened by the arrival of Cristiano Ronaldo in 2018-19. They clinched their eighth consecutive Scudetto, finishing 11 points ahead of Napoli. But Juve regularly field the most experienced team in Serie A with an average age of over 29 – something which should concern their fans. Their wage bill is also high, more than 70% of income – not a healthy figure.
Juve, for all the progress they have made – their commercial revenues of € 186 million, buoyed by lucrative sponsorship deals, are substantially more than their Italian rivals – are still way behind the leading Spanish and English clubs. But Juventus still represent Italy’s only credible Champions League contender even though in 2019 they fell at the quarter-final stage, surprised by a young and vibrant Ajax team.
Juventus’ nearest contender is Inter (placed 14th by Deloitte) in terms of revenues. Showing signs of resurgence after the fresh impetus of hiring Antonio Conte as coach, Inter saw income go up by 30% to € 365 million. They are also the best supported by average attendance, with crowds close to 59,000 at the San Siro.
AC Milan cannot claim to be in particularly good shape after making a big loss in 2018-19 and slipping out of the Deloitte top 20. Milan are actually generating less money than they were 15 years ago, despite having average gates of 55,000. They recently signed Zlatan Ibrahimovic for the second time, a transfer that was arguably aimed at giving the club a morale boost. It’s sad to see a club with such a colourful history struggling to adapt, but it also – in many ways – underlines the decline of Italian football. And it is also a reminder that reliance on a controlling individual for financial support – a la Berlusconi – is not an optimal way to run a club.
Italy desperately needs competition for Juventus, but clubs need to become more profitable for that to happen
Inter and AC Milan are hoping to have a new arena that can make them more competitive on and off the field. Juventus have shown that stadium ownership can bring many benefits, but there is opposition to demolishing the very symbolic San Siro.
Roma (16th) and Napoli (20th) complete the five-team representation in the Deloitte report, although Roma’s revenues are around 50% of Juve’s and Napoli’s are on par with AC Milan.
Game of the People has said it before, but Italy desperately needs competition for Juventus on the field, but this will only happen if Italian clubs can become more profitable. This is a country with some of the most iconic clubs in the world, names that helped shape pan-European football. Juventus didn’t catapult themselves to the forefront through inflated investment by a rich oil-man, it was done on the back of long-term strategic thinking and a relaunch of the club. That sort of approach is available to anyone with the business skills and patience to preside over a transformation. Right now, clubs like AC Milan badly need that if they are ever going to become a major force once more.