The drama of Italian football

ITALY are out of the World Cup and won’t be in the finals for the second consecutive competition. In this age of 32-team formats, it does seem very hard not to qualify, so Italy’s failure is all the more humbling for one of the homes of football. One of Europe’s top five football countries-  and four times World champions – have come up short once more, losing in dramatic circumstances to North Macedonia.

England know all about the pain of failing to qualify, but there are not too many around who remember the period between 1970 and 1982 when the three lions were more like three blind mice. When England were beaten 3-2 by West Germany in the quarter final of the Mexico World Cup in June 1970, they had to wait until 1982 for their next World Cup tie. 

The intervening period saw careers rise and fall, players like Kevin Keegan, Mick Channon, Martin Chivers, Trevor Brooking and Roy McFarland and Colin Todd. A whole generation of England internationals was deprived of the chance to play in football’s greatest boy scout jamboree when they were at their peak.

A World Cup without Italy is almost unthinkable, especially as they are the reigning European champions. But it’s not the first time that the winners of the Euros have fallen in the qualifying stages of the World Cup: Czechoslavakia (1978), Denmark (1994) and Greece (2006) have all gone missing after winning the continental prize two years earlier. In the reverse situation (World Cup winners attempting to make the cut for Europe), Italy in 1984 were the only champions (1982) who lost their momentum. 

Italy’s defeat in the play-off was certainly unexpected, but their decline has been a slow burner and hasn’t been without its high points. Any other nation would be delighted with their record in the 21st century: one World Cup win (2006) and one European Championship success (2020), along with two Euro finals (2000 and 2012).

And while two successive blanks in the current World Cup format looks dreadful, other major nations have missed out on two consecutive finals, including Spain (1970 and 1974), Netherlands (1982 and 1986), France (1990 and 1994) and Portugal (1990, 1994 and 1998).

Doubtless, the post-mortem will go on for some time in Italy, the media are quite unforgiving and the future of coach Roberto Mancini has to be in some doubt. Despite votes for confidence for Mancini from the likes of Giorgio Chiellini, the 37 year-old central defender, and the president of the Italian Football Federation, Gabriela Gravina, the press have already lined-up possible replacements. World Cup winner Fabio Cannavaro, Real Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti and Marcello Lippi have all been listed. 

Mancini, understandably, was crestfallen after North Macedonia’s win, apologising to the nation. He still has his supporters, though, and will long be credited with rebuilding the national team and few would deny the Azzurri deserved to win Euro 2020. Italy enjoyed a 37-game unbeaten run that was ended by Spain in the UEFA Nations League semi-final, but they rebounded well from that setback.

Why Italy didn’t win their play-off semi-final is a mystery, they enjoyed 66% possession and had 32 shots to their opponents’ four. Gianluigi Donnarumma, Italy’s 23 year-old goalkeeper, has come in for criticism and he’s had a bad month, being on the end of Paris Saint-Germain’s capitulation in the UEFA Champions League. But Italy’s problem is clearly at the opposite end of the pitch, they have scored 13 goals in their last 10 games, but five of those came in a victory against Lithuania. At the same time, they have conceded just seven goals in 10. Bizarrely, Italy were unbeaten in the qualifying group, but drew four of their eight games, again emphasising their lack of firepower.

With the World Cup now a dead duck, Italy have to look to the future. The days of Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci, Ciro Immobile and Lorenzo Insigne and one or two others are surely over. After their revival last year in Euro 2020, Italy should have had the wake-up call they needed, but this defeat is something of a second wave, and frankly, it is easier for a big nation to qualify for the World Cup than it was 30 or 40 years ago. They will be foolish to ignore how and why this has happened.

Despite debt and losses, Serie A is Europe’s most exciting title contest

THE 2021-22 Italian title race promises to be one of the more interesting in Europe as four teams slug it out at the top of Serie A. Italian clubs have suffered during the pandemic, running up big losses and carrying large amounts of debt, but on the pitch, the campaign is shaping up nicely.

AC Milan reminded everyone they are back in the mix with an exciting 2-1 win against Inter Milan at the San Siro, thanks to a late burst from Olivier Giroud, who scored two goals after Inter led from the first half. Milan’s victory ended a 14-game unbeaten run for Inter. It was only the Nerazzuri’s second league defeat of the campaign. But this was not the ideal preparation for Inter’s next game which is a gruelling trip to Napoli on February 12. This is a six-pointer if ever there was one for Napoli are in second place and one point behind Inter, who have a game in hand. 

However, victory for Luciano Spalletti’s team will put pressure on Simone Inzaghi at Inter and also get people talking about a possible Napoli scudetto. It’s now 32 years since Diego Maradona’s team won Serie A for the second time in a four-year period between 1987 and 1990. Napoli strengthened their bid with a 2-0 win at Venezia’s Stadio Pier Luigi Penzo on the banks of the Venice lagoon. 

They were boosted by the return of Victor Osimhen, who cost the club € 70 million when he joined from Lille in 2020. Osimhen, just 23, has been hampered by injury and illness since arriving in Naples and the Venezia game was his first since November. He headed Napoli ahead and prompted coach Spalletti to urge his players to play to the strengths of the big Nigerian striker.

Milan’s win was their first in Serie A this season against the challengers and they have a vital clash on March 6 in Naples. They did well to recover from a first half in which Inter dominated and took the lead. It was a vital turnaround because a defeat would have put seven points between the two Milanese clubs. 

The mood at Milan is definitely in the ascendancy, not just on the field but also behind the scenes. The club’s financial performance, while still concerning, has improved significantly with revenues in 2020-21 climbing by 40% to € 241 million and losses down from € 192 million to € 92 million. The club has net debts of € 101 million. The recovery of Milan was always going to take time, but there are green shoots emerging.

The only real downer in 2021-22 for Milan has been their early exit in the Champions League, but with Liverpool, Atlético Madrid and Porto in their group, it was no great surprise to see them struggle.

While Milan have reasons to be cheerful, Inter’s financial position is still worrying because of the problems faced by their owner, Suning of China. Inter not only lost € 240 million, but their net debt increased by 16% and their wage-to-income ratio was up to 74%. On top of that, they lost coach Antonio Conte and star striker Romelu Lukaku. The Chelsea striker has, quite bizarrely, been making noises about returning to Italy and has been pictured wearing an Inter shirt. Inter have been playing good football and the signing of veteran target man Edin Džeko, Lukaku’s cut-price replacement, has proved to be successful.

Inter’s wage bill is around € 100 million more than their San Siro stable-mates, but Juventus remain the biggest payers in Italy with wages almost hitting the € 300 million mark. Juventus have had a difficult campaign, welcoming back Max Allegri after the departure of Andrea Pirlo and were still coming to terms with the loss of Cristiano Ronaldo earlier in the season. But if there is to be a surprise in the title race, it will surely come from Juve, who may have just made a transformational signing.

Despite making a huge loss in 2020-21 (€ 210 million) and carrying net debt of € 389 million, Juventus were busy in the January transfer window. The much sought-after Dušan Vlahović was signed from Fiorentina for € 70 million and the Serbian striker took just 13 minutes to score on his debut for his new club against Verona. Swiss central midfielder Denis Zakaria, signed from Borussia Mönchengladbach, also scored in his first game.

Juve are unbeaten in 10 league games and are still in the Champions League. They may be eight points behind leaders Inter, but positive momentum is building. Stefano Pioli, the Milan coach, believes Inter and Juve have the strongest squads and nobody is prepared to write off the Turin club.

At this stage, Juve appear to have too much to do, but they have the experience and resources to make a second half bid for the title. It isn’t in their own hands, but they know how to string together long sequences of wins that brush aside rivals. Watch this space, because it will be worth watching in the coming weeks.

AC Milan: There is a light that must never go out

THE Serie A title race looks like it may be a struggle to the finish between Inter and AC Milan, the first time the San Siro duo will fight it out for the scudetto since 2010-11. Although Inter were champions and Milan second in 2021, there was a 12-point gap between them. Milan are currently one point behind Inter, although the Nerrazzuri have a game in hand.    

Away from playing matters, AC Milan have made real progress, which after the past few years, must be a great relief for the club’s management. Although they made a loss of € 92 million, they have shaved around € 100 million off their deficit in a year. In the past five years, Milan have lost almost € 600 million. Their revenues, totalling € 240.8 million, were at their highest level since 2013 when they almost reached € 250 million. Calcio de Finanza has forecast the momentum will continue in 2021-22, with total revenues hitting € 300 million. The resurgence of Covid infections and the new (temporary) stadium limit of 5,000 will be a challenge.

Income for 2020-21 was generated from broadcasting and commercial activities, which increased by 18% and 40% respectively. Broadcasting totalled € 138.3 million, while commercial activity amounted to € 102.5 million, thanks to increased sponsorship and advertising. They have built on this fresh impetus with 25 new commercial partnerships since August 2021.

Ninety-two million euros may seem a daunting figure, but Italian clubs, generally, have been making huge losses during the pandemic. The improvements since last year implies Milan are on the way back and being run more proficiently. They returned to the UEFA Champions League in 2021-22, but they were drawn in a particularly tough group with Liverpool, Atlético Madrid and Porto and finished bottom. Regardless, they will have benefitted financially from being involved. If Milan are to regain their competitive edge, regular participation in the competition will be a pre-requisite. Their income from European competition is miniscule compared to Italian rivals Juventus. 

Similarly, Milan need to step-up their player trading efforts. In 2020-21, they made a profit on player sales of € 18 million, and over the past five years, they had earned less than € 100 million from this source. Compare that to the € 1 billion-plus made between Juventus, Napoli and Roma, and it is clear there is significant upside for Milan. In 2020-21, they sold Suso to Sevilla for € 21 million and Lucas Paquetá to Lyon for € 20 million. 

In a transfer market undoubtedly compromised by the pandemic, Milan spent far less than Juventus and Inter last season. Their gross spend was around € 35 million (source: Transfermarkt), while Juve spent € 155 million and Inter € 121 million.

Milan also need to leverage their brand to secure better shirt and kit deals. According to Brand Finance, Milan are inside the top 30 most valuable and strongest brands. Their shirt sponsorship with Emirates yields € 14 million and their Puma kit arrangements amount to € 13 million. Juventus, by contrast have a shirt sponsor, Jeep, that pays € 45 million and Fiorentina’s deal with Mediacom is € 26 million. Even Sassuolo have a better shirt deal with Mapei (€ 18 million).

Key to AC Milan’s future is the new stadium project which seems to have been discussed for years. Interestingly, of the most recent 150 stadiums built around the world, only three happen to be Italian. Milan’s new home, to be shared with Inter, of course, aims to be a revolutionary arena that will take the club’s matchday revenues from the usual € 30 million to € 80 million. Their CEO, Ivan Gazidis, is desperate to drive-up revenues in order to bridge the gap with Europe’s elite group. He knows Milan are still € 100 million from break-even, but hopes this will be achieved within three years.

Milan’s league form has recovered after a sticky patch and they have won their last three games, including a 3-1 home success against Roma. They’ve only lost one away from home, but slipped up before Christmas against Napoli at home. Fans are calling for action during the transfer window to strengthen the squad, but Milan will be only too aware that some of their biggest signings have not worked out too well. Milan are still dependent on 40 year-old in Zlatan Ibrahimović, who is their leading scorer with eight Serie A goals in 13 games. He cannot go on forever. Franck Kessie, a player who has become a target of some of Europe’s top clubs, may decide to leave Milan as he has yet to sign a new deal. This will be a blow to the Rossoneri, but they have been looking at Sven Botman of Lille and Manchester United’s Eric Bailly.

After some grim financial performances, AC Milan still have some way to go, but there is, at least, a light at the end of the tunnel, and when the new stadium arrives, the club can look the future in the eye.