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.

Champions League: English teams too strong for Italy

LIVERPOOL may have edged past Inter Milan by the narrowest of margins, but the hard work had already been done in the San Siro stadium two weeks earlier. Although over the two legs, Inter played well, even their best wasn’t enough to overcome a Liverpool side that is currently full of confidence and has its eyes on another Champions League title.

On paper – hard currency, that is – Liverpool should be better than Inter, but the Nerazzurri are the Italian champions and they have some outstanding performers in their squad. The harsh reality for the likes of Inter is that English clubs are now too strong for most of their European peers and it is not out of the question that the last eight could include four Premier Leaguers.

There was a time when Italian clubs were feared by English participants in the European Cup and latterly, the Champions League. England’s top sides just couldn’t remove Italy’s clubs from the competition. It wasn’t until 1998-99 that an English club overcome an Italian counterpart from the European Cup/Champions League in the knockout phase. Up until that season, Manchester United, Ipswich Town, Everton, Liverpool, Derby and Aston Villa had all fallen foul of Serie A’s representatives. Sometimes, the games involving teams from England and Italy would come with a dose of controversy, such as Liverpool’s semi-final exit at the hands of Helenio Herrera’s Inter in 1965 and the defeat of Derby, managed by Brian Clough in Turin. The ultra-professionalism of Italian clubs in the 1960s and 1970s often upset the English.

The days when Italian clubs were the last people you wanted to meet have, to a certain degree, gone, although Serie A still has plenty of talent and some well-drilled sides. But from a financial perspective, clubs are carrying a lot of debt and have been making huge losses during the pandemic. This makes them less competitive when it comes to attracting the very best players. In the 2021-22 Champions League, English and Italian teams have clashed eight times and the scorecard is 5-2 to the Premier with one draw.

There are certain similarities between the Premier and Serie A. Over the past five years, seven teams have filled the top six places in Italy (Juve, Inter, Milan, Napoli, Lazio, Atalanta and Roma), while in England, eight teams have made places one to six (City, United, Chelsea, Liverpool, Tottenham, Arsenal, Leicester and West Ham). For Juve in Italy, there’s Manchester City in England, for Atalanta, read Leicester or West Ham. For Tottenham and Arsenal, you’ve got the Milans and Romans. Both leagues have another 20 clubs who have either flitted in and out of the top flight or spend their time avoiding relegation.

The financial differences are significant and are driven primarily by broadcasting revenues, with the Premier so far ahead of the rest of the world. While the current TV deal for the Premier is £ 4.8 billion over three years, Serie A’s most recent agreement is € 2.8 billion over the same timespan.

 In addition, club ownership has become a competitive differentiator for the Premier, with wealthy business people attracted to the UK and the economic potential of its football. Italy has now ventured down this path after being largely owned by Italian business and families, but this has also come with problems, as witnessed at Inter Milan and their Chinese owner Suning. US investors have also become quite interested in Italy and seven current members of Serie A now have US shareholders. Parma, in Serie B, has 99% US ownership.

In the 21st century, Premier League clubs have performed better than Serie A in the Champions League. There have been five winners and eight finalists from England, while Italy has won the competition three times and provided four runners-up. The last winner of the Champions League from Serie A was Inter Milan in 2010, while two of the last three have come from the Premier, Liverpool in 2019 and Chelsea in 2021.

While the club scene seems set for a period of English dominance, the national teams, who met in the European Championship final last year, have very different records. Since 2000, Italy have won the World Cup (2006) and Euros (2020) and finished runners-up in the Euros in 2000 and 2012. England, by contrast, have won nothing since 1966. It would be easy to blame the lack of international success on the cosmopolitan Premier League – Liverpool’s team that won through against Inter included three English players – but Serie A has a higher rate of expatriates, 63.8% versus 59.6% (source: CIES). England and Italy are the two biggest importers of players by some distance.

Inter Milan went the same way as AC Milan and Atalanta, but Juventus are still involved and should make it through to the last eight. Meanwhile, Liverpool and Manchester City are in the quarter-finals and Chelsea and Manchester United have a good chance of joining them. There’s a good chance one of the four may come up against Juventus, which will reignite the rivalry between Italian and English clubs.