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.

AS Roma need to grab the chance, despite their financial limits

WHEN José Mourinho joined Roma, it looked like a statement of intent, a sign that the giallorossi were eager to become genuine contenders. They might not have been getting Mourinho circa 2004, but any club that aspires to win trophies is attracted by his track record. 

Roma’s 6-1 defeat in Norway in the Europa Conference League was a shocker for their fans and the Italian football community, Mourinho teams don’t lose like that and even with a weakened team, there was no way that should have happened. Roma should still qualify for the latter stages of the Conference League despite that humbling against Bodo/Glimt, but the Mourinho image was a little damaged by such a setback.

If that result was embarrassing for Roma and their coach, then the club’s financial condition is also a worry, despite the new ownership of the Friedkin Group. Roma lost € 185 million in the 2020-21 season, which continued the negative financial impact of the pandemic on Italy’s Serie A. Roma may also face sanctions in connection with breaches of Financial Fair Play rules.

Juventus announced their results recently and made a loss of € 210 million, which at the time was the highest ever for a Serie A club. Inter Milan topped that with a € 245 million loss in their title-winning season. AC Milan’s loss was € 96.4 million, a huge deficit but much lower than 2019-20 when they lost almost € 200 million.

In spite of these setback, Serie A has become very attractive for US investors like Friedkin owing to the competitive pricing of clubs and future broadcasting rights. Seven members of Serie A and two from Serie B currently have US backers in some capacity. 

Roma’s revenues actually increased by 35% to € 190 million, but their wage bill accounted for a very disconcerting 89% of income. Unsurprisingly, matchday income declined by 37% and since 2018-29 has dropped by 62%. TV income was up by 44% to € 124 million and commercial and other streams were up by 50% to € 53 million.

The biggest anxiety surrounding the financial results could eventually be the Financial Fair Play issues. The club’s press release said: “On the basis of the final figures as at June 30, 2021, a deviation from the UEFA break-even requirements for the reporting period for four years has been recorded. Therefore, the club may be subject to the sending of more economic-financial information and, subsequently, the Club Control Body in charge of the control, may requiest any contradictory clarifications for the appropriate assessments.” 

This may mean the club will face sanctions, although the rules are currently being rewritten and FFP punishments suspended. When they become operational again, a number of Italian clubs could be compromised.

Roma were less active than Juventus, AC Milan and Parma in the transfer market in 2020-21 but in 2021-22, they are so far the biggest spenders in Serie A having acquired € 100 million of fresh talent, including Chelsea’s Tammy Abraham (€ 40 million). Roma’s ability to spend underlines the confidence the club’s owners have in their objective of challenging at the top of Serie A and in Europe.

The Friedkin Group recently injected more cash in the club bringing Roma’s net debt to over € 300 million. They are, however, planning a capital increase of up to € 460 million, to be completed by the end of 2022. When they took the club over in August 2020, the company’s CEO, Dan Friedkin, proclaimed that Roma could become on the greatest names in football. 

But since the takeover, Roma have shelved plans for a planned new stadium after earlier signs that the project was gathering momentum. In February 2019, the city’s mayor said private financing was willing to contribute € 1 billion towards the cost. The new 55,000 arena was being driven by the club’s previous owner, James Pallotta. Friedkin subsequently analysed the scheme and came to the conclusion the financial, economic and legal conditions were unsuitable. It’s not completely over, though, as the club has confirmed they are in talks with the Rome authorities and reviewing their options, including a green and sustainable stadium for the future.

Last season, under Paulo Fonseca, Roma reached the semi-finals of the Europa League but were heavily beaten at Manchester United (6-2) at Old Trafford and eventually went out 8-5 on aggregate. They also finished seventh in Serie A, thus qualifying for the inaugural Conference League. 

Absence from the UEFA Champions League (and the Europa) will cost Roma dear in 2021-22. Every point in the group stage of the Champions League earns € 930,000 and just qualifying for the knockout stages wins a further € 9.6 million. With Serie A clubs suffering more than most from the pandemic, the income from the Champions League is vital, especially in the current climate. The Conference League prize money is, understandably, much lower, € 500,000 for a group stage win and winning the group yields € 650,000.

Roma’s goal is clearly to get among the Champions League contenders, but they will have to improve their away form in Serie A. Their home record is good, five wins and a draw and only two goals conceded, but away from the Stadio Olimpico they have won once and lost their last three games, the most recent at Juve. Their latest performance saw them hold early season leaders Napoli to a 0-0 draw, a game that saw Mourinho sent off, but one that redeemed the team after the disaster at Bodo/Glimt.

Roma remain one of Europe’s underachievers and their three scudettos – the last in 2001 – is a paltry return for such a big, well supported club. Although they have won nine Coppa Italias, their only success in Europe has been the fledgling Inter-Cities Fairs Cup in 1961. Although they have the potential to be champions and a European force, they are currently way behind the likes of Juventus in terms of financial clout or business acumen. Regardless of that, the 2021-22 season may be one of the most open in Italian football history, there’s an opportunity to be grasped.

Euro 2020: Italy back in the fold

IT’S often overlooked that long, unbeaten runs in international football, however impressive they might appear, invariably consist of qualifying phase games against relatively weak nations and calendar-clogging friendlies. Italy, in beating Turkey 3-0 in the Euro 2020 opener, extended their own unbeaten sequence to 28 games, against opponents that were neither makeweight or undeserving of a place in the finals.

Italy were impressive, but we should not be too surprised, even though they created a first in scoring three goals for the first time in the Euro finals! They might have missed out on a place in the last World Cup, but since then, they have reminded themselves who they are and what their role in the game is. Italy is one of football’s blue riband nations and they have a place at the top table. True, they lost their way for a while, but some of the top countries have been through the same experience.

Of Italy’s 28 games unbeaten, 11 have been against teams who are featuring in Euro 2020. Most importantly, Italy have kept 12 clean sheets in 13 matches, demonstrating they have one of their trademark defences installed.

Certainly, Turkey rarely threatened the Italian back line and Gianluigi Donnarumma, AC Milan’s 22 year-old goalkeeper – who is surely bound for the Premier League at some stage – was rarely tested.

Predictability, the pundits in the UK are quick to dismiss Italy, a dangerous practice as they don’t have to possess the very best squad to make an impact. They’ve done it before – in 2012, they reached the final, in 2006 they were World Cup winners when very few anticipated they would reach the business end of the competition. Italy, if they have a cunning plan, can force themselves into contention. You could say that when they are unfancied, they are at their most dangerous.

The armchairs pointed to their unbeaten run “against weak nations” and the age of key players, “when the competition gets into its third week, they will tire”. The “old men” at the back are very accomplished players, fit and clever with the use of their energy. 

Giorgio Chiellini, for example, was all over the field, lending a hand up front – his first half header almost gave the Italy the lead – and he also produced a well-timed tackle towards the end that he greeted like a winning goal. He’s classy and the only disappointment is he’s 36 and won’t be around at this level for too long.

Ciro Immobile may be 31, but he’s one of Europe’s most potent strikers. In five years at Lazio (the Stadio Olimpico is his home ground), he’s scored 150 goals in 219 games and has won the Serie A Capocannoniereaward twice in four years. Some say he hasn’t always performed at international level, but against Turkey, he was sharp, brave and he got his goal, a typical poacher’s strike.

And then there’s the diminutive Lorenzo Insigne, another 30-something who scored the third goal for Italy with a move he’d been practicing earlier in the evening. He’s an earnest player, known as Lorenzo Il Magnifico by Napoli fans. There’s even something Zola-esque about Insigne, and not just because he’s only 5ft 4 inches in height. Even at this early stage of the competition, it’s not hard to see him being one of the men to watch over the coming weeks.

It is early days, and optimism always comes with a caveat or two in football, but Roberto Mancini’s Italy team opened Euro 2020 with a welcome swagger. Turkey, for all their effort, didn’t get a look-in. it bodes well for the next few weeks. The 16,000 fans in Rome must have loved it. UEFA’s officials, including that genial chap who conducts the Champions League draws, must have loved it. It wasn’t just spectator sport returning to its rightful place, Italy were also back in the bosom of international football. 

@GameofthePeople
Photo: ALAMY