Italian football has witnessed a fair amount of ups and downs over the last few decades. It went from being the most-followed football league in the 1990s and a hallmark of winning in the early 2000s to being synonymous with cheating, fraud and power-hungry individuals ruining the arena during the Calciopoli scandal of 2006. While an upturn in reputation did arrive in the period from 2010 to the middle of the previous decade, Juventus’ points-deduction sentence is a vital fork stuck in the road for calcio. It comes right when things seemed to be on the way up in Italian football.
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While a case can be made of the fact that Italians have often been misrepresented in popular culture, football has done that unfortunate stereotype no good whatsoever. If anything, it has only become an extension of what certain movies have done over the last many years — portray Italians (and Italian-Americans) in a typical mafiosa light. Those narratives had returned to the surface ever since the Guardia di Finanza, Italy’s financial crime police, raided Juventus offices—a club with Italian-American connections—back in November last year to look into the club’s capital gains. A host of other Italian clubs were also investigated, and while the case was dropped some months later, the Prisma investigation, which involved Juve manipulating player salaries, brought the case back into light. Now that the Italian Football Federation has docked the Bianconeri 15 points, the stereotypical representation of Italian football is well and truly the order of the day.
Having said that, another case can be made of the fact that this may just be the tip of the iceberg; when looked at closely, a host of other Italian clubs have had legal issues that have not acquired as much attention. Spezia, for example, initially had a transfer ban imposed on them for their approach of signing minors, while Cesena were docked three points in 2018 for false accounting. Palermo, who were once an established Serie A side, had once changed hands thrice in one season and were later relegated to Serie C for financial irregularities. The club’s famous (and late) former owner Maurizio Zamparini was put under house arrest due to money laundering, as he had sold the club to a firm he himself owned.
If that is not enough, Napoli’s signing of Victor Osimhen from French side Lille is already under investigation, with Milan’s RedBird takeover also under the scanner. All of this is a very valid indicator of the fact that underlying legal problems in Italian football have existed for the last few years, and that the Juventus scandal is the defining moment in an era which was preceded by one during which the Old Lady reached the Champions League final twice, signed Cristiano Ronaldo, and established themselves as the shining light in the country’s sport. The renaissance of Milan and Inter in recent years made the top three seem competitive once again — for the first time since the 2000s. This era of financial difficulties comes right after a period that suggested that maybe, Italian football was back.
Truth be told, Serie A finances have been dwindling for some time now, which in a way is the reason why clubs have relied on capital gains (which doesn’t always apply to other leagues). Italian newspaper La Gazzetta dello Sport reported that, during the 2021/22 season, Italy’s top three earners from TV revenue—Inter, Milan and Juve—earned less than the Premier League’s bottom three clubs. A law called “The Melandri Law” had imposed a three-year time limit on TV deals for overseas broadcasting of the Serie A, denying the league an invested and faithful audience that other leagues already enjoy. While that has now been changed to five years, the long-standing impact of the previous rule continues to be felt.
While clubs in the Premier League benefit from individual revenue chains from having their own private stadiums, that isn’t the case in Italy. Clubs in the Serie A play in stadiums that are not owned by them, but those that are public or government-owned. Very few Serie A stadiums are owned by clubs, Juventus’ Allianz Stadium being a case in point. Clubs like Milan, Inter and Fiorentina have been struggling to get permission to build their own stadiums, with bureaucratic issues holding up the processes.
On top of that, racism is still very much a major issue; recent examples involving Samuel Umtiti and Romelu Lukaku demonstrate just that. The league’s administration has often shown both lack of awareness and willingness to attempt to tackle the issue, unless individual players take a stance and put their views forward.
All these issues, including the bureaucratic involvements, remove a lot of value from Italian football, and while these issues were always there in the previous decade as well, Juve were calcio’s shining light. From Champions League finals, generating their own individual revenue streams, to more eyeballs through title wins and Cristiano Ronaldo, they were Italian football’s one big hope. More than anything, they were papering over the cracked walls, and now that they are mired in their own issues once again, things seem quite bleak, with the larger picture being much easier to see.
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For a while, it did seem as if Inter will carry the burden of Italian football during Juve’s initial downfall, but their own financial problems are leading to the reduction in value and loss of quality players and reliance on either older players or players that aren’t of the same level as the player they are replacing. Milan’s model relies on data-driven recruitment, and while it might be sustainable, it would require massive overperformance on their part for them to return to their old glory days. Napoli have offered a lot of promise this season, but it remains to be seen how they sustain their performances both domestically and in Europe, especially if the likes of Victor Osimhen and Khvicha Kvaratskhelia leave.
From top to bottom and from across different directions, troubles are plaguing Italian football, which is in direct contrast to the much more filtered product of the Premier League. Back in the 1990s, government bodies and private footballing bodies in England brought about measures that ruthlessly uprooted issues in their country’s game to make sure that the product became worthy of broadcasting around the world. Problems such as hooliganism, racism and financial crises reduced to a large extent, helping in not just using the Premier League as soft power but also to make it more sustainable and viable. Football in Italy can learn a fair bit from what England did, as it continues to exist in a cocoon that is dragging its national sport down.