Once upon a time there was a football championship regarded as the most popular and glamorous in the world. Once upon a time there was a domestic league which featured the likes of Falcão, Diego Armando Maradona, Michel Platini and Zico and, in the years to come, Gabriel Omar Batistuta, Ronaldo and Marco van Basten. Once upon a time there was a national championship with almost-packed stadia every Sunday and exclusively-dedicated programmes on foreign TV stations. Once upon a time there was the Italian Serie A.
Well, it does still exists – the new season kick-off is scheduled exactly tomorrow – and is still one of the main football leagues in Europe. But it is highly unquestionable its decline in terms of appeal, prestige and importance over the recent years. The umpteenth hot summer marked by financial collapses, scandals and trials coincided with the farewell of AC Milan stars Zlatan Ibrahimović and Thiago Silva and Napoli striker Ezequiel Lavezzi, all of whom have been signed by wealthy, emerging Paris St Germain.
The 1980s can be portrayed as the golden era for Italian football, despite the rise of violence inside the stadia and the break of the Totonero betting scandal. For the first time since 1966, the borders were reopened, this enabling Italian clubs to be back to sign foreigners. Netherlands international Ruud Krol, Brazilian playmaker Falcão, ex-Arsenal forward Liam Brady, World Cup winner Daniel Bertoni and Austrian midfielder Herbert Prohaska were the first prominent stars to take the chance of playing in the new Serie A.
That was just the beginning of a glittering, hedonistic decade. The Azzurri won the World Cup in Spain in 1982 and their triumph helped football nationally increase in terms of popularity. The romantic side of calcio gradually disappeared in favour of a showbiz-oriented model. It was in these years that sponsorship established a massive as well as crucial presence. Ambitious Udinese managed to sign Brazilian star Zico thanks to the involvement of Zanussi, a Friuli-based brand of white goods.
The progressive pitch invasion by television was a second key factor. Football players and also managers and chairmen were the Italian version of Hollywood actors, as many of them were employed as testimonials for advertisements on papers and TV channels. At the same time, the entire country was going across a widespread feeling that it was on fire, with the illusion of unlimited availability of money. A new way of life emerged and Italy became the land of plenty. There was a common sensation of another ‘economic miracle’.
From this perspective, Milan was the vibrant epicentre. Briskly emerged as a new European, and perhaps world, capital city for fashion, Milan gained particular preeminence in football. It was the summer of 1985 when TV businessman Silvio Berlusconi took over AC Milan after the escape by former patron Giussy Farina and two relegations in Serie B within a few years. He brought Ruud Gullit, Frank Rijkaard and Marco van Basten to San Siro, making Rossoneri fans forget about the tragicomic era of Luther Blissett, Mark Hateley and Ray Wilkins.
His rival colleagues were not less competitive, though. Just one year before Napoli signed Diego Armando Maradona, a deal which would make the history of the club and the city as a whole. Top-class players like Trevor Francis, Michael Laudrup, Michel Platini and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge joined Serie A. Indeed, lower clubs such as Avellino, Cremonese and Pisa could afford internationals such as Ramón Díaz, Wim Kieft and Anders Limpar. The other side of the coin was the pathological signing of foreigners acclaimed as great stars who, in the end, turned to be all but decent footballers.
The scenario was the same in the 1990s, when calcio peaked thanks to the international triumphs of AC Milan and the good achievements of the Azzurri, who grabbed a third place in the 1990 World Cup and were runners-up four years later.
Then, the new English Premier League was formed and this competing championship made Serie A’s supremacy totter. Perhaps, the two leagues have swapped their own trends. Quintessentially, the Premier League is nowadayas what Serie A was in the 1980s – the fans are massively present at the stadium, the clubs attract some of the best players in the world and the championship boasts a total club revenues of €2.479 billion referring to the 2009–10 season.
Meanwhile, Berlusconi exploited his image of successful football chairman to gain also political consensus, for he promised to make Italy a virtuous model like his own enterprises. He introduced a businesslike and clear lexicon, taken from football, called his party Forza Italia (“C’mon Italy”) and Azzurri its members.
Almost 20 years later, his political experience seems to be definitely over, with the country floundering due to the crisis, and AC Milan transfer campaign has been centred on second-choice players. Other entrepreneurs like Cirio’s Sergio Cragnotti and Parmalat’s Calisto Tanzi attempted throughout the 1990s to lead respectively Lazio and Parma to great achievements, but the collapse of their dairy products companies made their golden dreams vanish. Italian clubs have now a lower purchasing power and the 1980s’ sold outs are fond as much as distant memories.
Not surprisingly, rising stars like Mario Balotelli and Fabio Borini have moved to England and other foreigners prefer to compete here or in Spain. Serie A appears to be technically poorer. There are still some first-class players such as Edinson Cavani, Marek Hamšík and Wesley Sneijder, true. But the twinkling Italian league has partially lost shine.
However, it is this atmosphere of uncertainty what makes the upcoming season balanced, with Scudetto holders Juventus playing the role of main favourites. Not secondarily, the shortage of billions of euro might convince clubs in investing on their academies rather than spending money on unfruitful foreigners. And the Azzurri are again in the élite of European football.
Would this suffice in preserving the fascination of Serie A?