I’m finally back from my post-Euro soccer hangover.
It was great to watch Italy’s surprising run to the final. And while they came up short in the end, it was gratifying as an Italian football supporter to see the Azzurri shut up so many of the critics who had written them off yet again.
But while I was away, Paris Saint-Germain pillaged Italy’s clubs yet again, giving new rise to many questions about the strength and relevance of Serie A.
Now obviously there is a big difference and tenuous connection between a nation’s international squad and its domestic league (a post for another day) but the ease with which the Ligue 1 outfit have plundered Italy’s top flight is a cause of concern for calcio supporters.
But it may also be a blessing in disguise.
Yesterday PSG added another piece to its growing juggernaut with confirmation of their purchase of Zlatan Ibrahimovic from Milan. Ibra joins the recently departed Thiago Silva, another Milan player poached by former Rossoneri men Carlo Ancelotti and Leonardo in Paris.Previously, both Napoli’s Ezequiel Lavezzi and promising Pescara youngster Marco Veratti, often called the next Andre Pirlo, were also snatched up by the French side.
And last year PSG looted Palermo, taking their goalkeeper Salvatore Sirigu and Argentine playmaker Javier Pastore of crazy Zamparini’s books.
Previously other cash rich clubs like Zenit St. Petersburg have lured Italian stars, along with players just leaving for the more popular (and lucrative) EPL like Mario Balotelli, Davide Santon, and most recently Liverpool’s new signing Fabio Borini.
So what does this all mean for Serie A?
The problem I see is not necessarily that Serie A squads are selling big players. This happens all the time, and in some cases (I would argue Milan’s is one of them) it can be good business.
The issue however is that the league isn’t attracting any big names to fill the empty spaces. For the first time in a long time none of the top 10 earners in European club football plies their trade in Italy.
Serie A clubs are getting cash from selling their players, but instead of using this cash to replenish they are covering their debts, the debts of their owners, and trying to get everything in line to meet the FFP standards which apparently don’t apply to teams with Qatari ownership.
In the mid-oo’s teams like Milan, Juventus, and Inter were bringing in as much as any club in Europe. But with repetitive scandals, mismanagement, dwindling attendance and the economic situation in the country itself working against Serie A clubs, it is no wonder these teams can no longer keep up with the high rollers and simply purchase title-challenging squads.
Now let me tell you why this might be a good thing.
Domestic football in Italy has needed serious restructuring for some time now. The slipping attendance has a lot to do with the crumbling infrastructure, and that fact that the vast majority of teams don’t own their own stadiums is extremely problematic.
Champions Juventus, an exception to this fact, appear to be the healthiest big club in Italy at the moment, and they have poached as much talent from other Serie A sides as PSG have. Many calcio talking heads mocked their expensive, state-of-the-art stadium especially timed so close to their ignominious, post-Calciopoli relegation to Serie B. But the Old Lady and her supporters can laugh all the way to the bank with that new and continuous source of revenue, trophy firmly in hand.
The trend must move in this direction. Better, club-owned stadiums will bring people back into the stands and allow teams to avoid cycles of debt that have controlled them this past decade.
Being outspent by other leagues and clubs will also force Italian sides to reinvest in their youth systems, something that has been neglected by a lot of the top sides as they stretched to keep up the Champions League pace, something that also saw aging, expensive stars often coming to the league and further draining the coffers.
It would be a great thing for Italian football as a whole to turn to its youth, as country’s like Spain and Germany have done, and I expect it could pay as many dividends for the Azzurri as it can for individual clubs.
Despite recent performances in youth international tournaments there is a glut of good, young talent in Italy. Serie A needs to make sure that it is in position to tap into this youth and provide it with a structure to succeed. Less aging, foreign mercenaries should translate to more spots available for the discovery of the next Italian legends. My hope for the swing toward youth is what makes PSG’s signing of Verratti the transfer that has disturbed me the most. If Italy can’t keep some of the few stars it has developed on its own then the league is in more trouble than ever.
Once again, it is my hope that more young Italians on the pitch could lead to more young Italians in the stands.
And finally there is always that question of the ethics of Italian football. While I am not going to tackle this subject again as yet another scandal continues to unfold, suffice it to say the integrity of the league is another thing that, if improved, could lead to a new dawn for Serie A. Strides have indeed been made on the racism front. There is work to be done still in removing the shadowy underbelly of the sport.
Now, am I saying that losing some of its best players, and not competing for new stars is in itself a good thing for Serie A?
Of course not. I’m not that pollyanna.
But the situation the league finds itself in does, at the very least, force its power players and supporters to hold a mirror up and take a good, hard look at what it has become.
What those in charge choose to do with this image and the challenges that accompany it will be the real indication of just where Serie A is headed in the future.