by Simon Tovey
There can’t be many die-hard fans who don’t fondly recall the halcyon days of 90s Italian football. Gazzetta Football Italia, hosted by the always affable James Richardson and legendary Kenneth Wolstenholme, would dominate early Saturdays and drowsy Sundays as Serie A; with its brand of tactical superiority over the pre-money soaked Premiership and exotic names was piped into living-rooms across the country. From Batistuta, Ravanelli and Baggio to Thuram, Zidane and Bokšić; there is no doubt that it was THE league to watch. If an English side drew Juventus or A.C. Milan in the Champions League knock-out stage? Forget it, go home and better luck next time, they had little to no chance of progressing. The behemoths seemed to have a monopoly on, at least, the final stages of the tournament. In fact, Manchester United’s heroic 1999 victory over Bayern Munich was the first final for seven years that an Italian side didn’t compete in (including its previous iteration as the European Cup), with Milan and Juve each enjoying an astonishing three consecutive appearances in the final in the 90s – albeit with only one win apiece. This, coupled with a determination by the likes of Inter Milan and a very powerful Parma side amongst others to also keep the then UEFA Cup on Italian soil; amazingly only ONE final in the entire decade was not contested by an Italian club, proves the point that it really was the elite league in European football.
There seemed to be no suggestion however that this stranglehold was about to end, the new millennium ushered in a national team appearance in the final at Euro 2000 and clubs were strengthening their squads even further with eye-wateringly expensive signings. The likes of Hernán Crespo and Christian Vieri seemed to hop across clubs in world record transfers almost at whim; Gianluigi Buffon set the record for most expensive keeper by some distance when he joined Juventus for £32million; Lazio signed players in pricey deals and loaned them back out immediately whilst Roma would try to cement their emergence as a genuine title contender by signing the likes of a young Antonio Cassano from Bari for £25 million. In all, Serie A had manoeuvred itself into a position where not only were many of the world’s top players plying their trade on the peninsula, but they were making up the roster of six or seven clubs all with aspirations to challenge for the Scudetto. Everything seemed so rosy.
However, in true Nero fashion, the clubs played whilst Rome burned.
The first warning sign that all wasn’t well was in 2002 when the situation at Sergio Cragnotti-owned Lazio began to worsen. Years of huge spending on the likes of Juan Sebastián Verón, Marcelo Salas and Vieri in the hunt for a, as it happened successful, title tilt had crippled the club to the point where Cragnotti had to relinquish control and the proud capital club had to sell off its star players, most notably crown jewel Alessandro Nesta. However this was merely the prelude to what was about to come, the 2006 Calciopoli scandal sent shockwaves through world football. Match-rigging through the selection of favourable referees was found to be rife and ultimately conducted by Italian football’s biggest names. Juventus were stripped of their 2005/6 title and relegated to Serie B, the once mighty Old Lady of Turin were joined in their punishment by A.C. Milan who were also deducted points. Italian football reeled as a mass exodus of stars left, leaving an undoubtedly weaker league.
A lean spell was to follow, though there were a couple of Champions League final appearances for the Milan clubs – notably the brilliant treble-winning José Mourinho led Inter side of 2009 – Italian outfits had nowhere near the impact in Europe they once did; a fact starkly backed up by not one Italian side in a Europa League final in the 2000s. A stagnating Serie A played out to dwindling crowds in decaying stadiums; dominated by Inter Milan for the most part, was left in the shadow by the might of the English Premier League and the emergence of a Barcelona led La Liga. Of course, this also led to a drain of talent, the most coveted players on the planet didn’t go to Italy; they didn’t want to and neither could anybody afford them. The cash rich Premier League, purist’s choice La Liga and even the Russian Premier League seemed more able to cream off the best talent on offer and as such, Serie A trailed behind.
However, it seems this trend is changing. Players are, whisper it, coming back to Italy. Carlos Tévez , Fernando Llorente and Mario Balotelli, to name but three, are the calibre and reputation of player that Serie A seems to have lacked in recent years and, crucially, have been lured from England and Spain to Juve and Milan respectively. Interestingly though, the most telling business seems to have been done by Napoli. Now, nobody would argue that Napoli aren’t a very good side; players like Ezequiel Lavezzi, Marek Hamšík and Edinson Cavani in recent seasons have catapulted them back into the elite in Italy, but they’re not a Milan club, they’re not a Juventus. A solitary Coppa Italia in 2011/12 is the only silverware recently won by the Naples based club and certainly since a Maradona inspired era in the 80s. Indeed they themselves had their own disaster to deal with in 2004 when they were declared bankrupt, re-founded and placed in Serie C1. However, due to the funds raised by the sale of Cavani and the arrival of Rafa Benitez; they too have made serious moves. A loan deal for Pepe Reina and the signing of Raúl Albiol are mightily impressive and serve to show just how deeper the strength in depth of Serie A is now.
The same hallmarks of the 90s are being repeated. Excellent, international players at the height of their careers joining not just one or two different teams, but five or six. For Napoli now, read Parma in 98/99. If any more proof of this was needed, one only needs to look at their signing of Gonzalo Higuaín. The lethal Argentine international striker is a brilliant player, 107 goals in 190 league games for Real Madrid is a tremendous return and he would grace any side on the planet; indeed the likes of Arsenal and Juventus were credited with strong interest. It is hard not to believe however that every top club at least considered him and for Napoli to finalise a deal is a superb coup, regardless of Arsenal’s seemingly reluctant stance. This, in time though, may prove to be more of a coup for Italian football. Napoli have set the bar, they will challenge for the title, they will get better, and so must everybody else in Italy. Serie A is back.