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Post by Scottish » Mon Feb 02, 2015 2:05 pm

Come with me on a journey thirty years back in time. Napoli, the best supported club in Italy, home of the World champions, with an average of over 55,000, have just signed one Diego Armando Maradona. Crowds flock to see him wherever he plays and nowhere more so than in Naples where the average attendance jumps to more than 77,500 and Serie A as whole to just under 39,000. This is the highpoint of Italian football’s glory years. When the signing of the best players in the world augmented an abundance of native talent. Between 1969-1993 (the end of the first season of the English Premier League) Italian top flight football averaged over 30,000 in twenty out of twenty-four seasons. At no time between 1969-2001 did the Italian average fall below 27,000. Yet in the twenty-two seasons since 1993 (including 2014-15) it has reached 30,000 just twice, the last time in 1998-99.

At the end of 1983-84, just as Maradona was about to put pen to paper in Naples, the English First Division averaged under 19,000 – its lowest since the First World War. In Germany the Bundesliga average barely scraped over the 20,000 mark and France nudged just past 10,000.

Now, as all the best exam papers say, compare and contrast. Instead of almost twice as many fans as Germany and over double the English number, Italian football is perilously close to being watched by half as many as the Germans, draws only two-thirds of English levels and France – once outnumbered nearly four to one – is virtually on a par.

Although last season’s best crowd was a whopping 75,589, attendances dipped as low as 4,000 and best supported Inter Milan were only 30th worldwide. The champions of Europe as recently as 2010 drew fewer fans than Cologne, a team in the German second tier, and Rangers in Scotland’s third level. Eleven countries had teams with larger supports.

Perhaps most humiliating of all, with an average of 23,279, the once seemingly omnipotent Serie A ended up falling behind not just Germany, England and Spain but the upstart newcomers of the Indian Super League.

Even during Italian club football’s wilderness years – when the European Cup was the preserve of Dutch, German and English clubs and for sixteen years from 1969-1985 there was no Italian victory, Italy still attracted the world’s best players – Maradona being the classic example. That Italy also paid the highest salaries was no coincidence. Even at the time of the 1990 World Cup held in Italy that was still the case. All the Italian squad played at home. Eight other countries had Italian-based players. The World Cup Final that year may have been between West Germany and Argentina but it started with ten Italian-based players on the pitch, five in both teams. And it would have been eleven in all, had not Argentina’s Claudio Caniggia been suspended.

There can be no more potent signal of a country’s football strength than that. Their own team coming third with all homegrown players and half the finalists playing in their league as well.

At club level AC Milan had just won a second successive European Cup, the last time (at the time of writing) any team has done so. There were three foreign players in that team – the magnificent Dutch trio of Rijkaard, Gullit and Van Basten. Here was a league with those three players, Maradona, Caniggia, Dunga, Andreas Brehme, Rudi Voller, Jurgen Klinsmann. That’s before considering some not too shabby Italian players like Franco Baresi, Carlo Ancelotti, Roberto Donadoni, Toto Schillaci, Gianluca Vialli and two who could hold their own in the company of the world’s true greats – Roberto Baggio and Paolo Maldini.

Here, it seemed, was a league that could do no wrong. The future of Italian football seemed bright indeed

So, what has brought about this catastrophic change in fortunes?

Paradoxically, it may have started with staging the World Cup itself. A team which reached the last four without conceding a goal were eliminated after finally conceding one after 517 minutes of competitive football when Argentina levelled in the semi-final. The subsequent penalty shoot-out defeat was a blow to Italian prestige. Then there was the cost of staging the tournament with just about every ground needing a major upgrade. Although the Italian government funded improvement programmes generously, there was still a lot of money taken out of wage and transfer budgets to pay for upgrading.

Next came factors beyond Italy’s control. The first was German re-unification which although it added little to the (already high) quality of the German game, sparked off a sense of national renewal and optimism which inevitably found its way into the game. In Spain, Barcelona finally captured the European Cup in 1992 and the successful Olympic Games held in that city in the same year saw the intensification of the Catalans great rivalry with Madrid. But most fatally of all for Italy, was the establishment of the English Premier League and its ever-growing and increasingly lucrative TV coverage. Throughout the 1990s players who would once have been considered natural fits for Italian football like Eric Cantona and Thierry Henry headed across the Channel instead of over the Alps. Even Klinsmann at his peak journeyed to London and Munich by way of Monaco, returning to Italy for just a few matches as he wound down his career.

He set a pattern others have followed ever since.

It wasn’t that Italian football suddenly became bad. The national team could still reach World and European finals and carried off a fourth World Cup in 2006. Italian clubs could still win the revamped Champions League – the greatest prize in club football. But the big names no longer came. England became the wealthiest league in the world and attracted, with only a few exceptions, the world’s best players – the ones prepared to play outwith their native soil at any rate. Only Real Madrid and Barcelona could outbid the top Premiership clubs. Italy didn’t decline so much as stand still as others rose.

Maybe decades of easy superiority, going back to the 1950s when British stars, restricted by the maximum wage, would head for Italy, took its toll. But Italian football was no longer the cash cow it once was and spectators voted with their feet.

Nowadays the foreign players attracted to Serie A are veterans looking for one last big payday (I’m looking at you Mr Ashley “£55,000 per week? They’re taking the piss” Cole), loan players and those who couldn’t quite cut it elsewhere.

When Germany and Argentina met again in the World Cup Final in 2014, there were only two Italian-based players in the Argentina starting line-up – the same number as Manchester City. There was one in the German team – the 37-year-old Miroslav Klose – the same number as Arsenal. At the end of 120 minutes two Italian- based players were wearing Argentina jerseys compared to three from Manchester City. On the German side there were none from Italy and two from England. And while the Italian League still had sixty-one non-Italian players at the World Cup (the same number as Germany), England had ninety-seven - and theirs were by and large with the bigger countries.

This would have been unthinkable back in 1990. Admittedly there wasn’t the same movement of players then and the World Cup had just twenty-four teams but if we exclude England, Scotland and the Republic of Ireland as well as Italy then there were thirty from the Italian League and just three from England.

That’s how much the pendulum has swung and I am absolutely convinced hard cash is the reason and that supporters aren’t stupid. Players don’t move to London or Manchester because they find the climate more amenable than Rome or Tuscany. And in an age when football can be seen worldwide, Italian supporters can look at English & German football and the big two in Spain and contrast it with the fare currently on offer domestically.

There has also been a pay TV “war” in Italy with viewers faced with the equally unpleasant choice of offerings from either Rupert Murdoch or Silvio Berlusconi. Murdoch’s Sky Italia appears to be beating Berlusconi in his own backyard, having the rights to English, Spanish & German football as well as the World Cup, Champions League, other sports such as Six Nations, Super Bowl, Formula One, Ryder Cup etc. Both Murdoch and Berlusconi’s Mediaset offer Italian football though Sky advertises that it is the only organisation with all Serie A matches live. Evidence that Italians are increasingly opting for the satellite packages which bring them football from the cream of Europe outside Italy. Inside Serie A a huge gap has opened up between the top seven and the rest.

So we find Italian football, once unchallenged at the top, fifth in the attendance rankings and casting nervous glances at Mexico and France just behind. Major reorganisation is taking place below the top two levels but the Italian League is hindered not just by a separate administrative structure for the top level, as is common elsewhere, but by four separate authorities for the top four tiers.

Serie A has a simple structure of twenty clubs playing each other twice- thirty-eight games per club, 380 for the league. The bottom three go down automatically.

42246 Inter Milan
40632 Napoli
40436 Roma
39874 AC Milan
38328 Juventus
32057 Fiorentina
31905 Lazio
22158 Sampdoria
21172 Verona
21145 Bologna
20055 Genoa
17024 Torino
15197 Catania
14252 Udinese
14194 Atalanta
13753 Sassuolo
13451 Parma
10982 Livorno
9149 Chievo
4636 Cagliari

Serie B, twenty-two clubs, forty-two games each and 462 for the division, appears to have caught “Belgian disease” as far as play-offs are concerned. The top two go straight up as does the third club if it finishes ten points clear of fourth. If not then it’s possible to qualify for the play-offs by finishing as low as eighth. The rule here is that a club has to be within fourteen points of the third placed side. Eighth is the cut-off point. If the ninth-placed team is, say, twelve points behind third then they don’t make the play-offs.

The format is pre-determined by league position with the higher placed side playing at home in a single match. When it get down to four (or starts with four) it becomes a two-leg affair

Relegation is affected by a similar system. The bottom three go down and fourth and fifth last play-off unless the team finishing fifth bottom is five points ahead of the fourth bottom club, in which case the latter goes straight down.

In some ways the system is admirable in that it prevents the promotion of a club which finishes the regular season miles behind the team in third and prevents the relegation of a team well ahead of the side below it. But it undoubtedly complicates matters.

At this level too Italy is slipping. The average of 5,866 makes them eighth in the world. That puts them behind the rest of the “Big Five” and South America’s “Big Two.” But the real blow to Italian pride is that is also places them over 1,500 spectators per game adrift of Japan. Best crowd last season was 48,744 in the regular season and 50,895 in the play-offs and the worst was 936. Play-offs included in the figures.

13357 Bari
11129 Palermo
10745 Cesena
8739 Pescara
8,000 Avellino
6134 Spezia
5984 Siena
5690 Padova
5539 Modena
5513 Latina
5352 Ternana
5239 Novara
5179 Trapani
4797 Crotone
4421 Empoli
4324 Reggina
4233 Brescia
3610 Varese
3083 Virtus Lanciano
2598 Cittadella
2420 Carpi
2390 Juve Stabia

The third tier has been reorganised into the Lega Pro which consists of three regions of twenty clubs each but last season it consisted of two regions of sixteen and seventeen clubs. With the huge changes which have taken place this season, discussing the past system is irrelevant.

In Girone A the highest crowd was 6,117 and the lowest 200. The average was 1,546.

Attendance figures are courtesy of Well worth a visit.

5144 Vicenza
3331 Cremonese
2354 Reggiana
1875 Pro Vercelli
1545 Savona
1525 Como
1468 Virtus Entella
1170 Alto Adige
1162 Venezia
1124 Albinoleffe
830 Carrarese
800 Pro Patria
599 Pavia
583 Feralpi
443 Lumezzane
317 San Marino

In the much better supported Girone B, with some fairly ‘big’ names (as well as the marvellously-named Gubbio), the best crowd was 19,579 and the lowest 300. The average was 3,110.

8515 US Salernitana
7660 Perugia
5361 Lecce
4656 Pisa
4187 Benevento
3844 Catanzaro
3541 Frosinone
2598 Ascoli
2376 L’Aquila
1840 Gubbio
1535 Barletta
1261 Nocerina
992 Grosseto
951 Pontedera
689 Viareggio
665 Prato
633 Paganese

The overall average was 2,356

Last season’s fourth level is dealt with on the general thread for that tier.

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Post by lbb » Wed Feb 04, 2015 3:24 pm

Interesting reading. The decline of Serie A fascinates me as one who remembers the day when every top player went there. I had vague thoughts that a disastrous TV deal (where have we heard that before?) had contributed. The bubble simply burst.

I keep waiting for it to happen to the English Premiership but the sums keep rolling in. I read somewhere recently that Arsenal's gate receipts on a matchday are equivalent to 78% Ligue 1's total matchday revenue. It was that kind of financial power that the Italians once had. And then it was gone. The English will think 'it couldn't happen here' but the Italians must have thought the same at one time.

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Post by Scottish » Wed Feb 04, 2015 4:00 pm

Thanks. I don't know about the Arsenal-Ligue 1 comparison but I can well believe it. They're the seventh best supported side in the world by average attendance and, given the difference in admission prices, they certainly draw more per head than Man Utd, though whether it makes up for the 300,000 total difference over the season between the clubs I'm not so sure. Of the three German teams above them they certainly do better than Schalke as their two more home league matches puts their total ahead. Those "extra" games leave them behind Bayern Munich by only 70,000 over the season so they'll probably take in more than them as well. That leaves Dortmund with 230,000 more over the season than Arsenal. If pushed I'd say Arsenal take in more cash.

There's no way they take more than the Spanish pair so they're somewhere between 3rd-5th in drawings.

Again, I don't know about the Italian TV deals but if they've got a bad one then they have an Italian equivalent of Neil Doncaster running their game. Even worse, it would take a special kind of genius to cut a bad deal when both Murdoch and Berlusconi are desperate to get their hands on your - for want of a better term - product.

I suspect you're right about England too. I'll try to deal with that when I get round to them. I've been taking the European countries in reverse order so they're up next.

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Post by Scottish » Thu Feb 05, 2015 11:12 pm

Although he didn't play in Italy until a year after the 1990 World Cup I had better add Gabriel Batistuta to that list before our very own Gabe asks me why Fiorentina's great idol is missing.

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