Sunday, 21 January 2007
You know something has changed in the world when: Inter are nine points clear in Serie A and hold the new record of 12 consecutive league victories; there are no dramas or controversies engulfing the team; January transfer speculation concerns almost every team apart from the Nerazzurri; and the best story football writers have to destabilise the team is Mancini not having signed a new contract. Inter as a picture of tranquillity, who thought those words would ever be used in the same sentence?
Despite a successful first half of the season, there are equally as many matches for things to go wrong and for Inter to be left empty handed come the end of the season. It is too early for Interisti to be celebrating a 15th Scudetto and between now and the end of the season there are a number of matters Nerazzurri supporters, and the wider footballing community should consider.
Calciopoli, the 14th Scudetto and the record of consecutive victories
The shadow cast by the summer’s Calciopoli Scandal seemingly passed as quickly as it came to light. But the reality is that the stench left by Juventus’ dealings has left an indelible stain on Italian football.
Although Juventus were vanquished to Serie B, and handed a -30 point penalty, the Italian Appeal Courts took pity on the club and first reduced their penalty to -17 and then later to -9 points. The penalty for being at the centre of the Scandal went from deservedly justified to a smack on the wrists.
Inter’s lack of success since the club’s last on field Scudetto in 1989 has weighed heavily on the Nerazzurri faithful and made the club the butt of many jokes. Over the years, Juventus and Milan supporters claimed the only time Inter would win a championship was by default. The decision to award the 2005-2006 Scudetto to Inter has only entrenched that view.
The worst aspect of the Scandal is that not only did it taint the league campaigns of 2004-2005 and 2005-2006, it has also affected the legitimacy of season 2006-2007. While Juventus have been left to find their way to the top of Serie B and an inevitable return to the top flight, Inter’s present efforts have been denigrated and given little recognition and value.
Juventus is as an Italian institution and the club’s sphere of influence, despite being relegated as a result of match fixing and interfering with officials goes well beyond the Scandal. Despite the shame and disgrace that Juventus have supposedly suffered they are still the yardstick by which Inter are being judged. The common claim amongst football commentators and opposition supporters alike is that the only reason Inter are presently top of Serie A is because Juventus are not in Serie A. This claim, despite Juventus’ wrongdoing ensures that the Bianconeri’s revered status continues with the Italian Football community being complicit and all too willing to submit to that club’s sphere of influence. The other claim is that all of Inter’s potential rivals for the Scudetto were penalised as a result of the Scandal. That claim will be discussed below.
Regardless of what happens at the end of this season, Inter can not win because the hard work undertaken during training sessions and battles on the pitch when the team fought back to secure a result will supposedly mean very little because Juventus were absent from Serie A.
The same applies to the record of 12 consecutive victories in Serie A. Last season, Roma set the previous record of 11 consecutive victories and there was much focus on how long Roma’s run would last. This season, barely an eyebrow has been raised and it seems the only people concerned are Inter’s supporters who want the rich vain of form to continue and those who are looking forward to Inter making a mistake and dropping points so they can write and talk about a new "crisis" at the club.
The Myth: Milan, Fiorentina and Lazio as Scudetto rivals
Milan were penalised -8 points for their part in the Scandal. After winning their first three matches of the season, they were two points ahead of Inter in the standings. The common perception is that the points penalty compromised Milan’s chance of competing for the Scudetto. The reasons behind Milan’s inability to be involved in the title race are twofold. Firstly, the club sold Shevchenko to Chelsea without adequately replacing him. Berlusconi had most of the summer to sign a replacement that was capable of filling Shevchenko’s shoes but decided to keep the 30 million from his sale and gamble on the signing of Ricardo Oliveira, who is not even half the player of Shevchenko.
Secondly, Milan’s management seem reluctant to face a future without the veterans upon which their success in the last 15 years has been based. Essentially, Milan tried to get through this season with Alessandro Nesta who has been suffering from indifferent form, Paolo Maldini who is 38 years age and struggling with injuries, Alessandro Costacurta who is 40 years of age, and an aging Marcos Cafu. Milan’s struggles are not because they received a points penalty. The Rossoneri are struggling because the club's management failed to adequately reinforce the squad. Age has finally caught up with their veteran backline and a gaping hole has been left by the club’s failure to find a replacement for Shevchenko.
The Serie A club most penalised as a result of the Scandal was Fiorentina as they went from finishing last season in fourth place and securing Champions League qualification to starting this season with -15 points and being excluded from the Champions League. Fiorentina have a talented squad with the likes of World Cup winner Luca Toni, Adrian Mutu, Fabio Liverani and Riccardo Montolivio. The standings suggest that had it not been for the club starting on -15 points, Fiorentina would be in the top four and competing for a place in next season’s Champions League. Starting the season at such a disadvantage, detrimentally affected the Viola as they struggled to find the right motivation but as the season has progressed Toni has started to rediscover last season’s form and Fiorentina have started to climb the league table. Although the Viola would be in the top four of Serie A and the points penalty is a significant handicap, it remains to be seen whether they would be competing for the Scudetto as they have a tendency to be inconsistent and misfire without Toni’s goals.
Lazio have been in free fall since winning the Scudetto in 1999-2000. The club was forced to sell many of the star players who were a part of the Scudetto winning team as well as restructure player contracts to avoid bankruptcy as a result of financial mismanagement by former owner, Sergio Cragnotti. In recent years, Lazio has been run on a shoe string budget and contrary to expectations, President Lotito has managed to assemble a competitive squad for very little money. Last season, prior to being involved in the Scandal, Lazio had managed to secure a place in the UEFA Cup but to suggest they could be a competitor for the Scudetto is off the mark. Lazio lack depth and a consistent goal scorer and the most that can be expected from them is a place in Europe.
Conclusion: Season 2006-2007 – the season of change?
Followers of Italian Football quietly hoped the Calciopoli Scandal would finally allow Italian Football to make a new start and move forward without suspicions regarding Juventus and match officials. The original verdicts seemed to clear the way for a new beginning but the Appeals and subsequent point penalty reductions were a step backwards. It appears Juventus’ sabbatical from Serie A will only last a season and we will only have a better idea as to whether Italian Football has actually changed for the better once they return to Serie A.
One thing followers of Serie A should keep in mind is that credit should be given when credit is due. This season, Inter have let their on field displays do the talking and have done well to silence their many critics but the best way for the club to make a statement is to continue winning games and be at the top of the standings at the end of the season. If football commentators and Inter’s detractors are unwilling to give the team the recognition it deserves then it hardly matters as Italian Football will suffer if it continues to hold in high esteem, a club that has been shamed and disgraced whilst ignoring the achievements of others.
Ultimately, if Inter manage to win their 15th Scudetto at the end of the season, the doubters and critics can say whatever they like. In the end, the only thing that matters is that certain people get rewarded for their efforts, starting with Inter President and club owner, Massimo Moratti who has stood by the club with scant reward and much ridicule, the players, Inter’s long suffering supporters, and the inspirational Giacinto Facchetti who will undoubtedly be smiling if the Nerazzurri finish top of the standings come the end of May.