Thursday, 11 June 2009
Let us ignore a fourth consecutive Scudetto and simply talk about Inter and the Champions League. As the players go on well earned holidays, Inter’s management has been left with the unenviable task of making the necessary acquisitions in the transfer market that will ensure the Nerazzurri stay at the top in Serie A and make the qualitative leap to allow the team to become a major Champions League protagonist.
Inter and the Champions League: A Disservice?
Would it be an understatement to suggest that Inter’s Champions League performances in the last three years have been a disappointment? Or an exaggeration to suggest that when it comes to Europe, the Nerazzurri have done a disservice to Italian football?
As Champions of Italy, the burden of expectation on Inter to fly the flag and proudly represent the strength of Serie A is undoubtedly heavy. The weight of expectation on the club and its players is further heightened by the fact that the Nerazzurri last won the European Cup in 1965 and last appeared in the European Cup final in 1972.
Personal preferences and lively debate aside, one would be hard pressed to argue that the English Premier League is not the strongest and most recognisable domestic football league in the world. Already, I can hear followers of Serie A and La Liga muttering under their breath and preparing their arguments but whereas in past years the point was arguable it has now reached a stage where the evidence is insurmountable.
In season 2008-2009, Italy’s Champions League representatives: Inter, Juventus and Roma, were eliminated in the Second Round of the competition, eliminations that were made all the more telling by the fact that their opponents had been the English trio of Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal.
The reason for raising and making the comparison is to question whether Inter’s failings in Europe are down to the club’s management or whether the problem is more fundamental and lies with the present structure of Serie A.
Based on Inter’s results in Serie A, the club’s management naively assumed that by sacking Roberto Mancini and acquiring the services of Jose Mourinho, the team would naturally progress into the final rounds of the Champions League.
The abovementioned assumption conveniently laid the blame for the club’s failures in Europe at the feet of Roberto Mancini and assumed that a number of cosmetic changes in the form of Amantino Mancini and Quaresma would allow Mourinho to make a serious bid for the Champions League.
Unfortunately, Inter’s management ignored the fact that the squad at Mourinho’s disposal was best suited to play a 4-4-2 formation to which Mourinho reverted when Mancini and Quaresma underperformed and were limited to substitute appearances and an eventual loan deal in the case of the latter.
It is well documented that Inter lack the type of player that can dictate the tempo of the game from the centre of the park and contribute goals from midfield. The club presently has midfield destroyers such as Cambiasso, Muntari and Vieira but lacks an imaginative and creative force. The lack of such a player is a weakness that Inter’s management have failed to address for many years and from the opening exchanges of the Champions League first leg match against Manchester United, it was obvious that the defending champions played the game at a high level, with great speed and imagination, effectively reducing the Nerazzurri to spectators.
To those who argue that Inter only needed a bit of luck in the second leg with Ibrahimovic’s first half header hitting the crossbar and Adriano’s volley hitting the inside of the post, the fact remains that Inter lacked ideas and over the course of 180 minutes did too little to deservedly win and proceed to the quarter-finals of the competition.
In recent years, arm chair fans of Italian football have frequently commented on how the return of clubs such as Fiorentina, Napoli and Genoa has improved the overall competitiveness and quality of the top flight; how the bottom clubs in Italy are more competitive than those in the Premier League; how Italian clubs play a more intelligent game than their English counterparts; and how Italy’s tacticians are well respected and sort after but one cannot deny that Inter and Italy’s top clubs are struggling to compete against their English and Spanish counterparts when it comes to playing on the Continent.
If Italy’s clubs wish to be competitive on the Continent then the issue of television rights needs to be addressed.
The Italian professional league is comprised of clubs in both Serie A and B and at the beginning of each season, it is customary for there to be strike threats and talk of delayed starts to the season as a result of television contracts. It is usually the case that small clubs in Serie A protest at the lack of exposure and television revenue whilst clubs in Serie B protest at the lack of money filtering down from Serie A to Serie B.
In 1992, the English Premier League broke away from the three professional divisions in English football and after an initial period of adjustment that coincided with the re-integration of English clubs into European football, the Premier League has gone on to become the most affluent and dominant domestic league in world football.
Towards the end of April, with Italy’s eliminated representatives watching the latter stages of the Champions League from home, all of Serie A’s clubs with the exception of Lecce, commenced discussions in relation to starting a Serie A League that would break away from Serie B and allow clubs in the top flight to compete at the highest level without having to filter revenue to Serie B.
Those opposed to restructuring Serie A and the formation of a Serie A League are primarily concerned that the competitiveness of Serie B will be weakened as revenue will no longer be forthcoming from Serie A and the clubs in second tier will be required to fend for themselves.
Further, those opposed to the restructuring of Serie A are fearful that their clubs will primarily focus on marketing and revenue raising as opposed to football with there also being a concern that restructuring Serie A will lead to a parting from history and a change from family owned clubs to foreign owners that have little or no connection to the club.
The abovementioned fears may carry some weight but in a country where much is made of Inter being the only top flight club to have a foreign coach, or the only team that frequently fields a starting eleven without an Italian player, it seems unlikely that the owners of Italy’s top flight clubs will readily sell to foreign owners.
Moves towards a Serie A League where Italy’s top flight clubs are no longer required to support Serie B will be slow. It may well be that that it will take another disastrous showing in Europe for “Federcalcio” (Italian Football Federation) to realise that Italian club football is struggling when it comes to competing in Europe. Until this time, as long as the present structure of Serie A and Serie B remains in place, Inter and Italy’s top clubs will continue to be at disadvantaged and eclipsed when it comes to playing and competing in Europe.
Stadiums in Italy are owned by local city councils whereby clubs pay a percentage of their gate profits to local city councils for their use. The fact that Inter do not own their own stadium and are required to pay a percentage of monies earned at the gate to the local city council is another factor that puts the club at a disadvantage when it comes to competing in Europe as the club is relying on a reduced pool of revenue.
Looking at the whole of Serie A, stadium problems are widespread. For example, a lack of security both in and outside stadiums, glass petitions that ensure that supporters are partitioned and segregated into sections like cattle, and running tracks that keep supporters away from the action are just to name a few of the problems. The stadium problem in Italy is further compounded by the fact that upgrades last took place almost two decades ago and due to safety fears, some supporters, especially those with young children, may prefer to watch their team in the comfort of their own homes as opposed to attending matches at stadiums that lack modern facilities and potentially put supporters at risk.
In Inter’s case, the initial outlay for a new stadium will be costly but the benefits to the club outweigh the risks in undertaking such a project as all future gate revenue will go to the club and the cost of building the stadium will be recuperated shortly after opening. But it remains to be seen whether Inter’s management will commit to building a new stadium as the Meazza has a historical significance and is recognised throughout the world. The question that has to be asked is whether Inter’s management and the club’s sponsors are willing to take a decisive step from the burdensome shadows of the past in order to allow the Nerazzurri to prosper in a new home.
Another factor that would have to be considered is the current economic climate as the building of a new stadium will inevitably restrict the club’s ability to manoeuvre in the transfer market. This may in turn have a detrimental effect on Inter’s performances on the pitch in terms of the calibre of players the club will be able to acquire whilst a new stadium is being built. But one gets the feeling that Inter may be waiting to see how Juventus will benefit from the construction of their new stadium in the place of the former Stadio Delle Alpi before committing to and undertaking plans for new home ground of their own.
When combining lost television revenue with lost stadium revenue, it becomes obvious why Inter and Italy’s other European representatives are a step behind their European opponents. Naturally, the abovementioned loss of revenue affects the club’s movements in the transfer market and restricts the quality and calibre of player the club can attract as well as those that can be kept in the future.
The days when Italian clubs dominated the transfer market and Serie A boasted top quality players such as Matthaus, Brehme, Klinsmann, Gullit, Van Basten, Weah, Papin, and Batistuta are long gone.
The summer transfer market is not yet in full swing but Serie A has already sustained a major loss in the form of Kaka’s £60 million transfer to Real Madrid. If recent reports are anything to go by, “Capocannoniere” and Inter’s leading scorer, Zlatan Ibrahimovic is also on the move and will be playing in Spain come the start of next season. With regards to the former, Milan justified his sale in terms of simple economics and in relation to the latter, he believes Inter are unable to assist him in winning the Champions League and World Player of the Year.
In the present climate, economic necessity is forcing clubs to balance their books by selling their most prized assets. Also, tax laws in Italy are more stringent than in England and Spain which means players are taxed at a higher rate, but with player earnings so high, leaving Italy for tax purposes seems like an unlikely reason for departure.
It may well be the case that some players need a new club and environment to give them a new challenge but perhaps what results from such departures is more important than the departures themselves. Italian coach, Marcello Lippi views the departure of top quality foreign players from Italian shores in a positive light as he takes the view that young and promising Italian players will stand to be promoted and make a name for themselves at club level and subsequently represent the Nazionale.
But the fact remains that Inter’s most important player over the last three seasons wants to leave the Italian champions because they are supposedly unable to match his ambitions. Regardless of the way you look at it, Ibrahimovic’s claim is a slap in the face to the club, its management and the fans that hold him in great regard. And more importantly, points to an alarming trend of top quality players overlooking Serie A to ply their trade in England or Spain.
A combination of factors have led to Inter’s recent failings in Europe: ranging from an over estimation of the squad and its quality with the follow on being the failure of the club’s management to reinforce the squad with the necessary players to make a sustained assault on Europe. And what is slowly emerging is that an ineffective television contract that requires revenue to be shared and the club not owning its own stadium is limiting available resources to the point where the club cannot keep its leading player and is required to search for a replacement to fill his shoes, a replacement that will inevitably fall short.
Unfortunately, the focus of modern day football is no longer about the love of the game. It simply comes down to money and economics. Taking a stand against the restructuring of Serie A or Inter becoming a corporate brand will ensure the club will continue to make limited progress in Europe until it is on a level playing field with its English and Spanish counterparts
To the dissenters who take the view that all is well in Italian football, it may well be that you subscribe to the views of Marcello Lippi, who recently stated: “Italian football is that of the Nazionale and not its clubs, so we are still top of the world. Similarly, the real English football is not that of the Premier League, but rather its national team.”
Lippi’s statement was an attempt to justify the absence of Italian teams in the quarter-finals of Champions League. Unfortunately, the World Cup victory of 2006 allows Lippi and those against the restructuring of Italian football to conveniently state that all is well without acknowledging that Inter and Italy’s representatives in both the Champions League and UEFA Cup are struggling when they play in Europe.
Rather than hide behind the achievements of the national team, Italian football would do well to acknowledge its problems and take steps to address them by following the Premier League model. Just as the English were left to concede they did not have the necessary coaching expertise to resurrect the ailing fortunes of their national team, Italian football may be obliged to follow the Premier League’s example and restructure for the benefit of football in the Peninsula. If there is one matter of which can be certain, it is the fact that come the second round of the Champions League in season 2009-2010, the Nerazzurri faithful and Italian football will once again have their answers.