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Champions League: Italian Soccer Has Fallen, Does Not Look Likely To Get Back Up

Roma, AC Milan and Inter Milan lost their first knockout legs at home and barring miraculous turnarounds, all three will be eliminated, leaving Serie A shut out of the Champions League quarterfinals for the second time in three years. These results should be especially disappointng since they had easy draws. The Italian teams ducked Real Madrid, Barcelona, Chelsea, Arsenal and Man U and still got creamed. Serie A is not what it was.

You’ll hear a lot about the “decline” of Italian soccer. It’s not a decline. It’s more of a punctuated equilibrium. The clubs just fell. The tipping point was in 2006.

From 2003 to 2006 Italian teams dominated the Champions League. They only won once, but, the three big Italian clubs – Inter Milan, AC Milan and Juventus – reached the quarterfinals 10 times, the semifinals five times and the final three times. From 2007 to 2010, Serie A produced two Champions League winners, but those were the only two times one of those three clubs went beyond the initial knockout round. Though, Roma did reach the quarterfinals twice.

The culprits are what were the two giants, AC Milan and Juventus. In the four years before 2006, they reached the final three times and the quarterfinals seven of a possible eight times. The next four years, they made the quarterfinals once, when AC Milan won it in 2007. Juventus has missed the competition entirely three times and reached the knockout stage only once.

Why did these clubs fall so hard after 2006? Calciopoli is an excellent place to start.

In May 2006 Italian police caught five clubs on wiretaps conspiring to fix matches by making sure they were assigned favorable referees. AC Milan and Juventus were among the two clubs.  Somehow, Inter was not. The clubs’ Draconian unishments were reduced on appeal, but Juventus was still relegated to Serie B.

Relegation knocked Juventus out of the Champions League for two seasons. It cost them Champions League money and reduced the value of their television and sponsorship deals. They also lost director Luciano Moggi to a lifetime ban.

Moggi was not the most likable guy. He fixed matches. He might have used threats of violence to ensure players used his son as their agent. He’s not a fan of the gays, however, for all his flaws he was a masterful judge of talent. His tenure saw Juventus bring in Zidane and a number of other gifted players.

Many veterans stuck with Juve through relegation,  blunting a short-term catastrophe. But, with those players leaving and retiring, the bare cupboard has been exposed and Juventus is struggling in mid-table.

The scandal coincided with a dearth of Italian talent. There aren’t any elite Italian players between 20-25.   The closest is Giuseppe Rossi and he’s American. Players from Juventus and AC Milan – Buffon, Gattuso, Pirlo, Del Piero, Inzaghi, Nesta, Cannavaro and Camoranesi – formed the veteran core of the World Cup winning squad in 2006. The trouble is most of the players are still playing the same roles five years later, because no one has come up to replace them.

Both clubs rely on domestic talent.  Italy’s current squad features few if any players from Juventus or AC Milan and none that would vault those clubs to Champions League success if bought.

AC Milan has the soccer equivalent of the Phoenix Suns’ training staff. They get calcifying old men limber and playing. It works well when you are getting 30-year-olds to play like 26 year-olds to play with Kaka at the height of his power. It doesn’t work well when you are getting 34-year-olds to play like 30 year-olds to play with an overweight Ronaldinho.  You need a constant stream of young players.

Both Juventus and AC Milan have spent money, but poorly. Juventus bought Amauri from Palermo for $31 million. The Brazilian/Italian has five goals in his last 39 league appearances and is now on loan at Parma. They bought Diego from Werder Bremen for $35 million and were so eager to get rid of him they took a $14 million loss when they sold him to Wolfsburg the next summer. They spent $35 million on Felipe Melo, who has had an up and down career.

At AC Milan Sivio Berlusconi has been too busy sexing up seventeen-year-olds to take an active interest. Their big signings – Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Beckham – have been names rather than tangible assets on the field. They have picked up some talented bargains, such as Robinho and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, but the core of their squad is guys like Mathieu Flamini and Kevin Prince-Boateng, obtained with the checkbook balance in mind.

The clubs have also had a lot of coaching turnover. Before 2006, AC Milan had Carlo Ancelotti, a two-time Serie A Coach of the Year and Champions League winner. Juventus was coached by Fabio Capello, who had won seven titles in Serie A and La Liga. Inter employed the solid Roberto Mancini. All three had been at their respective club since at least 2004.

Each situation has been unsettled since. Ancelotti left Milan in 2008. They hired and fired Leonardo before appointing Massimiliano Allegri for this year. Juventus has had five coaches since Capello left in 2006. Inter rode the Special One to the Champions League trophy last year, but since last summer they have already sacked his replacement Rafa Benitez and appointed Leonardo. If he doesn’t win the title they may replace him too next summer.

Coaches aren’t everything. Teams can rely on talent, but there are a few instances where stability and tactical skill come in handy, such as Champions League knockout stages.

Can They Recover? The top Italian teams were strong in the first part of the 2000s, but their success masked serious, long-term issues. The Italian game at lower levels has been rotting for years thanks to financial mismanagement.

Clubs haven’t addressed facility upgrades and crowd safety concerns which has resulted in indifference and massive attendance declines. Compared to the 2002-03 season, A.C. Milan is down 30 percent, Juventus is down 47 percent and Inter, despite arguably the best stretch in the club’s history, is down 17.5 percent.

Serie A signed a new collective TV deal, which should bring stability. The trouble is the Italian league doesn’t have the international presence the Premier League or Real/Barca have. The EPL brings in $660 million per year from overseas TV revenue. Serie A brings in $102 million. It’s also a mixed bag for the bigger clubs. They are used to signing TV deals that might be six, seven times as much as smaller clubs.  They might be richer, but they’ll be on equal footing.

The Champions League is a vicious cycle. Every year Italian clubs haven’t made the latter stages, they’ve lost revenue, hindering their subsequent competitiveness. Their failures have radically lowered their European coefficient. Had Bayern Munich beat Inter in the final last season, Serie A would have lost its fourth Champions League place.

Italian’s soccers days of fine wine and bufala mozzarella are over.  Unless Serie A can produce some honest, rustic fare it’s fast on the road to Olive Garden.

[Photo via Getty]

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