Serie A takes one step forward, two steps back
MILAN, Aug 23 — Serie A appeared to take a small step forward last season when Juventus and AC Milan fought neck and neck in a captivating title race and the former broke new ground by opening the only club-owned stadium in Serie A.
But, since then, it has taken two giant strides back with Juve coach Antonio Conte among those given lengthy bans over a match-fixing scandal and Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s departure highlighting the league’s lack of appeal to top players.
Conte, who led Juventus to the title in his first season in charge last season, will sit out this campaign after being banned for 10 months. He was accused of failing to report the manipulation of two games when he was with Siena, in Serie B at the time, in the 2010-11 season.
Siena, Torino, Atalanta and Bologna will start with points’ deductions for their involvement in the affair following a summer of investigations and hearings which ended with dozens of players sanctioned.
Even before this latest match-fixing scandal, decrepit stadiums and crowd violence had helped drain Italian football of credibility, leaving Serie A trailing behind the English Premier League and Spain’s La Liga in terms of prestige.
The most obvious result of this is in the Champions League where, after dropping below the Bundesliga in the ranking system, Italy has only two teams guaranteed for the group stage, Juventus and AC Milan, with Udinese in the playoffs.
There were more positive signs last season when AC Milan, Inter Milan and Napoli qualified for the last 16. Napoli, in particular, proved revelations as they ousted big-spending Manchester City in the group stage.
The revival of Juventus was also completed when they became champions for the first time since being stripped of the 2005 and 2006 titles and demoted to Serie B over the Calcioscomesse match-fixing scandal.
Their attacking football was a far cry from catenaccio while their decision to opt for a smaller stadium proved an unqualified success as it was virtually full for every game.
Yet even as they were celebrating after beating Cagliari to clinch the title, Juventus spoiled it by bringing up those two lost championships and claiming last season’s was their 30th, rather than their officially recognised 28th, scudetto.
That set the tone for a summer of embarrassment that followed police investigations in Cremona and Bari. While the rest of the world was enjoying the Olympic Games, the Italian federation was holed up in its headquarters, dishing out bans to players, clubs and officials.
At the same time, Serie A lost some of its biggest player assets and singularly failed to attract equivalent replacements.
AC Milan sold striker Ibrahimovic and defender Thiago Silva to newly rich Paris St Germain while Napoli’s Argentine striker Ezequiel Lavezzi went to the same club.
Milan failed in their attempt to bring Kaka back from Real Madrid while long-serving players such as Alessandro Nesta and Gennaro Gattuso also left the club.
But there have been some interesting signings of young South American players with Parma bringing in Colombian Dorlan Pabon from Atletico Nacional and Palermo splashing out on Argentine Paulo Dybala, described by club president Maurizio Zamperini as “the new Sergio Aguero”.
But it is a far cry from the old days when the biggest names in the sport flocked to Italy.
Italian clubs have been left to trade with each other, one move being the baffling swap in which AC Milan and Inter Milan exchanged Antonio Cassano and Gianpaolo Pazzini.
“After an eternity, I have arrived at the club which I support,” said Cassano of Inter. “It doesn’t get better than joining the club which you are a fan of. I have re-found my smile.”
AC Milan have also bought Fiorentina’s gifted playmaker Riccardo Montolivo whose stock rose considerably with his performances at Euro 2012 for Italy, who lost in the final to Spain.
Juve have lured Udinese pair Maurico Isla and Kwadmo Asamoa and re-signed forward Sebastian Giovinco from Parma.
Apparently more interested in cashing in on last season’s third place than challenging for the top places again, Udinese have also let goalkeeper Samir Handanovic go to Inter, raking in an estimated €33.4 million (RM133 million) in transfer fees.
Juventus, who start at home to Parma on Saturday (1845 GMT), appear favourites to retain their title and Conte is still able to coach the team during the week.
But much will depend on how they cope without his presence on the touchline and whether they can concentrate on the championship rather than getting involved in a feud with the federation. — Reuters