Thursday, April 19, 2007

Italian football offers cautionary tale – Margin

The Premiership is the best league in the world. We have the best players and the best teams in the world. Or at least that’s the official line from England, where Spanish football is rarely shown on TV. But what has happened to the previous best?

In the 1990s Italian football was the pinnacle of excellence. That was partly thanks to the interest in, and investment for, World Cup Italia 90. It was however also built on the back of tactically intelligence managers and technically able players.

So strong was the lure of the Italian game that it broke into the saturated English market. The contrast between wizardry on Football Italia and Long ball drudgery on Match of the Day was truly stunning. It certainly encouraged kids to don metaphorical Inter or Juve shirts at school.
Of course the real proof of quality was on the pitch, and so it was that European Football asserted the unquestionable status of Italian football in that distant decade.

Of sixty finalists in three European competitions in the 90s, 25 were Italian. And this was not Juve, AC and Inter repeated. The winners did include those three with eight pots between them. But Parma, Sampdoria, Lazio, Roma, Torino and Fiorentina all made finals too, sharing five pots along the way.

Ask any Englishman what went wrong and the answer is as follows. The rise of the English game - combined with an Italian predilection for corruption - topped off with individual tales of woe at specific clubs - crippled the game irrevocably.

But the truth should be more worrying for the Premier League.

All divisions have a bad season or two, but when the 90s ended, so did Italian dominance. The smaller clubs who had so enriched and strengthened Italian football were mostly bought by rich fools or weak companies who replaced innovation with the tactic of throwing money at every challenge.

At the same time the elite was strengthened by regular Champion’s League qualification, and as the Italian economy declined, those owners who liked to throw money started throwing tantrums instead. Good managers were sacked on whims and top players were sold to recoup losses that barely existed.

It was in this context that Italian football suffered regulatory capture. A death knell for competition.

In economics, if a monopoly is strong enough it can convince its regulator that the public interest and the monopoly’s interest is the same thing. And so it was with Italian football.

The Italian FA and the Italian media as the official and informal regulators grew convinced that winning European Cups was the same thing as serving Italian football. The elite of AC and Juve were the most likely winners. So the authorities found themselves serving Juve and AC in turns. At the same time the media over reported those two clubs at the expense of all others.

This meant small clubs complaining at unfair refereeing could be largely ignored by the media and dismissed for their sour grapes by the authorities. And that was all the easier thanks to many a controversial decision against the big two.

Note though that controversial does not mean wrong. For every big decision against them became quickly controversial. The managers or players would rant at each decision, and the media would play up the ‘controversy’ for want of real drama in what quickly became a hollow league.

The Authorities could and should have stepped in, demanding proper punishment for such bad sporting behaviour. But instead they turned a blind eye rather than distract their fading stars from the goal of European silverware.

The top clubs were emboldened and tested their power further. And as governing bodies stood by their now incestuous support, those clubs went further and further, egged on by a media with no interest in the fates of any sides but Juve and Milan.

And so it was that Juve was able to select referees. And while all this went on, Italian football fell behind Spain, where technical development and tactical innovation ensure a plethora of teams compete for trophies.

Oh, and in case you are reading this wondering what England must learn, don’t worry. We are the best in the world. Just look at ManU, Chelsea and Liverpool.


miro said...

Me and my sons keep watching on TV an average of 10-12 league games per week (Premiership, Championship, La Liga, Serie A, Bundesliga and Bundesliga II). Our common impression is that the top Premiership and La liga teams matches are equally entertaining and of the highest quality, with the lower ranked Spanish sides performing better football than their English counterparts. The point is that any distinct evaluation on this topic is nothing but subjective. The other criteria (CL and UEFA Cup achievements) could stay the main parameters but even they indicate an overall game standards could be about the same.

andrewm said...

Cally would have a lot to say about this. Sadly, I think we would need Interista and guest1977 to draw him in.

bluedaddy said...

It does seem that the riches available via global TV and internet reach are encouraging the sense of competition between the European leagues, in addition to the competition/co-operation between their respective members.

I don't have figures but I get the impression that the EPL is winning this battle. It helps that big name players are starting to consider playing in England in their prime, or that the massive worldwide interest, and increasing success in the Euro competitions, is making global stars of players like Drogba, Lampard, Ronaldo, Gerrard, Henry et al.

And the harum scarum pace does look good superficially, even if it is actually Chelsea's more controlled possession football that has been coming out on top (Man U's midfield have retained the ball much better this season than in the last couple of years, led by Scholes back to his best, but aided by a more mature Ronaldo).

But Margin makes a good point that in Italy in the 90s, we may have already seen what is happening in England now (give or take some Italian idiosyncracies).
Pressure to supply referees that pass the Fergie or Jose test is one clear echo of Calciopoli. Media obsession with the Big 2/3/4 to the detriment of the rest of the league is another obvious parallel (obvious now that Margin points it out :o)).

I think a previous suggestion (Margin's? Mouth's?) for a play-off for the 4th (or maybe 3rd if M.Platini has his way) CL place would help keep up the engagement levels of the better clubs and their fans, as well as the armchair/pub viewer, as well as a relegation play off. This would hopefully prise the media's attention temporarily away from the Big 2/3/4, and fight off the current complacency that the 'product' is just dandy as it is.

It's worth pointing out though, that between them, the UEFA cup and the CL seem to show that competition between the clubs of the three biggest leagues is pretty healthy, even if the English clubs have the upper hand this season in the elite competition.

Margin said...

Thanks for the comments guys.

I was more interested in the lessons English football should try to learn than whether or not we are the best league in the world. I love Spanish football for the depth of competition but often prefer the more physical English game as a spectacle.

There is a media obsession with those at the top - and there is far too much pandering to the rants of certain managers about referees.

I did indeed suggest a fourth place play off a few weeks back and hadn't thought about that in regards to this article. But bluedaddy is right - that could help mix things up a bit.

pipita said...


I think english football has its "trademark" and that will always make it attractive regardless of whether its only composed of British players, or if its quality is reinforced by foreign imports. Suppose Spanish and Italian league's have their style too but I think they are more dependent of the money going in and the contribution of players from other countries. Whereas in England, no matter how many big shot financiers and corporations move in, the spirit and excitement will remain unaltered

Margin said...

I hope you are right pipita

I certainly agree that football in England is a little more resiliant than it was in Italy in the last few years.

Thats not so much because of the elite clubs but because of the strength of identity and practices of big clubs further down the table like Everton and Aston Villa.

MotM said...

Too much work has brought me late to pseuds, but it's a real pleasure to read stuff like this and the posts that come later.

I am depressed about the lack of competition in the Premiership, especially now we're all supposed to be excited about whether Man Utd or Chelsea win - yawn.

I have a couple of questions: how was an all-Serie A team good enough to win the World Cup; is Italian football more or less corrupt than other areas of Italian public life? (I say this as a huge admirer of everything Italian - but it's a corrupt place as all my Italian friends tell me.)

Margin said...


As I said to several people before the world cup - only a madman would bet against a country with a proven recent record of match fixing... ;)

In answer to your other question - sport is often more corrupt than society as a whole - Thats partly because gambling is often a relatively informal sector that raises the benefits and reduces the risks of corruption.

But it is also part of the culture of sport.

Corrupting a planning official to allow a dodgy extention to your house leaves a paper trail has a major anomalous result - ie a big carbuncle of an extention that breaks normal planning rules. a council official would need a prohibitively high payment to put at risk his job and liberty to do something he could clearly be caught for.

But in sport there need be no paper trail since no "decision" was made. secondly the money available for corruption is vast. And there is no big anomalous end result that would raise suspicions since all results are possible in a fair fight.

An anomolous result in a planning decision would be attacked - in Football it would be lionised. Take ManU losing to Southend. And be it wrong sendings off, badly judged penalty decisions, poor player performances - it would be ignored as human error not ill intent.

The issue of poor decisions is particularly important in italian football. hence the managers of top clubs, and their media friends, played up every 'controversy' against them to make it seem bad decisions were more evenly spread.

it happens here in England - a recent list of Poll 'gaffs' in the Mirror included sending John Terry off at White Hart Lane - that game caused a storm of protest about the ref from Jose - yet while the ranting made the refereeing 'contentious' he was in fact right to send terry off and Chelsea didn't appeal the decision because it was clear they had no case.

by playing up such "controversies" the myth can be created that bad decisions 'even themselves out' - as opposed to the truth that they tend to favour the top sides. (there was no similar storm of media protest about Frank Lampard not being sent off on ten minutes in the same game for a two footed lunge on Chimbonda that put the full back out for 6 weeks.)

and that pretence that decisions 'even themselves out' is a vital precursor for corruption. Otherwise people grow suspicious.

MotM said...

Margin - I agree that the oportunities are great for corrupt practices in sport and that the post-match comments by managers and others are part of a softening up operation.

I would take issue refs always favouring top clubs - top clubs get more penalties and give away fewer because the ball is in the respective penalty areas for differential time periods in possession of better players etc surely?

But I do think that top clubs get an easier ride with yellow and red cards.

Great quip re the World Cup - I'm going to pinch that one!

Margin said...

pinch away.

I agree its hard to make a comprehensive case about bias in refereeing. And you are right about the penalty issue. Indeed the way a side plays can affect that too. (chelsea take lots of long shots - wheras arsenal try to get into the box. So arsenal should by rights get more penalties).

But thats part of the problem. Every apparent anomaly can be explained away and thus corruption can thrive.

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