Things looking up all over in Serie A

Posted by James Horncastle

If you were just anyone coming through arrivals at an Italian airport this summer, you could be forgiven for wondering what on earth was going on. Hundreds of people at a time were often waiting for a big name signing to emerge through customs. It was reminiscent of the 1980s and 90s in Serie A. People came from far and wide just to catch a first glimpse of their new idols.

Juventus supporters made the trip from Turin to Milan to welcome Carlos Tevez at Malpensa. Napoli fans travelled to Rome to greet Gonzalo Higuain at Fiumicino. Roma fans were there when Kevin Strootman landed.

As they pushed their way through the crowds, scarves in their new team’s colours were draped around their necks and songs sung in their name. There hasn’t been this much enthusiasm ahead of a new season in Serie A for some time. Everyone’s excited. It’s a stark contrast with the mood a year ago.

Back then, it was quite underwhelming. Recall, for instance, the final recruitment of Italy’s traditional Big Three. Juventus picked up Nicklas Bendtner on loan from Arsenal. Inter overpaid for Porto’s Alvaro Pereira and Milan bought Nigel de Jong. With all due respect (particularly to the latter, who missed the season with an Achilles injury), none of them set the pulse racing.

For most people, the best signing of last summer was made by Napoli, but it wasn’t to bring a player in. rather to make one stay. Edinson Cavani’s contract extension and the 63-million-euro buyout clause included within was a coup and it would become one of the year’s major narratives.

So the sense was that many teams had more or less stayed the same, got worse or had done little to improve themselves. The only club to really capture the imagination then was Fiorentina with the overhaul of their squad and the purchases of Gonzalo Rodriguez, David Pizarro, Alberto Aquilani, Borja Valero, Ivan Cuadrado and Mati Fernandez.

This summer, as we’ve established, they’re not alone in causing a stir, although once again Fiorentina deserve credit for reawakening a passion that lay dormant in many of their own supporters as well as that within neutrals in Italy and Serie A enthusiasts across the world.

More than 25,000 supporters were at the Artemio Franchi for Mario Gomez’s unveiling as a Fiorentina player last month, and the same number were in attendance again for the presentation of the team for the new season this week.

Giuseppe Bellini/Getty ImagesRafa Benitez seems primed to carry Napoli to the next logical step in its progression.

Napoli also practically sold out San Paolo in July as they introduced new coach Rafa Benitez and the team’s six new acquisitions to fans. Fireworks were let off, an official cheerleading troupe formed and a camouflage third shirt released as part of the kit launch.

Commanding Europe’s attention following the sale of Cavani, shock-waves emanated from the vicinity of Vesuvius as Napoli reinvested all the proceeds and promised to spend even more. There was a great swagger about them, a bravado, but what else would you expect from a club presided over by Aurelio De Laurentiis? Along with Monaco, Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain, for a time they were the driving force of the transfer window.

Put another way, Napoli were to Serie A this summer what Tottenham are to the Premier League at the moment: a club with a star, whose sale will allow them to acquire a small galaxy of other quality players, which could well make the team more formidable as a whole. Whether Napoli turn out better without Cavani or not remains to be seen, but the exit of one player and the entry of six has created quite a buzz.

It has, to an extent, drowned out the sighs provoked by some of the league's best players leaving. Last year it was Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva. This year, in addition to Cavani, Stevan Jovetic has gone and no sooner had Marquinhos emerged, like Matija Nastasic 12 months earlier, than he was sold, too. Erik Lamela may yet be traded as well.

There’s understandable regret, but at least the money for these players is going to clubs outside the traditional Big Three who, for the most part, have used it to strengthen, which in turn has given the impression of Serie A having greater depth and being more competitive.

True, it’s not at the Seven Sisters level of the late 1990s and early 2000s -- it may never be again -- but after 12 years residence between Milan and Turin, there’s a genuine belief that maybe, just maybe, the Scudetto could move south this season.

And besides, though some Serie A favourites have left, others have returned. Don’t forget that Milan brought Mario Balotelli back in the winter, or how over the same period Fiorentina offered the recuperating Giuseppe Rossi the chance to return to Italy six years after last playing there for Parma.

This can’t be anything but good news in a World Cup year for Cesare Prandelli and the national team which, 12 months after finishing second at Euro 2012, came in third at the Confederations Cup. The Under-21s, incidentally, also reached the final of the European Championship in Israel. Members of that squad could play more in Serie A. A lot more. The back five, for instance, all belonged to Inter and were either out on loan and still are or have subsequently been sold. Even so, the signs are encouraging.

There’s an optimism about Italian football that hasn't been there for a while. Fans are returning to its stadiums. According to La Gazzetta dello Sport, 28,000 more season tickets have been sold than at this time last year. Twelve of Serie A’s 20 clubs have recorded an increase. New signings, not to mention the prospect of Italy’s five biggest derbies (those of Turin, Rome, Milan, Verona and Genoa) all taking place in Serie A this season means there is plenty to look forward to.

Genuine, if slow, progress is being made to enhance the spectacle and viewing experience of the Italian game. After the inauguration of Juventus’ privately owned ground two years ago, Udinese effectively established ownership of the Stadio Friuli this summer, securing a 99-year lease. Renovations are underway. Promoted Sassuolo also have a home that they can call their own -- the Mapei Stadium, though they share it with Reggiana.

Building one for Inter is primarily what’s motivating Massimo Moratti to make the heart-wrenching decision to sell a majority stake in the club to Erik Thohir. The Indonesian, it’s hoped, will bring the finance needed to fund its construction and take the club forward.

After Roma’s acquisition by an American consortium a couple of years ago, it’s an indication that Italian football, despite all its image and structural problems, can appeal to the kind of foreign investors who are choosing to put their money into the Premier League and Ligue 1.

AP Photo/Gregorio BorgiaRacial abuse aimed at black Juventus players by Lazio supporters last Sunday resulted in Lazio's Curva Nord being closed for Sunday's Serie A opener against Udinese.

Issues do remain, of course. Unless their appeal is successful, Lazio’s Curva Nord will be closed for Sunday’s opener against Udinese after a section of the club’s supporters racially abused Juventus' black players during the Italian Super Cup last weekend.

Roma's Curva Sud is also shut for their first home game of the campaign against Hellas Verona after a number of supporters were heard making discriminatory chants about Mario Balotelli during their final league match at the Stadio Olimpico against Napoli last season. It's a disgrace, but the measures taken by the Italian authorities are at least tougher than the paltry fines doled out in recent years.

Also, it’s worth remembering that the six people who racially insulted Kevin Prince-Boateng during Milan’s friendly with Pro Patria in the spring, prompting him to walk off, have since been given prison sentences. It’s hoped that the threat of such action will be a serious deterrent and change attitudes over time.

As for match-fixing, when Lazio captain Stefano Mauri was banned for six months earlier this summer (he is appealing) and the club were fined, many suspected that the game had been blighted again. It hadn’t.

This was the climax of an investigation into allegations surrounding Lazio’s matches against Genoa and Lecce at the end of the season before last. Credibility has been restored incrementally in the meantime. After Calciopoli and then Scommessopoli, fans are beginning to believe what they’re seeing again. It’s another reason why fans are returning to grounds in the thousands.

Take, for instance, the final day of last season -- Siena had nothing to play for against Milan. They’d already been relegated, so typically you’d expect them to roll over against a team who needed to win in order to secure a place in the Champions League. But Siena didn’t. They took the lead and were unlucky to lose 2-1. They played hard from beginning to end. It was another encouraging sign that things are indeed changing for the better.

After some dark days, there seems to be light at the end of the tunnel, a bright light that reinvigorates, one that, in its glow, makes you feel upbeat and hopeful of a great season ahead in Serie A.

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