Tuesday, August 23, 2011
There may be trouble ahead...
The Serie A is a marketing miracle whose case history should be a mandatory part of every course in business schools around the world. 'Why?' you may, or rather should, ask. Consider what follows.
Almost every year, a match-fixing scandal erupts, leading to point deductions, bans and a general feeling that what we see out on the pitch - especially results from March onwards - should not be trusted in its entirety. The Lega Serie A, the top-flight's governing body, is a fractious assortment of owners and directors who should be sued for improper use of the term 'league' by bona fide organisations like the NFL, as the clear goal of most of them is to create an uneven playing field and a financial divide with the others.
Most games are played in dilapidated, uncomfortable grounds where access is complicated by a general lack of advance information about something as simple as how to get a ticket - and you do not even need to get off the couch anyway, as the Lega's complete sell-out to television networks means you can access every game on one of the two available platforms. On the pitch, the influx of world-class talent the media anticipates with bated breath at the beginning of each summer has, predictably, not materialised. In fact, the Serie A has lost a young talent like Javier Pastore and it's not clear, yet, who will replace him as the holder of the not-so-coveted title of "player most likely to be overrated following a couple of good seasons", although there's never a shortage of candidates for that role.
And yet... despite this appalling scenario, millions around the world will be counting down the hours until Siena and Fiorentina (hopefully) kick-off on Saturday at 6pm local time.
Such is the reputation Italian football still carries throughout the world. Years of decline in European competitions and in the race to sign, or at least retain, the best players have dented and twisted our calcio's name, but not to the point fans are looking for other things to do next weekend. There are, after all, several highly interesting issues surrounding the new season.
The most intriguing one centres around Inter, who are in the process of sealing the sale of Samuel Eto'o to Anzhi. New manager Gian Piero Gasperini has so far failed to achieve any sort of consistency with his side, amid the unsettling transfer news concerning not just the Cameroon international but also Wesley Sneijder and other names that seem to come out of the blue - like the latest, Kaka. Pressure on the Nerazzurri is always intense and theirs is not a tradition of handling it well: their policy in the transfer market, while being nominally inspired by UEFA's Financial Fair Play laws, sometimes seem to be based on whims and short-term planning, and this does not help them achieve the respect they deserve among many media pundits.
Especially with Milan, who are not on the other side of town as much as the enemy within, looking good while planning for a second consecutive league title and a better run in the Champions League. Zlatan Ibrahimovic's recent injury, which may keep him out of the opening game at Cagliari, may expose Milan's lack of a like-for-like replacement, but coach Max Allegri is confident Pato's improving awareness in perfecting the centre-forward moves will keep the overall skill level up, and when the need arises, Pippo Inzaghi, despite a recent setback, will make himself available again after last year's knee injury.
With the transfer window approaching its end, Alberto Aquilani appears close to being announced as the much-vaunted Mr X, the now wearisome nickname that top official Adriano Galliani had bestowed upon the midfielder the Rossoneri were looking to sign. Amid all attempts to dislodge him from the trequartista position he played with panache and energy last season and push him wider and deeper on the left of Milan's 4-3-1-2, Kevin-Prince Boateng has been brilliant in pre-season and his struggle to retain a starting place is among the top stories surrounding the defending champions.
A monumental task is awaiting Antonio Conte at Juventus, who are, confusingly, in the second year of their second rebuilding stage, having cleared the decks by dismissing everyone involved with last year's seventh-place debacle. Conte has brought along his trusted and successful 4-2-4, which won him promotion to the Serie A with both Bari and Siena, with the promise of attacking football based on ball possession and sudden bursts from the flanks. This approach may be inspired by Andrea Pirlo, who despite the arrival of several new players - among them Arturo Vidal and Switzerland full-backs Stephan Lichtsteiner and Reto Ziegler - may still prove to be the most crucial. Pirlo's emergence as a key player would surprise Milan fans, who have seen him struggle with injury and loss of form in the past year.
Anyway, Juve's attempt to climb all the way up into the title reckoning or at least a Champions League place - remember, Italy will only be allowed three now - is given more urgency by their momentous move to a new stadium, which they own. Despite the propaganda you've been hearing, it's not the first time an Italian club has built and owned a football ground: Reggiana had the Stadio Giglio built for them in 1992 by a consortium of firms linked to the club and played their first ever Serie A game there against, you guessed it, Juventus. Reggiana, though, were never as good as the ground was nice, and that's a mistake you feel Juventus will not make.
The Bianconeri sold 50% more season tickets for 2011-12 than last year and will cut the ribbon on their new 41,000-capacity palace with a glamour friendly with, er, Notts County: an excellent way of linking the present with the distant past, as it was the Nottinghamshire club who provided Juve with their original playing kit more than a century ago. While the new stadium is nothing football fans of more modern countries won't have seen before, that it was conceived and built in a nation notorious for having an ancient and backwards-looking mentality is a huge step forward, and Juve must be commended for it.
Allegri, 44, and Conte, 42, are just two of the crop of emerging young managers who have been given a chance in the top flight. Among the others - all former players - are 44-year-old Pierpaolo Bisoli at Bologna, who is young by Italian standards, 37-year-old Vincenzo Montella at Catania, 41-year-old Eusebio Di Francesco at Lecce and, of course, Luis Enrique, who takes charge of Roma at 41. Several more, like Mimmo Di Carlo - back at Chievo after a bad year at Sampdoria - Cesena's Marco Giampaolo and Stefano Pioli - already in the hot seat at Palermo, but who hasn't been? - are in a similar age range but are already on their second or third club and as such are perhaps not seen as being part of the same category.
Not everyone of them will make it through the season without getting the sack: last season, Cesena probably avoided relegation by sticking with coach Massimo Ficcadenti - who is 43, by the way - through the worst of times, but chances are one of the debutants will have to walk the plank as soon as the losses pile up and fans, in that shameful routine perfected in this country, begin showing up at the training ground asking for a "chat" with the manager. Cagliari, after all, did not even need that excuse to sack Roberto Donadoni 15 days before the Serie A started, and replace him with Ficcadenti: Donadoni was apparently less than enthusiastic about the club's lack of hustle in the transfer market, and there was always going to be one outcome when that came out.
None of the new managers will have an easy time, but Luis Enrique might have walked into the most explosive situation. Roma officially became part of Thomas DiBenedetto's portfolio of properties in mid-August, after a drawn-out round of negotiations, and the Italian-American swiftly moved to change the culture at the club, which may prove to be even harder than assembling a championship-winning side. As Corriere dello Sport reported last month, while surveying the scenery in the VIP area of the main stand at the Stadio Olimpico last season, DiBenedetto asked what the price of those tickets was, and the answer startled him: "They're giveaways." This is not completely unusual per se: most grounds in Italy are council-owned and this means a number of free passes are given each year to local politicians and authorities as part of the rental deal, but Rome being Rome, the number of freeloaders is swollen by MPs, officials of CONI (the Italian Olympic Committee, whose HQ is just a flare's throw away), hangers-on and their friends. Corriere noted at least 2,500 tickets for each Roma home match are given away for free, which results in a loss of potential income of €5 million each year for the club. Good luck to DiBenedetto, then.
While violently arguing against each other most of the time in parliament, politicians will surely unite to defend their privileges, should Roma act on their threat to rectify the situation. And talking of privileges, it seems Luis Enrique has already rubbed Francesco Totti up the wrong way by naming him on the bench for Roma's defeat at Slovan Bratislava in the first leg of the Europa League preliminary round. Totti, who then trained on Saturday wearing a T-shirt with the word 'Basta!' ('Enough!'), is as much a fixture of the Roman scene as the politicians and their sycophants, with the crucial difference that he's worked hard at his profession, has rare skills and earns his money in a honest manner. However, it sometimes seems his larger-than-life character has an overwhelming bearing on whatever happens at Roma, and it will be interesting to see how the situation evolves, as Enrique's 4-3-3 has him playing deeper, as a centre-forward, than he's become used to in the recent past.
And with Lazio having improved by acquiring Miroslav Klose and Djibril Cisse and perhaps soon making an addition-by-subtraction deal by selling Mauro Zarate, you can be sure Roman derbies will again be among the highlights of the season in the capital.
Travelling further south, Napoli's grandiose plans for world domination might be tested this year, as they will not be able to sneak up on anybody and will in fact be expected to repeat or improve on last season's third-place finish. Meanwhile, owner Aurelio De Laurentiis' antics have already made him a love-or-hate figure throughout Italy: while his quest to bring more business sense to the Lega dealings must be commended - he's already said many times the Serie A international TV rights are undersold - his penchant for outrageous remarks threatens to undermine his good intentions and turn him into a local folk hero with little gravitas outside, despite the huge success he's had as a brilliant movie producer.
His latest quip about trying to establish a youth system mixing Barcelona's structure with Napoli's noted if stereotypical 'scugnizzeria' ('urchinism') immediately became a hot topic in the world of social networking, for example. Ironically, while he's trying to grab Italian football by the collar and drag it into the modern world, De Laurentiis belongs to a fairly typical class of Italian entrepreneurs, those who basically got a head-start in business by trading on their family name. Among the top Serie A clubs, only Milan are owned by someone who was not born into wealth, though there are of course some here who wish it had stayed that way for Silvio Berlusconi.
You can then see how hard it is for outsiders to break into the big time and stay there. With all his contradictions, De Laurentiis is truly pushing hard to keep Napoli at the top, and a set of new midfielders - Gokhan Inler and Blerim Dzemaili - plus jack-of-all-trades Alberto Santana will now provide excitable coach Walter Mazzarri with more versatility within a unit that had become predictable and lacking in resources last year while making Napoli one of the more entertaining sides in the Serie A.
Udinese may struggle to repeat last season's fourth-place finish, having sold their backbone of Zapata-Inler-Sanchez for €44 million, but the club's extraordinary ethos and ability in establishing a 'next man up' mentality may see them surprise a few opponents again. Udinese tend to receive little respect or, worse still, patronising media coverage, with the media keen that they don't threaten the big clubs they rely on to sell copies and attract viewers. It's a sad part of being a club like Udinese, Bologna, Fiorentina, Chievo, Parma or Lecce - and the 2011-12 season will be no exception for Francesco Guidolin and his players.
You'd still rather be in his shoes than Stefano Colantuono's, though. Atalanta will kick off the season with a six-point deduction and the loss of captain Cristiano Doni following this summer's match-fixing probe, and the manager's task, which was always going to be tough, has now been made even harder. Their home match against Cesena, who themselves must be wary of a sophomore slump despite acquiring some good players including Adrian Mutu, can already be described as - ironically - a six-pointer. And that is no marketing gimmick.