Italian Football Dominance
In late 1980s and throughout 1990s, Serie A clubs enjoyed a period of unparalleled dominance in Europe. They collectively won 13 of the 30 European titles contested for and had 25 final appearances during the 1990s. While they were the undisputed kings of the 90s, Serie A clubs also continued to enjoy continental success until 2010.
AC Milan and Inter Milan collectively won three European trophies between 2000-2010. Italian football in those times was at its pinnacle, with Serie A boasting players such as Zinedine Zidane, Roberto Baggio, Luis Ronaldo and Paolo Maldini. And who could forget the great Milan team under Carlo Ancelotti that enjoyed its fair bit of silverware. Club success in Italy also transcended into the Azzurris winning the biggest footballing prize there is to offer - the World Cup trophy in 2006.
Collapse of Italian Football and Serie A
The glory decades, however, were not all covered in silver and gold. Right in the mix, these accolades brewed some dark uncovered corruption scandals from top tier italian teams that eventually left stains on the brand that Serie A's footballing dominance carried.
Right around the time of the World Cup win in the summer of 2006 came the Calciopoli match-fixing scandal. The then Juventus general manager Luciano Moggi was banned from the game for life and the club was demoted to Serie B. Due to involvement of their club officials and players, Serie A clubs such as AC Milan, Lazio, Fiorentina and Reggina were all also docked points as punishment.
The footballing world was stunned and whilst Juventus returned to Serie A after just one season, the cheating, scandals and corruption continued to run rampant at the highest levels of the office. Once again, the headlines of the 2011/2012 season were dominated by another scandal, “Operation Last Bet”.
The betting scandal spanned investigations across four divisions of Italian football, leading to the arrest of Lazio striker Giuseppe Signori and Lazio vice-captain Stefano Mauri. Antonio Conte was allegedly accused of having prior knowledge of fixing two matches whilst holding the managerial role at ACN Sien. He was subsequently banned for four months as a consequence.
The effects of such a scandal were so strong that Italy automatically lost all bids to host any European or World football tournament. The then Prime Minister Mario Monti even suggested the team withdraw from Euro 2012. The lost bids eventually meant stunted development of stadiums, training facilities and overall infrastructure, effects that could be seen in major Serie A clubs throughout 2010s.
The Old Lady’s Rise and Fall
At the heart of the Calciopoli scandal was Juventus, who were relegated from Serie A for the first time in their history on July 14, 2006. This resulted in several players leaving the club, including prominent names such as Zlatan Ibrahimović, Patrick Vieira, Lilian Thuram and Gianluca Zambrotta.
However, Juventus legends Alessandro Del Piero, Gigi Buffon, Pavel Nedved and David Trezeguet decided to stay back in Turin, with Del Piero famously saying "a true gentleman never leaves his lady." The Old Lady didn’t overstay its welcome in Serie B. Within a year, Didier Deschamps guided the club back to Serie A.
Following the Calciopoli scandal, the club restructured its management team, built a new stadium and renegotiated sponsorship deals to make the Juventus relegation story a thing of the past. While the club initially struggled on their return to Serie A, with six different managers in five years, they struck the right managerial chord with a former player in Antonio Conte.
The outspoken Italian led Juventus to their first Serie A title since the scandal in the 2011-12 season. Following this, the club began its charge towards nine consecutive Serie A titles under Conte, Massimiliano Allegri and Maurizio Sarri. The winning streak was broken in the 2020-21 season, when Conte guided Inter Milan to their first Scudetto in 11 years.
For those ten years when their domestic Serie A titles kept adding up, Juventus were also the sole representative of Italian football on the European stage. They took part in two Champions League finals, both against the formidable Spanish teams of Barcelona and Real Madrid.
Unfortunately, they lost both. They also signed Cristiano Ronaldo in 2018, a marquee name in their history books. The Portuguese won at the domestic level with Juventus, but was not able to guide the club to European glory.
Juventus’s journey during the fall and subsequent rise of Italian clubs was different from that of their neighbors. They managed to maintain their high standards of football for over a decade. Funnily enough, they continue to differentiate themselves from their Serie A competitors as they are now the club that is currently struggling.
Ronaldo’s transfer also did not work out as management thought it would. But they do have some exciting talent in Federico Chiesa, Dejan Kulusevski and Matthijs De Ligt and a fair bit of experience in Paulo Dybala, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini. The Old Lady, with 36 Serie A wins, remains the formidable team on the Italian peninsula. It is only a matter of time before they reclaim domestic dominance.
Roma and Napoli – The Early Birds
Juventus kept their hands comfortably firm on the Serie A title in the first half of the last decade. But for about three years, they faced stiff competition from Roma and Napoli in the latter half of 2010s.
For Roma, 2000s was a fairly successful decade, where they finally recaptured the Serie A title, won two Coppa Italia trophies and the Supercoppa Italiana titles. They also were not involved in the fixing scandals and kept a fairly steady ship through the two decades.
2010s marked the cessation of ownership by the Sensi family, with new American owners making significant changes to the club. This included the signings of then high profile players such as Erik Lamela and Bojan Krkic. The positive journey began initially under Rudi Garcia, who held second spot in Serie A for two consecutive seasons between 2013 and 2015.
But they were a distant second before Luciano Spalletti guided them to being near challengers to Juventus for two consecutive seasons. Spaletti was replaced by Eusebio Di Francesco and Roma mounted a competitive title challenge three season in a row from 2015 to 2018. The club boasted players such as Mohamed Salah, Edin Dzeko, Miralem Pjanic and Daniele De Rossi in their roster.
They also famously made a comeback against Barcelona in the 2017-18 season through the “Greek God in Rome'' Kostas Manolas and reached the semi-finals of the Champions League in the same season. Now, with Jose Mourinho at the helm, they will look to creep back into a top four spot that has eluded them over the past few seasons.
As Giallorossi wrote their story in Rome, the tale in Naples had its fair bit of ups and downs. Financially distressed, Napoli filed for bankruptcy in 2004. Having been placed in Serie C, the club quickly worked its way up to Serie A and secured third spot in the top flight in the 2010-11 season.
While they dabbled with the European elite for the next few years, it was under Sarri that they rose to prominence in Serie A with attractive football. The likes of Dries Mertens, Lorenzo Insigne, Marek Hamsik, Jose Callejon and Jorginho propelled Napoli to a formidable opponent.
They also seriously challenged Juventus for the Scudetto in the 2017-18 season. A blip came after Sarri left, with Ancelotti and Gennaro Gattuso taking a stab at managing the club. Now, under Spalletti, they are back to being a formidable team occupying third spot in Serie A.
The Rise of Atalanta
As the old guards focused on their respective resurgence, football in Serie A faced an anomaly with the addition of a new and attack-minded team from Bergamo. The hiring of Gian Piero Gasperini as manager in the summer of 2016 to replace Edoardo Reja could be tied to Atalanta’s meteoric rise in the second half of 2010s.
The club recruited the right players to suit Gasperini’s high energy 3-5-2 style of play and relied on data analysts and conditioning coaches. Atalanta has branded itself from an average mid-table team, most notably finishing 16th in the 2015-16 season, to a regular Champions League club.
Atalanta has developed top players in Robin Gosens, Papu Gomez, Duvan Zapata, Josip Ilicic and Luis Muriel. Their play is built around the principle that the team will work hard defending the ball and move quickly through midfield to create chances for its quick and clinical strikers.
Contrary to the defensive philosophy that most Italian teams play with, Gasperini brought a fresh style of play to Serie A, with the team scoring 100+ goals in the 2019-20 Serie A season. Atalanta have most definitely ignored the usual Italian brand of tactical defending associated with Serie A. This is evident from the fact that they out-scored every opponent in their Champions League quarter-final run in the same season.
Amidst a tumultuous time in Italian football, both the Milan clubs struggled to find the rhythm, the right players and staff to operate the football club at the level of efficiency. Both clubs were eventually bought by foreign investors in 2016 - AC Milan to Rossoneri Sport Investment Lux (RSIL) and Inter Milan to Chinese-born Suning retail CEO Steven Zhang.
AC Milan’s RSIL then sold it’s 99%+ ownership to Elliott Management’s Paul Singer who restructured the club’s finances to clear the debt owed by the club and then began investing in recruiting the right players into the organization.
However, the summer of 2017 saw Hakan Calhanoglu, Mateo Musacchio, Ricardo Rodriguez, Franck Kessie, Andre Silva and Fabio Borini move to the San Siro in what proved to be a disastrous €350 million investment. But over a period of four years, the new ownership invested time and work to restructure a once family-owned Italian club into a corporation that prioritized growth in revenue.
The club worked on building its brand while also bringing back its glory days. The employment of Gattuso and Stefano Pioli as managers brought them back to the Champions League and made them domestic challengers in Serie A.
Inter Milan’s Steven Zhang was sent over from China to take charge of the Nerazzurri. He quickly understood the dreams of the clubs and began investing in the squad. His first major flash of success came when he hired Antonio Conte as the club's manager in 2019.
Conte’s style of play was hard for teams to cope with and his defensive organization hard to break down. In the two years that Conte spent at the club, he recruited Premier League rejects like Alexis Sanchez, Romelu Lukaku, Matteo Darmian, Victor Moses and Ashley Young and turned them into title winners. Inter’s style of play was brutal and showed glimpses of the consecutive Scudetto winning teams of 2005-2010.
While both clubs invested into their starting XI, they certainly have some budding youth talent like Sandro Tonali, Theo Hernandez, Gigi Donnarumma, Nico Barella and Lautaro Martinez to name a few. The future definitely looks bright for both Milan clubs, with both clubs in the 2nd and 3rd spot to be fighting for the Serie A title and the Champions League places on a consistent basis.
Building on their youth and their academies will not only help keep the brand of Italian football, but it will also ensure that there is a strong talent pipeline into Serie A. The next Verratti or the next Federico Chiesa could be right around the corner.
The Euro 2020 title for Italy was a clear indication of what a mix of youth and experience can bring to their country. Calcio fans can only hope that Italy will keep producing the best football possible for the world and bring joy to the millions of fans in Italy and around the world.
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