Serie A (for Average!): It's a second-rate league with older strikers

Serie A (for Average!): Once the Gods of football graced its pitches. Now, it’s a second-rate league with geriatric strikers… but that could all change if either AC Milan or Inter win the Champions League

  • Serie A has fallen from the grace of the past to become a second-rate league 
  • Napoli’s President previously said Italy could learn from the Premier League 
  • The fate of Italy’s game could change if a Milan club wins the Champions League 

To understand Italian football’s curious place in the European game’s ecosystem, take a look at Lucas Paqueta’s transfer from Lyon to West Ham in August 2022.

The Brazilian playmaker cost the Hammers a club-record £53million – and Lyon were not the only ones who made a handsome sum. AC Milan had inserted a 15 per cent sell-on clause when they allowed Paqueta to join Lyon for £17.5m two years earlier. So when Paqueta signed his five-year contract worth nearly £40m at West Ham, Milan collected a very handy £7.95m.

Stop and think about that for a moment. AC Milan, winners of seven European Cups (second only to Real Madrid), 19 Serie A titles and 23 other serious trophies, celebrated a deal that did not directly involve them to keep the balance sheet healthy.

A deal driven by an English club who have won only four major titles and include various ‘runners-up’ seasons and two Championship play-off successes on the roll of honour on their club website.

In football’s natural order, surely it would be West Ham benefiting from high-profile Milan transfers? Yet there can be no better example of how the financial power dynamic has shifted in the last three decades.

Serie A used to be full of greats like Frank Rijkaard, Marco Van Basten and Ruud Gullit

But new Serie A champions Napoli show that the league has fallen down the European order 

With Milan and city rivals Inter contesting a Champions League semi-final, Juventus and Roma in the last four of the Europa League and Fiorentina at the same stage of the Conference League, Serie A could still complete a clean sweep of European trophies this season. This is hardly the performance of a sub-standard league and as this season has shown, there are some fine teams in Italy – new champions Napoli above all.

The depth and quality of domestic coaches is rightly a source of pride in Italy, where they are baffled that Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard are appointed to top jobs largely because they were famous players. In neutral conditions and with equal resources, Italian coaches would run rings around their English counterparts.

Imagine Napoli boss Luciano Spalletti against Gerrard, or Lampard against Simone Inzaghi of Inter. The same goes for whip-smart sporting directors like Napoli’s Cristiano Giuntoli, Pietro Accardi of Empoli or Inter’s Piero Ausilio.

Once we get away from the actual football, though, Serie A is average at best, a joke at worst. As part of Mail Sport’s exclusive interview with Napoli president Aurelio De Laurentiis two years ago, he was asked what Italian and English football could learn from one another. The reply was instructive. ‘We Italians are the ones who need to learn from the Premier League,’ said De Laurentiis. ‘Not the other way round.’

There are more than five billion reasons behind De Laurentiis’ answer. Only the NFL and cricket’s Indian Premier League generate more in television revenue than the Premier League, who confirmed in May 2021 that it would extend its £5.1billion television deal until the end of the 2024-25 season. Serie A’s most recent TV deal was worth £2.42bn.

‘Thanks to the changes made in the 1990s, English football became a genuine industry as well as a sport,’ De Laurentiis added in that interview. ‘It’s watched all over the world and generates more than any other league. This turnover means even the smaller English clubs are more competitive than their counterparts elsewhere.’

Napoli president Aurelio De Laurentiis has said Serie A needs to learn from the Premier League

Venues for Italian top-flight matches are rarely full, and the game is unable to catch up

The huge television deals mean huge wages for the global stars, and the visual spectacle of the Premier League – modern, packed out stadia – attracts overseas owners of unimaginable wealth. In Italy, by contrast, most of the venues have not changed since they were given a makeover for Italia 90. They are rarely full.

Everyone appreciates the issue, but the petty jealousies and point-scoring at the heart of Italian football and politics means they have been unable to find a grand vision for how to catch up. Then there are the scandals: Calciopoli in 2006, Ultima Scommessa in 2011-12, the ongoing ‘Plusvalenze’ case. Take your pick.

Pages could be written on the motives and outcomes of these events but far more important is the broader effect. Who wants to invest serious money in a league that has to handle regular allegations of sharp practice or illegal behaviour?

Scandals aside, the other three members of Europe’s top five leagues – Spain, Germany, France – are also dwarfed by the monetary might of the Premier League. Yet each of these competitions has its headline selling point: Spain has Real Madrid and Barcelona; France Kylian Mbappe and – for now at least – Lionel Messi; Germany the best matchday experience on the continent. With Cristiano Ronaldo leaving Juventus in 2021, Italy no longer has a USP to match.

The final problem Italy faces is perhaps the most surprising – a lack of confidence. A country so proud of its food, fashion, culture and climate, Italy seems to have completely lost faith in its football.

Leicester’s draw with Everton showed some poor quality in the top flight of English football

Italian football can be sparked into action if either AC Milan or Inter lift the Champions League

Part of the Premier League’s success is a confidence trick, where ‘The Best League in the World’ is now virtually an official title.

Manchester City lose at home to Brentford and it is spun as an example of the high calibre across the division. If that happens in Italy, supporters and media turn on their top clubs.

Some of the football in Leicester’s 2-2 draw with Everton on May 1 was so poor that it was amazing to remember it was a top-level fixture, yet off we went again, praising the ‘great product’ of the Premier League. The equivalent 90 minutes’ action in Serie A would inspire days of hand-wringing about how far standards had fallen.

The truth is somewhere in the middle but until Italian football – winners of four World Cups and two European Championships – appreciate what they have and try to improve it, progress will continue to be slow. A thrilling Milan derby, and victory over Real Madrid or Manchester City in the Final, should be just the spark they need.

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