Is Serie A on the rise again?
Background photo: Priscilla Jordao, CC BY-SA 2.0
Serie-A used to be the biggest league in the ‘90s. The best of the best played there, including the original Ronaldo, Zinedine Zidane, Juan Sebastian Veron, Hernan Crespo, Lilian Thuram, Marcel Desailly, Marco van Basten and Gabriel Batistuta. The Italian players matched the foreigners for quality. Roberto Baggio, Alessandro del Piero, Paolo Maldini, Franco Baresi, Gianfranco Zola, Alessandro Nesta and a young Gianluigi Buffon all proved Lega Calcio wasn't propped up by foreign talent like the Premier League is today. Serie A's dominance continued into the early 2000s. AC Milan and Juventus were making the Champions League final on a regular basis.
It all unravelled in 2006. Calciopoli devastated the league. Prime culprits in the bribery scandal, Juventus were demoted. Milan were deducted points. Inter were named champions despite finishing third. The Azzurri still won the World Cup in Germany. Marco Materazzi again proved Italians could better any foreign stars, including Zinedine Zidane. But Italian football declined in the aftermath.
Marcelo Lippi returned as national coach after Roberto Donadoni's disappointing Euro08 but even he couldn't push the Azzurri beyond the group stage. Listless draws with Paraguay and lowly New Zealand were followed by a 3-2 defeat to Slovakia. Inter Milan pulled off a masterful treble by winning the Scudetto, Coppa Italia and Champions League that season. Jose Mourinho's squad was filled with ageing foreign stars. Only five Italians were in the senior team. Marco Materazzi alone among them inhabited the starting XI. When Mourinho departed for Real Madrid, Inter's dynasty crumbled.
More recently, Juventus returned to the top flight. They rebuilt to dominate Serie A but continually come up just short in their quest for the Champions League. They've gone all-out to win it this term by signing Cristiano Ronaldo and returning Leonardo Bonucci to the fold. The good news for Italian football is that AS Roma and Inter Milan are also making their presence felt in Europe. AC Milan show signs of renewed life, too, and Napoli are making a surprisingly smooth transition from Maurizio Sarri to Carlo Ancelotti.
The national side still lags behind. They failed to qualify for the World Cup in Russia. The old stars are fading. Buffon, Francesco Totti and Daniele de Rossi retired. Giorgio Chiellini is on the verge. Roberto Mancini, with Scudettos and Premier League titles in his back pocket, is now the manager charged with finding a new generation capable of adding to Italy's international legacy and doing so now. The academy system adopted by all clubs in the league is beginning to produce top-level professionals that are tactically and technically ready to challenge their rivals from the other top leagues. Serie-A is definitely pointing Italian football in the right direction.
Juventus' dominance, now with a seven-year grip on the Scudetto, is often applied to criticise the league, and the Old Lady is dominating Lega Calcio again with Ronaldo and Bonucci in the zebra kit. Even so, the other clubs are closing the gap. Last season, the title went down to the wire. Although Juve are out of the gate quickly, they will inevitably slip. Napoli and Inter are poised to close the gap. Lazio, Milan and Roma are lurking, too. Serie A is resurgent. The rest of Europe ignores it at their peril.