Italy's most beautiful championship going through a renaissance
There was a time when Italians might have been insulted by the suggestion of theirs being the third-best football league in Europe. Serie A was always il campionato più bello del mondo - the most beautiful championship in the world. How else to describe a competition that produced 12 European Cup finalists between 1983 and 1998, a place where you could watch Diego Maradona take on Franco Baresi, or Zinedine Zidane battle Ronaldo for the Ballon d'Or?
Nobody is blind, though, to the power shift since. Between TV deals and billionaire owners, Premier League clubs became able to offer wages the Italians could not match. Barcelona and Real Madrid kept pace by using the Champions League to solidify their status as global brands. Serie A's most marketable teams were too busy squabbling over the Calciopoli scandal.
Even the Bundesliga, rich with well-run clubs and domestic talent, moved ahead in the continental pecking order. By 2014, the columnist Gianni Mura was writing in the newspaper La Repubblica that he had "never seen a Serie A of such scarce technical quality".
So when Italy climbed back up to third in Uefa's country coefficient rankings last month, it was a cause for modest celebration. In practical terms it meant nothing, since the top four nations will each send four teams to the Champions League from 2018 in any case. But to move ahead of Germany for the first time in seven years was a salve to wounded national pride.
The hope is that it also provided confirmation of Italian football being back on a positive trajectory. At the time of Mura's lament, the opposite seemed to be true. Juventus were ploughing towards a record points tally but had failed to reach the last 16 of the Champions League. The only Italian side who did, Milan, got thrashed 5-1 on aggregate by Atlético Madrid.
Domestically, the tactical trend was towards ever more defensive formations. "Catenaccio has returned in its most rudimentary form," wrote Mura, painting a picture of "bad full-backs dressed up as wingers", playing in "three-man defences that are, in fact, a back five".
Since then, however, Juventus have been in two Champions League finals and Serie A has transformed into a Wild West of attacking football. The goals are flying in at a higher rate in the Italian top flight (2.88 per game) this season than in any of Europe's other top five leagues. The same was true last season as well. Only one game out of 49 since the start of September has ended goalless.
After six straight titles, Juventus' hegemony is finally under threat. Napoli have not only won their opening seven games but scored at least three times in each. Just as Milan were elevated in the late 1980s by a former shoe salesman, Arrigo Sacchi, so Napoli's rise has been masterminded by a man who was working in a bank at the age of 43. Perhaps it is easier to take risks when you are doing, as Maurizio Sarri describes it, "the only job I would do for free".
And perhaps that boldness is catching. Serie A has not traditionally been a welcoming place for teenage talent but these days it is awash with it. Pietro Pellegri, born in 2001, was already the youngest player to take part in a Serie A game, and became the youngest to score a brace when he struck twice against Lazio last month. The 19-year-old Federico Chiesa stirs memories of his father, Enrico, at Fiorentina, and Milan, after spending more than €200m on new signings, have started games with a home-grown teenager, Gianluigi Donnarumma, in goal and another, Patrick Cutrone, leading the attack.
It has been a challenging start to the season for the Rossoneri, beaten three times already, but the ambition shown by their new owners, as well as those of neighbours Internazionale, has restored enthusiasm in the stands.
Milan achieved the highest attendance for a Europa League qualifier when 65,673 fans came to see them crush Craiova. A few weeks later, 51,752 turned out to watch Inter beat Fiorentina in Serie A, the biggest crowd the Nerazzurri had achieved for an August fixture since their treble-winning campaign in 2009-'10.
Average attendances in Serie A are up by more than 1,500 per game from last season. The Milan clubs have played a part but so too have sides such as Napoli and Atalanta, the latter continuing to defy gravity with a core of players developed through their academy system.
We are not quite back in the age of the Sette Sorelle - Seven Sisters - when Juventus, Milan, Inter, Fiorentina, Lazio, Roma and Parma were all considered legitimate title contenders. But Serie A's pool of stars is spread more evenly than it has been in the recent past, allowing eight or nine teams to at least aspire to a place in the top four.
Dries Mertens has been the greatest revelation, with 24 goals and 11 assists in the league since the start of 2017. But even outside the most obvious clubs, Lazio can boast Ciro Immobile - whose 13 strikes this season are bettered only by Lionel Messi across Europe's top five leagues - Torino have Andrea Belotti, and Atalanta the irrepressible Papu Gómez.
Not everything is positive. Although a handful of clubs have followed Juventus' lead by either constructing stadiums or taking ownership of their existing ones, progress remains painfully slow. Figures published by KPMG show Serie A revenues grew at a slower rate between 2011-'12 and 2015-'16 than in any of Europe's other top leagues.
The gap between the top and bottom of the division, furthermore, has rarely appeared wider. A survey conducted by Gazzetta dello Sport found 58 per cent of readers in favour of reducing the number of teams in the division to 18 or even fewer.
Overall, though, there is more good than bad. The introduction of the VAR system for reviewing major refereeing decisions appears to be making a positive impact, despite some heated debate, with the number of fouls per game down across the board.
Serie A has a way to go before it can confidently call itself the most beautiful championship in the world again. But more goals, fewer fouls and fresh talent coming through feel like a good place to start. Observer
Sunday Indo Sport