It would have been an ordinary Thursday if Twitter timeline hadn’t exploded. While fans of Serie A have rarely dismissed the Europa League with the sort of condescension it regularly receives in, say, England, they’ve also never made such a fuss of it before. But there weeks ago, with five Italian teams on the verge of qualifying for the Round of 16, supporters were united like they hadn’t been since … well, ever. While fans of other leagues often rally ‘round that country’s representatives in Europe, the tribal tensions on the peninsula are so heated that it’s nearly impossible to put country before club.
Yet the outburst of support was nearly universal – and more than a little baffling. After all, the Serie A sides playing in Europa aren’t exactly adored. Sure, it’s easy to cheer on Torino when the last time it made headlines was for a tragic air crash, but it’s much more difficult to rally around Inter, a side blessed with 18 titles but despised outside the nerazzurri faithful. Napoli, too, is hated, although that’s less down to success than a general sense of discomfort that comes with acknowledging the existence of any town south of Rome. In this year’s Round of 32, though, support took an all-or-nothing tone, with fans rallying behind all five sides to progress.
Serie A fans, then, were looking beyond those deeply entrenched divides to focus on the bigger picture: bringing glory back to Italy. In the 1990s, Serie A was widely considered the best league in the world, stuffed with world-class players and filled with tactical drama. But the tide started to turn at the dawn of the new century, and when the calciopoli scandal broke, it looked the beginning of the end. By 2011, Italy had dropped to fourth in the UEFA coefficient rankings, meaning it lost its fourth Champions League spot. Shame settled upon the country. A return to its anointed position in the soccer hierarchy was a must – and quickly.
It all comes down to pride – to restoring that sense of self-worth so present when Serie A was dominating Europe. Snagging vital UEFA coefficient points in European competition became essential, so much so that fans were willing to overlook old hatreds, many carried since birth, to see Italian sides showing off in Europa.
Curiously, the same type of unquestioning adoration is not present on Champions League nights, mostly because of the Italian team that happens to be carrying Serie A’s banner in the competition. Juventus is not cheered; well, not cheered by fans of other clubs, anyway. The sacrifice of old hatreds in the face of a common good? That logic is thrown out the window.
You’d think that, particularly after watching both Milan sides prompt giggles for their performances over the past few years, fans of calcio would want to see a world-class Italian side dominate in Europe. And they do. It’s just that many would rather Fiorentina win the Europa League than see Juventus take another trophy. Pride has its limits, and when it comes to cheering The Old Lady, those limits are reached.
Juventus might be the most supported Italian side, but it’s also the most despised. It’s not just the 30 league titles, but the insistence that the number is 32 sul campo – 32 on the field, adding in the two titles stripped from the club after calciopoli. The feeling that Juventus still holds all the cards runs deep among Italian supporters, many of whom believe the club is able to influence match officials and pull strings in the Italian FA.
Since falling from grace in 2006, Juve has been on a near-constant trajectory. A mere year was spent in Serie B before climbing back to the top division, where the squad immediately clinched a Champions League spot. Sure, the club briefly stumbled, and it was Inter that dominated the league, but after José Mourinho left and Milan, too, began a freefall, Juventus was able to achieve total domination. It wasn’t just that the team snagged three straight titles and is destined for a fourth, but rather that no other team is able to even challenge that supremacy. The Milan sides have become mere comedic fodder, and no other side has the currency — neither cash nor influence — to compete.
Fans want to see Italy restored to what they feel is its rightful place, highly regarded on the world soccer scene. But that sentiment contrasts with the desire felt by many to see Juventus knocked off its pedestal. While hegemony is able to lift a country to new heights, bringing in new treasures, when the wealth remains with a select few, those outside the privileged circle are bound to get bitter.
Others want a taste of sweet, sweet glory. And if that means a longer, slower climb to get Italy back to an enviable position, most fans are willing to accept that trade-off.