Once, not so long ago, the soccer world looked to Italy’s Serie A to lead the way. Now the league’s asking the rest of the planet for help.
It’s considering playing the first round of matches in the 2015-16 season in cities such as London, New York, Paris, Jakarta, Shanghai and Beijing. It’s a desperate idea to drum up interest from a faltering league.
We should caution that it’s Napoli president Aurelio De Laurentiis (below) who’s pitching the idea, and as you’d expect from a big-time film producer, he has a penchant for dramatic but unrealistic gestures – like threatening to send his players to some kind of training prison camp, and proposing suing the Italian government for $16 billion.
But the fact he’s even talking about it tells us something about the sorry state of Italian soccer. “I’m working on a project with the league to hold the first day of next season’s Serie A in 10 different cities around the world,” he told Radio Kiss Kiss, which is really the real name of a real radio station. “We’re verifying the feasibility of the project, which aims to help Italian football recover from a rough period.”
In the 1980s and `90s, when English soccer was still muddy, bloody, atavistic and uncool, Italy had the world’s best players, the best teams, the most sophisticated playing style and iconic stadiums like Milan’s San Siro that were renovated for the 1990 World Cup. Argentine legend Diego Maradona was in Napoli, and Dutch stars Ruud Gullit and Marco Van Basten were in Milan with Franco Baresi and Paolo Maldini.
Between 1989 and 1998, an Italian side competed in all but one European Cup/Champions League final (1991, when Red Star Belgrade beat Marseille). Even in later years, when England and Spain were ascendant, Italian clubs were continental champions in 2003, 2007 and 2010. The Italian national team reached the final of the 2000 European championships and won the 2006 World Cup.
Now, in an era with an intimate relationship between results and money, the English Premier League’s total revenue is around double that of Serie A’s.
What De Laurentiis wants, of course, is a brand-expanding, innovative global showcase for his club’s league. What he’d get, though, would likely be little more than a brief vacation from the domestic woes that have made him willing to float this plan.
Corruption, hooliganism, racism, bad governance, limited resources, a declining national economy, aging stadiums and the stereotype of a style that now seems ponderous and dull will continue to plague Italian soccer. Even France’s top league, with the emergence of Paris Saint-Germain as a superclub, is closing the financial and footballing gap.
While England, Spain and Germany had four teams in this season’s Champions League, Italy had only three and a UEFA coefficient ranking not much above Portugal’s. Only Juventus advanced beyond the group phase. Even with a television deal that heavily favors the big clubs, the league’s two Milan sides can no longer compete with the likes of Chelsea, PSG or Real Madrid in wages or transfer fees.
Playing regular season games abroad doesn’t seem so radical to American eyes. Over here, we’re used to it. The National Hockey League, National Basketball Association and National Football League have all gone to London, among other cities. Like a fading star taking up residence in Vegas, the Jacksonville Jaguars have made Wembley Stadium their second home, possibly because to Brits “Buffalo versus Jacksonville” looks exotic, rather than the definition of terrible.
But for U.S. sports, global outreach is a natural progression that doesn’t meet much resistance, because they have such a minor presence in most countries. They’re not viewed as invaders, and in a franchise system, fans don’t feel the same sense of ownership or control over a team that, sure, is local today, but it could be 1,000 miles away next year.
The Premier League has already mooted a similar scheme and failed to make it happen. “The 39th game” was an idea that got around the problem of teams losing a home match by proposing an extra round of fixtures. More soccer for all. Who could complain?
A lot of people, it turned out. It wasn’t opposition from club owners that killed the 2008 plan, because there wasn’t much. Why would there be, especially since so many are foreign and presumably instinctively keen to expand the brand overseas?
Game 39 was wrecked by a backlash from fans, media and even Sepp Blatter, who warned that it might affect England’s World Cup bid, which always had a great chance of success from the very beginning (lol, Sepp). UEFA president Michel Platini also ripped it.
Seven years on, the idea comes up every so often, and the EPL is still keen but still wary, waiting for the right moment; or, the least, wrong moment. In 2008, the proposal came from a position of strength (or greed) – unlike Serie A’s, which feels like a group of people who’ve made their home planet uninhabitable setting off for a new world in search of survival.
English clubs simply wanted to grow internationally, with full stadiums at home and the most lucrative TV deal in Europe. They had plenty; they just wanted more. It wasn’t a persuasive argument.
Yet the climate’s changed dramatically in a short space of time. Blatter and Platini haven’t tried to strangle Serie A’s idea at birth. Though the plan is still in the embryonic, uncertain stages, the EPL isn’t blockading the English Channel to stop Juventus playing Lazio in London. How could it complain without seeming hypocritical?
Even before this, European leagues were taking baby steps towards regular season matches overseas. The Italian Super Cup will take place in Qatar in December. The French Champions Trophy hasn’t been in France since 2008. In 2012 it was in Red Bull Arena; next season, Montreal’s Stade Saputo.
Italian teams visit the U.S. every year for summer exhibitions that increasingly resemble tournaments. These days, they probably feel more important and loved, probably play to bigger crowds, in New York or Washington, D.C. than in many Italian cities. Global ambition has conquered local resistance. Slowly, European soccer fans are becoming desensitized to the idea that Manchester United belongs to Shanghai as much as Salford.
Television money is now such a large chunk of clubs’ income that losing the revenue from one home match wouldn’t really matter. It was telling that De Laurentiis said that it’d be Sky Italia, a division of U.K. broadcasting giant Sky, who’d have the final say on the proposal.
Matchday income made up less than 15 percent of Serie A clubs’ revenue two years ago, according to Deloitte. So while fan opposition might be loud, their voices aren’t the most important.
If it happens, a set of Serie A fixtures in international markets won’t see Italy leapfrog Germany, Spain or England in revenue or global appeal. But it would set a precedent, perhaps spark a chain reaction. You can bet that, if it’s a success, the other major European leagues will follow suit, and there are plenty of places that would love to make it happen; especially Qatar, as it looks for attention, soccer credibility and trial runs ahead of the 2022 World Cup.
If you ever want to see a real Premier League fixture in the U.S., then Serie A might be about to do you a solid.