CALCIO IN THE 1990s WAS THE GOLDEN AGE OF FOOTBALL. From Franco Baresi and George Weah to Marco van Basten and Gabriel Batistuta, there were a good seven teams that could realistically have lifted the Scudetto at any given point. James Richardson was sat with the daily papers in a café outside the Pantheon, ready to deliver another spell-binding edition of Football Italia. And yet the decade that followed has brought up a significant debate.
What’s that you say, Serie A is not good anymore? The dispute over whether or not Italian teams were actually good during the new millennium reached new heights. Surely the golden generation would rub off on the noughties crew – a new peak to try and reach. Over a span of 10 years, Italian football was filled with three Champions League winners and five different Scudetti holders. Yet financial problems, derelict stadia, and the Calciopoli scandal begs the question of whether noughties Serie A was, in fact, any good.
In 2009, FourFourTwo compiled a ‘Serie A Team of the Decade’ that could have ousted any club of that time. Gigi Buffon’s suave self between the sticks was helped by Cafu, Alessandro Nesta, Fabio Cannavaro and the ever-present Paolo Maldini at the back. Inter’s best-groomed man since 1995, Javier Zanetti, partnered the Pavel Nedvĕd on the flanks, with Andrea Pirlo and Kaká completing the midfield. Recently-retired Francesco Totti led the line, leaving Alessandro Del Piero and Andriy Shevchenko on the bench.
It is a team worthy of due praise. Could anyone overcome such solidity, such skill, such panache?
Serie A in the early noughties was still a breeding ground for success; the promised land where players could go to become world-record players and win trophies domestically and in Europe. Sven-Göran Eriksson’s Lazio had just won their second ever Scudetto, breaking the Milan-Juventus conglomerate’s stronghold on Italian football and starting off a rather positive turn of the millennium for Rome-based clubs. A win against Reggina as Juventus fell to Perugia on the final matchday completed the switch, leaving the Swede’s charges as champions by just one imperative point.
Shevchenko, who would later be Milan’s flop of the season on his return in 2009, won the Capocannoniere award with 24 goals, beating the Argentine duo of Gabriel Batistuta and Hernán Crespo. The latter featured in the great 1990s Parma side, a force to be reckoned with. Gianluigi Buffon, Lilian Thuram and Cannavaro were all still playing at the Stadio Ennio Tardini – though Crespo left for a then-world record fee to the aforementioned Biancocelesti.
Serie A was still producing top talent, considering just 12 months earlier Bobo – no, not Mr Burns’ childhood teddy bear, but a certain Christian Vieri – had also broken the highest transfer sum when moving to Inter for £32 million. Both the deals were between Serie A clubs, and even though Italian sides would feature in two more world-record fees during the noughties (Zinedine Zidane and Kaká both heading to Real Madrid) they would be the selling club.
Original Series | The Football Italia Years
In 2000/01, Roma brought their first Scudetto since 1983 back to the capital. Led by Fabio Capello, the Giallorossi had a front three of Batistuta, Francesco Totti and Vincenzo Montella, who combined for 46 of their 89 goals – just over half their haul. The decisive match was against high-flying Parma, a day Capello remembers fondly: “We were all a bit tense in that last week but we didn’t let ourselves get carried away,” the 71-year-old told asroma.com. “We tried to focus our attention on what we’d been able to do throughout the season that we could go into the Parma game in the right frame of mind. I tried to put across the idea – in the best way possible – that we had the chance to make history.”
History was indeed made that day. The first two Scudetti of the new millennium had gone to Rome-based teams, something neither team has been able to emulate since. Second best was something the Giallorossi knew all too well – whether it was to Inter or Juventus. The ghosts of 1990s Serie A were still lingering around, though, and even then, the top six teams from the previous season had simply switched positions with one another. Silvio Berlusconi’s Milan had not been hitting the high notes of the previous decade, but some other gaps had begun to form.
Champions in 2000, Lazio were starting to face financial problems that would see them never propelled to such heights again. Firstly, blonde cannon Pavel Nedvĕd had moved to the ever-increasing stock that was Juventus, while a year later it would be Nesta who would jump the divide, this time to Milan. President Sergio Cragnotti resigned in January 2003, just three months after putting the club up for sale. Cragnotti’s food company Cirio were £135m in debt at the time. “I’m really sad because Cragnotti was really important, both for the team and for me,” said manager Roberto Mancini. “However, he took this decision for the sake of the club, as he has always done during his 10 years in charge.”
The Aquilotti were not alone in such debacles. Parma – who were still chasing that elusive title like a dog after a car – were beginning to get picked apart. They had just won the UEFA Cup in 1999, but Buffon and Thuram had both moved to Juventus, meaning the Gialloblu would only avoid relegation by five points in 2002, Marco Di Vaio’s 20 goals the catalyst to avoiding such a disappointment. However, in 2003, Parmalat – a dairy company who had bought Parma – went over its sell-by date by a debt of £15 billion. Rotten.
Following Juve’s Scudetto wins in 2002 and 2003, the Champions League was set to play host to two Italian teams – league winners Juventus and a half-rebuilt but talented Milan. The former had managed to defeat Real Madrid in the semi-finals, whilst the Rossoneri had got one over on their black-and-blue counterparts on away goals.
The final itself was played at Old Trafford, and in front of 62,000 fans, Milan lifted their sixth European title. After a first half of some chances, the next 45 minutes proved less enthralling and the game went through the inevitable extra time before penalties. Two teams filled with talent had failed to hit the high notes in the biggest game of club football. Ukrainian forward Andriy Shevchenko won it on penalties that were mainly remembered for Milan goalkeeper Dida taking a holiday from his goal-line for most of his saves, but Italy were champions of Europe again. Some of the big boys may have been hit hard, but calcio clubs were just about at the top of the football food chain.
Italy’s stadia were some of the finest in the world. The amphitheatre San Siro, or even the 84,000 Stadio Olimpico, top the billing; the kind you sneakily wiggle into your holiday itinerary for its ‘historical and cultural’ values. Despite that, these constructions had been challenged by the test of time – and failed.
Italia 90 came into play during the golden years of Italian football, but the redevelopment of stadia left debt and dejection for clubs. Both the Stadio delle Alpi and Stadio San Nicola were made specifically for the tournament, but the remaining 10 stadiums all underwent major renovation work. Alongside this, CONI – the Italian Olympic Committee – demanded running tracks went around them all. Fans and players were divided by an eight-lane polyurethane tartan track. Confused yet? You won’t be about the cost – 1.2bn lira.
Read | How Sven-Göran Eriksson’s Lazio won the great Serie A title race of 1999-2000
The Delle Alpi managed 18 years before being demolished, but by then the stadium was already soulless. The other stadia in question, such as the renovated San Paolo, are beautiful in appearance. New they were; innovative and modern they were not. Attendances had taken a downturn. At the tail end of 2000, the average attendance stood between 29,000 and 30,000, but by the World Cup-winning year of 2006, what should have been a new high-point in Italian football, they were as low as 21,000.
Fan favourite and former AC Milan goalscorer Marco van Basten weighed in on the decline of Serie A’s ever-ageing stadia. “You know what makes me the saddest of all,” the Dutchman told La Gazzetta dello Sport in 2017, “[is] to see the San Siro half empty. Things are not going any better in Italy’s other stadiums either, with almost all of them the same as they were in the 90s. Italy had the richest, most beautiful league. Everybody wanted to play in Italy. With scandals, inadequate structures and arguments, you’ve fallen behind.”
Whilst Serie A clubs had ‘new’ stadia to parade around, the league was left behind by the newly-designed grounds in the Premier League. The top flight in English football was also part of a new revolution of lucrative television deals.
Around 2003, the last contract between Premier League clubs and television broadcasters totalled £1.64 billion over three years. Sky paid £5.5 million for each Premier League game they showed during the 2001/02 season, showing 66 games. In-house club channels, such as Manchester United’s MUTV for example, also had the rights to show their own matches.
The correlation between these high-end television contracts coincided with the increase in foreign owners. Roman Abramovich is the first major player remembered during this transitional phase, when players began to jump ship from Italy. Names already mentioned included the likes of Crespo and Shevchenko who went to Abramovich’s Chelsea. “I know I am part of something special,” Crespo stated to The Independent in 2003. “People say that Chelsea are undergoing a revolution. Well, that suits me fine, because I am a true revolutionary.”
The revolution was not solely Chelsea’s, but the Premier League’s. The two forwards were not the first to make the switch from Italy to Great Britain. Thierry Henry and Marcel Desailly had both made the move just before the new millennium, following in the footsteps of Gianfranco Zola and Patrick Vieira. While Serie A was unable to match the money being pumped into Premier League clubs thanks to these TV deals, Italian clubs soon began to fall further behind. With increasingly outdated stadia and a lack of money to even come close to the success of the 1990s, Italy needed a break. Then there was the trifling matter of Calciopoli too.
Calciopoli was like no other event to happen on a such a scale in Serie A. Considering four major clubs – Juventus, Milan, Fiorentina and Lazio – were all involved, Italy’s 1990s wonder years were soon just something to watch on YouTube. People were not talking about the good old days but the questionable new days. Out of those four teams, Milan were not exactly having the best time either through the scandal. They had already thrown away a 3-0 lead in Istanbul the previous year to Liverpool, missing out on another Champions League trophy.
Read | Juventus, Calciopoli and a year in Serie B
Juventus general manager Luciano Moggi was at the centre of it all. A plethora of communications between clubs and referees surfaced. It was as though a secret cult had been revealed, a little like when Homer finds out about The Stonecutters in the Simpsons – “Who controls the referees? Who wins the games with lots of ease? Moggi, Moggi.”
Italy needed an outlet – once found by Pickles the dog. The World Cup provided that, for all of a month. Even before the tournament, Azzurri manager Marcello Lippi had to stand in front of Rome magistrates in May 2006, three weeks before their opener with the Czech Republic. The issue? That Moggi was influencing him into which Juventus players were allowed to be called up for the month-long competition in Germany. Lippi later said in an interview with Corriere dello Sport that “in a way, the Calciopoli scandal helped the team to become even more united”.
Ringleader Moggi, a rather odd fellow in his appearance, is reminiscent of an adult version of Mr Magoo. Yet I do not recall the episode when Magoo was found guilty of match-fixing in favour of the Bianconeri, and it would have been surprising if Magoo could even see the pitch to know if his team was winning.
Referring back to the World Cup, Italy’s incredible forward line of Totti, Del Piero, Luca Toni, Filippo Inzaghi, Alberto Gilardino and Vincenzo Iaquinta were just a segment of a wonderful winning team. The Czech Republic, Ghana and the United States were dealt with in the groups, whilst Italy went on to beat Australia, Ukraine and then Germany in an incredible semi-final.
Though once Fabio Grosso had sent Fabian Barthez and France packing with his winning penalty in the final, attention turned to the most recent problem in Italian football. In fact, just a week after the global success, Milan, Juventus, Lazio and Fiorentina were all docked points and the champions were relegated to Serie B. The league crumbled in competition, attendances dropped, and Serie A needed improving fast.
Champions Juventus were stripped of their Scudetti as they made their way to Serie B, while Fiorentina, Milan and Lazio’s points deductions gave Serie A a whole different feel. The league would become a two-horse race between the Nerazzurri and the capital city – Inter and Roma.
Roberto Mancini’s Inter only tasted defeat once in 38 games, topping the table with a massive 97 points. Luciano Spalletti’s Roma had just 75, which was still 15 better than Lazio in third. Gaining their first title since 1989 and also securing an impressive 17-game winning streak, the expectation was that teams would slowly begin to rebuild and compete with Inter as a new era broke through for Italy.
That was far from the case. Attendances dropped again drastically during the 2006/07 season, averaging a paltry 18,000, though these statistics do rely on some games being played behind closed doors due to the 2007 Catania riots – an issue in itself. Juventus, albeit promoted at the first time of asking, were going through a major change due to Calciopoli, though some big names such as Buffon and Alessandro Del Piero had stuck around with the Bianconeri.
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Inter would go on to win four consecutive Scudetti, five including the 2006 title that was awarded in place of Juventus. Even then, they struggled in European competitions. Under Mancini, the Nerazzurri fell at the first knockout hurdle to Valencia in 2007, Liverpool in 2008 and Manchester United in 2009. Funnily enough, Milan actually won the Champions League in 2007, beating the Merseyside club 2-0 thanks to Inzaghi’s goalscoring ways.
The team, headlined by Paolo Maldini, Andrea Pirlo, Clarence Seedorf and Kaká, were probably the last great team Serie A produced. More so in name only perhaps, considering they would not win a Scudetto, or in fact any other trophy, until the 2011 league title; that is not a truly great Milan side. That accolade rests in 1990 with Alessandro Costacurta, Maldini, Baresi and the three Dutchman. Sharing Scudetti with Juventus was their job in the 1990s, now it is just watching the latter come up with another way of combining a number with a witty slogan – HI5TORY being a personal favourite, although LE6END was a bit of a push.
This Inter dominance of Serie A was not one to salivate over, at least not until one season in 2009/10. The black and blues were the best of an average bunch. That is not a dig at Inter, but their competition alongside their completeness made for Scudetti races that were closer than they really should have been at times.
Roma, who would finish runners-up once again in 2008, looked a team bereft of confidence after failing to win the league that season. Even so, that Giallorossi team compared to their 2017 counterparts were arguably not as good. When your standout players aside from Totti and Daniele De Rossi are Philippe Mexès, David Pizarro and Mirko Vučinić – ageing players who did not spell the future for the capital’s team – there are questions to be had.
Yet, at the turn of the decade, Italy would have a treble-winning team as Inter, now coached by the silver fox José Mourinho, lifted the Scudetto, Coppa Italia and Champions League. Complete with a Cameroonian and Argentine up front, 45 goals between converted-winger Samuel Eto’o and Diego Milito gave Inter three new trophies. The main one of those – the Champions League – was a competition remembered purely for their spectacular tactical display away at the Camp Nou in the semi-finals.
“I have already won a Champions League but today was even better,” Mourinho said of his team’s win over Barcelona. “It is always difficult to play against them with 10 [Thiago Motta was sent off]. I am happy not because Barça lost but because Inter won. We played very well in both games. When you play against a team of this quality for an hour with 10 men it is something historic, something really incredible.”
Inter saw off Bayern Munich comfortably to complete their time at the top of the Serie A tree. The entire side had talent throughout. From Júlio César’s best season in goal through to the old-school centre-halves Lúcio and Walter Samuel; some have even argued Wesley Sneijder deserved the Ballon d’Or that season, considering the Netherlands also made the World Cup final, but a treble was somewhat enough. The team was not one of Serie A’s greatest. A brilliant team, they were nevertheless a group of individuals made into a team by a certain Portuguese coach in a league that was dwindling in talent.
Since then, Serie A has begun a rebuilding process. Milan and Inter look resurgent going into the 2017 season, whilst Juventus are still buoyant from six consecutive Scudetti. Maybe now our inner Monica Geller won’t say “every year” when the Bianconeri lift a title. Maybe now it is the time for another club to start the competitiveness of Serie A again, not only within the country, but across Europe too