At the beginning of July, LeBron James’ representatives announced he had signed a four-year deal with the Los Angeles Lakers, after opting to leave Cleveland for a second time. The ink on the contract was not yet dry but the move was already been heralded as the shot in the arm the NBA needed.
Here was the best player of his generation – arguably the second-greatest player ever – joining the league’s second-most successful team. One which, however, has not won the title since 2010 and which has failed to make the playoffs since 2013, missing out on the post-season just twice in the previous 37 years.
Chief among the plethora of narratives surrounding the deal was the one suggesting the Western Conference, and by extension the NBA as a whole, desperately needs an antidote to the Golden State Warriors. The Warriors have won three of the last four titles and while dynasties are not unusual in the NBA, such dominance is anathema to a league that prides itself on being ruthlessly competitive.
Just over a week after James’ swapped Ohio for California, Cristiano Ronaldo left Real Madrid for Juventus in one of the most surprising transfers in memory. Over the last 15 years, Ronaldo has been to football what James has been to basketball: an enormous talent relentlessly pushing the boundaries of the believable and rewriting the history books.
However, while the American’s decision was lauded, Ronaldo’s move was almost immediately considered as bad news for Serie A in many quarters. That is because, to continue the NBA metaphor, Ronaldo is joining the equivalent of the Golden State Warriors. Juventus have won the last seven Serie A titles, adding the Coppa Italia in each of the last four seasons to them for good measure and reaching the Champions League final twice in the last four years.
They unusually play in a world-class Italian stadium – which, unlike other Italian clubs, they own – and barely have to flex their financial muscles to blow their domestic rivals out of the water. In short, as fans in Naples, Milan and Rome sighed, is there even a point in watching Serie A next season now that the best has joined the best? And yet, while Ronaldo’s decision to swap Plaza de Cibeles for the Mole Antonelliana surely risks exacerbating the imbalance of Serie A, the move is a landmark moment for the league.
So often used to shop in the footballing equivalent of glamorous high street boutiques throughout the 1980s and the 1990s, over the last decade Serie A clubs found themselves hunting for bargains. It might not have been Primark, but it was certainly more online catalogue than Armani’s flagship store.
Over the last couple of years, Italian clubs have specialised in finding unpolished stars, which they would then develop and resell at a profit to wealthier clubs in Europe. Alisson’s recent move to Liverpool from Roma is the prime example, as was Napoli’s decision to sell Edinson Cavani and Ezequiel Lavezzi to Paris Saint-Germain for a combined £83m between 2012 and 2013. AC Milan pocketed £56m after Thiago Silva and Zlatan Ibrahimović boarded a one-way flight to Paris in the summer of 2013, while their city rivals sold Mateo Kovačić to Real Madrid for £32m in 2015. Bayern Munich paid £33m to lure Arturo Vidal away from Juventus in the same summer.
The Premier League, meanwhile, has seen the arrival of and Paul Pogba, Mohamed Salah and Antonio Rudiger for a total £162m over the last two summers, while Erik Lamela and Stevan Jovetić cost a combined £50m ahead of the 2013/14 season. With the exception of Ibrahimović – whose career undoubtedly benefited from a spell in Serie A between 2004 and 2009 – playing in Italy was crucial to all the other players’ development and to their price tag.
Gonzalo Higuaín bucked the trend and was Serie A’s only truly high-profile import over the last decade, until the arrival of Ronaldo. Even then, some would argue that despite a great goalscoring record, the Argentine has never quite managed to establish himself in the pantheon of world-class players.
On the other hand, while a testament to the clubs’ scouting systems, the rise of the likes of Paulo Dybala, Miralem Pjanić and Dries Mertens also reinforced the notion Serie A was a league best at developing talents rather than attracting the best.
To put things into context, according to data provided by Transfermarkt, in the last decade only once – in the 2008/09 season – has the highest fee paid by a Serie A club for a player arriving from a foreign league exceeded the highest fee paid for a Serie A player by a foreign club. Ronaldo’s arrival, however, has changed all that.
“Serie A has become the most important championship in the world,” José Mourinho, a man who knows a thing or two about calcio, suggested after Ronaldo’s surprising move. “Everything can change in football, the prospects of teams like Inter, Milan and Roma now change, and now Juve is much stronger with Cristiano.
“They are more motivated by the signing, they are contributing to the quality, attention and excitement of Serie A. I congratulate Juventus. It is a blow with effects at all levels, including marketing, advertising and merchandising.”
The Manchester United manager is not wrong, nor is he alone in expecting his compatriot to have an impact that will stretch far beyond the boundaries of his new club. “Last time a Serie A Club signed a guy with Ballon d’Or credentials at the time [i.e. not on his way up like Kaká or already on his way down like Ronaldinho] he was also named Ronaldo,” ESPN journalist and Italian football expert Gabriele Marcotti tweeted as the deal was announced.
The original Ronaldo arrived at the San Siro for what now seems a scarcely believable £19.5m – even when adjusted for inflation, the fee rises only to £32m in today’s money – but at the time it was a world record fee. Of course, for all the similarities in terms of profile, there are some notable differences between the two, and not just because the Brazilian joined an Inter side that hadn’t won the title in eight years.
When Ronaldo posed next to Nerazzurri president Massimo Moratti, he was a few months short of his 21st birthday, while his Portuguese counterpart is 12 years older. Similarly, if the former Real Madrid star represents the main act for the Italian league, the Brazilian was the unexpected act capping off a once-in-a-lifetime festival line-up. When Ronaldo swapped the Camp Nou for the San Siro, Serie A was at the peak of its powers.
Of the winners of the Ballon d’Or in the four years before Ronaldo arrived in Italy, two – Roberto Baggio and George Weah – already played in Serie A, while Ronaldo himself would win it in 1997 with Zinedine Zidane in third place. The duo would swap places a year later and Zidane would finish as runner-up in 2000, with AC Milan’s Andriy Shevchenko finishing third for the second consecutive year.
If Serie A players ruled over their counterparts, so did their clubs. In the seven years before Ronaldo pitched up in Milan, a Serie A side reached final of the European Cup/Champions League an astonishing six times, winning half of the finals they competed in. In the two decades since, Italy has provided a finalist on eight occasions, winning three times.
It’s a similar story in the UEFA Cup. Six Serie A teams reached the final between 1990 and 1997, winning on five occasions and finishing runners-up in other five. Indeed, three of the finals were all-Italian affairs. The fourth UEFA Cup final between Serie A teams took place in 1998, when Ronaldo inspired Inter to a 3-0 win over Lazio, which also marked the last time an Italian side reached the final of European football’s second competition.
In the intervening decades, a combination of the Premier League’s financial clout, LaLiga’s dominance in Europe and the Bundesliga’s ability to reinvent itself saw Serie A fall behind their rivals.
On a wider scale, the decline on the pitch served as a prelude for a catastrophic implosion off it, with the Calciopoli scandal shaking Italian football to its very core in 2006. Italy’s World Cup triumph in the same year was an incredible achievement but, sadly for those who have calcio’s interest at heart, it also proved to be the only notable exception in a decade of plight.
Paradoxically, the league’s decline only served to highlight the aspect of the game in which Serie A remained constantly ahead of some of its more celebrated counterparts. Carlo Ancelotti, Roberto Mancini and more recently Antonio Conte and Maurizio Sarri all exported their philosophies abroad, confirming that even if the league no longer attracts A-listers in terms of players, it continues to produce high-calibre tacticians.
Ronaldo’s new manager, Massimiliano Allegri, has also been repeatedly linked with positions beyond Italy’s borders but for now has chosen to remain on the banks of the River Po, while Ancelotti has returned to his home country after nine years. Though his decision can’t be attributed to Ronaldo signing for Juventus, given Napoli appointed him almost two months earlier, the Portuguese’s impact has already begun to be felt beyond the pitch.
Eleven Sports, the broadcaster owned by Leeds United’s Andrea Radrizzani, outbid BT Sport to secure exclusive rights to show Serie A games over the next three seasons. Upon announcing the deal, which ended BT Sport’s six-year association with the Italian league, Eleven Sports executive chairman Marc Watson directly mentioned the Portuguese: “Serie A has a dedicated following in the UK and Ireland and there is now added interest following Juventus’ signing of global superstar Cristiano Ronaldo,” he said.
The deal with Eleven Sports could be only the start of what Serie A clubs hope will be a new, more lucrative relationship with broadcasters. At the beginning of June, the Lega Serie A opted to transform TV rights from the 2018/19 season, breaking the hegemony of Sky Sports Italia in a bid to generate hundreds of millions of euros more in revenue.
The broadcaster had been able to televise every game live but the league’s new system means the rights have been split into different packages, as is the case in the Premier League. While that was predictably met with disappointment by fans who now face having to pay for numerous subscriptions, Serie A clubs see it as a crucial step towards bridging the financial gap with other leagues.
That is not to say Juventus and their rivals have been penny-pinching this summer. With the exception of the Premier League, at the time of writing, no other league has spent more than Serie A this summer. Juventus account for the lions of share of that, having spent a combined £70m on João Cancelo and Douglas Costa on top of Ronaldo, while Inter have splashed £53m on prising Radja Nainggolan away from Roma and on securing Argentinian youngster Lautaro Martínez.
AC Milan, meanwhile, are on the verge of signing Higuaín and Mattia Caldara, one of the most promising defenders in Italy, from Juventus, with Leonardo Bonucci going the other way just 12 months after swapping Turin for Milan. While one of Allegri’s attacking options was always going to be sacrificed after Ronaldo’s arrival, the fact Milan played their cards right and could secure both players indicates financial turmoil has not put their ambitions to bed.
There have, of course, been notable departures, such as Alisson, Jorginho, Felipe Anderson and Lucas Torreira, but there is a sense the tide cold slowly be turning. Should Juventus run away towards an eighth consecutive title, it will be difficult to dispute the argument Ronaldo’s arrival has only served to make the gap between the Old Lady and the rest even wider.
However, in football, even in Serie A, things rarely stand still. At the same time, there is no disguising that even for a club whose financial clout dwarfs that of its Serie A rivals, the financial details of Ronaldo’s move to Turin leave the door ajar for some legitimate concern.
Juventus have committed to invest £107m in wages alone for a 33-year-old, on top of the £88m paid to Real Madrid. While Ronaldo is no ordinary 33-year-old, Juve would only feel repaid if he helped them capture that Champions League crown that has proved so elusive for the last 22 years. “Spending so much money for a player at the end of his career is dangerous,” Napoli president Aurelio De Laurentiis recently told Mediaset. “Let’s not forget, Ronaldo has a certain age and in terms of the club’s balance sheet, they have taken a gamble. Let’s see if in the end the commercial success of the group will be greater than their sporting success.”
While De Laurentiis’ words betrayed the feelings of a man who has seen his direct rivals sign the best player in the world, they also contained a warning that would be naive to ignore, however remote it might be. Ultimately, it is hard to imagine Juventus and Ronaldo not calling the shots for some time yet, but the impact the deal will have on the Serie A giants and on the league as a whole is what makes it so intriguing.
After Brazilian Ronaldo signed for Inter in 1997, Marcelo Salas, Dejan Stanković and Thierry Henry arrived in Serie A, while Christian Vieri returned from his one-season hiatus in Spain. Clarence Seedorf and Shevchenko followed 12 months later, with David Trezeguet, Claudio López and Walter Samuel arriving in Italy the following season.
Whether Ronaldo’s arrival will trigger a similar influx remains to be seen, given the financial landscape has dramatically changed from two decades ago, but the Old Lady might have done Italian football a favour in the long term.
By Dan Cancian @mufc_dan87