Some considerations on the excellent European season of the Italian teams.
The stars seem aligned for a sweet spring for Italian football. There will be three Italian teams in the Champions League quarter-finals which will start on April 11th. Napoli, Inter and Milan. Raise your hand who would have said that at the beginning of the season. And if by chance someone had bet on an Italian club, I’m pretty sure they would have staked everything on Juventus, which just this year didn’t get through the group stage and was relegated to the Europa League. Instead we are faced with this sporting story that has nuances of the exceptional.
Inter will face the Benfica, a team not to be underestimated for their quality of football, but also the most desired, the least insurmountable obstacle on paper. On the same side of the board, the Italian derby between Naples and Milan. A fascinating challenge that smells of the 80s: Maldini against Maradona, iconic Buitoni and Mediolanum designer shirts, San Paolo and San Siro with packed stands. Now it will be Osimhen against Leão, Pioli against Spalletti. A two-way challenge that hasn’t happened since 1990, and which will probably be much more balanced than what the 20 points that currently separate the two teams in the league tell us. The two remaining quarters will be between Real Madrid-Chelsea (again) and Manchester City-Bayern Munich, the two favorite teams. Considering theoretically the side of the board of the Italians more “soft”, therefore, the possibility that one of them can go all the way to the final in Istanbul is very real.
In the other European competitions, the spring of the Italian teams appears equally rosy. The Europa League has been snubbed in the last decade, with Inter, Milan and Lazio never chasing victory with too much conviction. But now things seem to have changed: Rome in the quarterfinals will face Feyenoorda remake of the Conference League final won by Mourinho’s Giallorossi last year. Juventus will face the difficult but not insurmountable Sporting CP. They happened to be on the opposite side of the board and both seem well equipped to go all the way. Their main contenders appear to be Manchester United and Sevilla, who however will face each other in the quarterfinals, and whose winner could meet Juventus in the semifinals. He also has a good chance of bringing home a European trophy la Fiorentina in Conference League. This dream has not been lived since the 1990s: the concrete possibility of having an Italian team in each of the three European competitions.
Already for this reason the international campaign of the Serie A teams can be considered a success, however it will end. In recent seasons, spring brought with it the trials of Italian football, not the hangover for exaltation. It was the period in which newspaper editorials spoke of failure, of disappointment, of “having to rethink and start over”, of a technical and economic gap with the other championships. In the background, the nostalgic memory of the good old days when Serie A was the European excellence. There are this year three Italians among the best eight in Europe for the first time since 2006. At the time, Ancelotti’s and Kakà’s Milan, Capello’s and Del Piero’s Juventus, and Roberto Mancini’s and Adriano’s Inter were battling it out for the semi-finals. The Bianconeri and Nerazzurri finished their journey there, eliminated respectively by Arsenal and Villarreal. Milan, on the other hand, got the better of Lyon, but stopped one step away from the Paris final at the hands of Ronaldinho and Giuly’s Barcelona, then champions in the final remembered for Belletti’s goal.
That season was the last in which all the big names in Serie A had declared ambitions for the big-eared cup. Three years earlier there had been the famous Derby della Madonnina in the semifinal and then the first all-Italian final, which ended with Milan’s victory over Juventus in Manchester. Those times of ambition and supremacy ended not so much after the Calciopoli scandal, but with the immobility of Italian football about how football and the business around it was changing. Soon Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich would become unstoppable battleships and the wealth of the Premier League would take English teams to a new level of competitiveness. Perhaps to replace the Serie A teams at the top of European competitions.
Suddenly the management model of the Italian presidents/entrepreneurs that had paid so much in the 90s had become as obsolete as it was unable to adapt. Presidents have stopped investing or even sold the companies; in some cases they have used the clubs as toys or personal showcases instead of upgrading and adopting more long-term oriented management methods. They often blamed the lesser competitiveness of Italian teams on the Financial Fair Play imposed by UEFA or on the arrival of the “nouveau riche” (PSG, Manchester City). And so Italy has slowly become a periphery of European football top level, with the exception of Juventus capable of reaching finals in the 10s.
Until this week, at least, when Napoli easily liquidated Eintracht Frankfurt, Inter resisted the assaults of Porto and Milan even managed to prevail over a Premier League team, Antonio Conte’s Tottenham. All without conceding a goal in the six games played, making Italy’s football trademark par excellence come back into vogue.
It’s a great result, which also draws praise from outsiders. In front of the unexpected Italian exploit, many have spoken of a “signal”: Ancelottifor example, before the return match against Liverpool, he said that three Italians qualified for the quarter-finals “it would be important for Italian football, a strong signal to Europe”. Donnarumma, when asked about the qualification of his former team, said that “Milan’s move to the next round is a great sign for Italian football”. On the Gazzetta dello Sport an article has come out, with an overused and not at all original title, «L’Italia s’è desta» which praises the football culture of the boot with patriotic vibes and which invites us not to be surprised by the triple qualification in the Champions League given that Italy is always on the podium of the multi-winning nations. The story would still seem to have its weight, in short.
How are we to judge these results, then? Is it the natural harvesting moment after meticulous and constant sowing work? Or an astral coincidence on which the movement basks as on the occasion of the blue victory at Euro 2020? Can we say that structurally speaking, we are facing a reawakening of Italian football, and that the times in which we were represented by the single exploits of a single team, as in the years of Juventus’ good European campaigns, are over? It’s very early to give an answer, but certainly putting the praises alone is not a great starting point. For example, it cannot be ignored that the round of 16 draw was rather lucky. Eintracht was undoubtedly the opponent everyone wanted, the most impromptu presence among the best 16 together with Bruges, despite coming from the victory in the Europa League. And in fact this year’s despotic Naples passed the round without apparently shedding a drop of sweat. Inter, after an iron group stage, picked up a less talented Porto than the one recently faced by Juventus and Milan, without Luis Diaz. And Milan drew a favorable confrontation, against a convoluted Tottenham who confirmed the bad feeling between Antonio Conte and the midweek matches.
Luck aside, the excellent work of Napoli, Inter and Milan in their respective round of 16 matches is undeniable. On the other hand, however, it would be just as wrong to delude ourselves that Italian football has definitely been reborn, the gap with the other championships filled. This year’s exploits must not detract from the path that Serie A still has to take to resolve its crisis. A crisis that appears first of all of ideas, of courage in choices. From this point of view, Napoli and Milan are perhaps the only teams, at least among the big ones, to have pursued an ambitious technical project idea: the Rossoneri in particular in recent years have built their rebirth on a courageous technical project, based on a fresh game and signings from markets traditionally little beaten by Serie A. Apart from Naples and Milan, however, the programming seems to be something secondary for all the other teams. The golden rule that guides the clubs in our championship seems to be that of prudence, the minimization of risk. A rule that reigns in the executive rooms, which is reflected in the choices of the technical project and finally in the game of the teams.
This moment of great exaltation for the international results of our teams risks being as impromptu as the victory of the Azzurri at Wembley in 2021. This is because we tend to look at results without a long-term vision, exalting ourselves for successes and calling for the apocalypse in negative moments, in both cases taking refuge in the contemplation of the glorious past. In a nostalgia that we almost enjoy savoring, because it allows us to blame the world for our misfortune. The implication of this attitude, however, is the immobilism, both of the clubs and of the FIGC. Our teams have moved on, but we remain the championship where Juventus is going through legal troubles for its corporate conduct in recent years (and which still could be punished also from UEFA); where the presidents of the minor teams are much more interested in living rooms and ending up in the newspapers with controversies than in building ambitious teams.
Perhaps, ultimately, we shouldn’t give particular meaning to this great Italian campaign in the Champions League. Or at least, not a greater meaning than what the field showed. Serie A is not making a comeback as a movement: there are only three teams that have been very good at getting here and can go even further. But Italy hasn’t recovered, it hasn’t resolved the gap with the other championships. The idea of the Italian Renaissance remains only a marketing intuition of Adidas and Puma to design the national team uniforms.
Italy does not want to build a collective movement such as a league or a federation. Individualism reigns supreme, one always looks to one’s own backyard. The feeling of discouragement that we are experiencing with a good result is not erased, on the contrary: the risk is that the discouragement may even increase when we realize that it was all really a coincidence. It is not said that this will happen, but the fear remains. More than a resumption of a movement, this seems like a marmot waking up from hibernation: we need to see if there is the will to get out of the den or go back to sleep. Obviously it is hoped that Napoli, Milan, Inter, Juventus, Rome and Fiorentina, but also Lazio and Atalanta in the coming seasons, will deny this feeling of despondency and demonstrate that the presence of so many Italian teams in the final rounds of European competitions is really not the result of a coincidence. For the moment, we shouldn’t make it into a patriotic cheer: at the very least, what we can draw from these European results is the pleasure of cheering for football, a sport where David and Goliath often face each other, and occasionally due to the law of chaos, David wins for real.