Only in Serie A.
It’s a common refrain, sometimes jocular — ‘Ah, those crazy Italians’ — and all too often dispiriting at what goes on in Italy’s biggest league.
Some fans consider it a part of its appeal. All the dysfunction, the scandals, as if it were a football version of a true crime podcast or one of those shows about cults that top the Netflix charts.
But no one who truly cares about the reputation of the league should take any joy in it. The news that Juventus have been docked 15 points is bad for the club, and it’s bad for Serie A too.
Regardless of who you support, this is no cause for celebration if you want the league to recover the ground lost and make up the revenue gap lurking behind the abyssal difference in competitiveness between it and the Premier League.
Juventus are appealing Friday’s decision by the Court of Appeal, which considered a motion brought by the Italian Football Federation’s (FIGC) prosecutor to reopen a case into inflated transfer fees to be admissible. Swap deals and the values attributed to the players involved had attracted scrutiny and this has now led to bans for Juventus’ ex-chairman Andrea Agnelli, their former chief football officer and now Tottenham Hotspur managing director of football Fabio Paratici, the current sporting director Federico Cherubini and eight other executives.
A club renowned for defending has its back against the wall.
In addition to fighting this points deduction, more legal battles are to come.
The FIGC is reportedly mulling over whether or not to open another case into “salary manoeuvres” — that is, how Juventus deferred wages — during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Then, at the end of March, a decision will be taken on whether the Prisma investigation conducted by prosecutors in Turin, the northern city where Juventus play, is remanded for trial in a civil case.
It would be easy for the league and its clubs to shrug their shoulders and consider all this to be exclusively Juventus’ problem, one that they brought on themselves. But much more is at stake. A league, after all, is only as strong as its biggest clubs. If Serie A isn’t already aware of that, it should be.
The reputation of Serie A as Europe’s pre-eminent league was already in its twilight in 2006 when Calciopoli, a scandal about power and influence and how that was brought to bear, ended in a first-ever relegation for Juventus and the punishment of clubs including AC Milan with points deductions.
It damaged Serie A’s credibility. Disillusioned fans began staying away, unsure whether they could believe what they were seeing. Crumbling stadiums made going to games unappealing, as did the threat of fan violence.
Too many owners, high on power trips, got wrapped up in playing politics rather than reforming the game and the league very quickly lost touch not only with the Premier League but Spain’s La Liga and the German Bundesliga. The Melandri Law, which limited the sale of international broadcast rights to short-term deals, meant Serie A jumped from channel to channel in foreign markets, losing visibility and disincentivising its partners from investing in building an audience.
Once owners including Milan’s old patron Silvio Berlusconi and city neighbours Inter’s former benefactor Massimo Moratti stopped cutting cheques and sold up, the two San Siro giants also began to drift and, just when the cost of football was going through the roof, the league had to reckon with its dependence on sugar daddies and player-trading in light of the stunning neglect of commercial and match-day revenues.
Unsurprisingly, Serie A hasn’t had a Champions League winner since 2009-10 and were its current leaders Napoli to lift the trophy in Istanbul in June, it would come relatively out of nowhere. An Italian club as champions of Europe, to go with the national team’s crown from Euro 2020, feels further away now than it has done in a very long time.
Which isn’t to say the last decade has been wasted.
One of the reasons why Juventus’ downfall elicits so much shock is that Agnelli restored the club to greatness domestically and made them relevant again on the European stage.
From 2010 to 2018, Juventus served as a model in Serie A. They opened a new revenue-driving stadium that set them apart, spotted an up-and-coming head coach, replaced him with another one, and fostered a winning culture, prudently building one successful team after another.
Juventus were Serie A’s big hope. They kept the league’s flag flying by reaching Champions League finals in 2015 and 2017 while Milan and Inter slowly pulled themselves together.
For a fleeting moment before the pandemic, it felt like Serie A might actually be on its way back.
Cristiano Ronaldo joined Juventus. Inter lured serial title-winning coach Antonio Conte to the club and backed him to the hilt. The activist fund Elliott began turning Milan around. The big three felt big again, and Serie A did too. More and more foreign investors bought into the league, the number promising to grow big enough to swing the balance of power away from those stuck-in-their-ways Italian presidents.
How the optimism has faded in the near three years since the pandemic hit.
On the field, you could be forgiven for thinking everything is OK.
There is entertainment and, domestically at least, an accidental competitive balance amid the chaos — Serie A will have a fourth different winner in as many years if Napoli, 11 points clear in the title race as their season hits the halfway mark, are crowned champions for the first time since 1990. Fans have come back in droves, liberated from one of the longest and strictest COVID-19 lockdowns in Europe. The league is belatedly making strides into the US market.
But don’t let any of that fool you into thinking everything is hunky dory.
Serie A’s current TV deal is worth less money than its predecessor (at $657million, it is a ninth of the size of the Premier League’s one) and there is pessimism about the value of its successor.
Only one member of Italy’s big three — champions Milan — are in good shape right now, thanks to the implementation of a data-influenced sustainable model which acknowledges the environment they are in, achieving the alchemy of increasing performance while cutting costs.
Elliott showed there is a pathway to making a return on your investment when they sold Milan to RedBird just as the team were winning the Scudetto last May.
More value can be added if they and Inter are able to build a new stadium soon (and if one doesn’t go up in Milan, Italy’s most modern and regenerated city, there really is no hope elsewhere).
A disillusioned Jim Pallotta cut his losses and sold Roma in the summer of 2020 after a near-decade of trying to give the club their own cash-machine new home. Fiorentina president Rocco Commisso has grown more and more frustrated in his efforts to build one.
The stadium piece has always been and remains the route to more revenue, stronger teams, a better spectacle, and a financial return for these guys.
But as a decade’s worth of evidence stacks up against the prospect of delivering one, the margins for growth in the domestic TV sector remain uncertain and investors favour the English game, why would anyone put money into Serie A right now unless it’s for sporting or sentimental reasons?
The due diligence has to be rigorous, and even then it’s hard to know what you’re getting yourself into.
Shortly after Kyle Krause bought Parma in 2020 and 777 Partners acquired Genoa the following year, they learned those clubs were caught up in the same transfer investigation that has now seen Juventus docked 15 points. When Robert Platek’s group took over Spezia in 2021, they suddenly found themselves needing to appeal a four-window transfer ban imposed because the administration under the old owner had signed underage players from Nigeria.
It’s a minefield and, depressingly, 2023 has started in bleak fashion too, with Lecce players Samuel Umtiti and Lameck Banda suffering racist abuse from the stands, Roma and Napoli ultras clashing on a motorway, the poverty of the January transfer market and this continued scrutiny on Juventus.
Only in Serie A…
(Photo: Nicolò Campo/LightRocket via Getty Images)
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