Italian football has been in steep decline for the last decade or so; Serie A’s glory days are a distant memory.
The league that once saw AC Milan’s holy trinity of Marco van Basten, Frank Rikjard and Ruud Gullit stomp its pitches, questioned Denis Bergkamp’s credentials as a top-class striker and gobbled up Europe’s elite players season after season is a pale shadow of its former self.
Attendances are way down; allegations of corruption are not uncommon. Serie A is no longer seen as one of the best leagues in the world. Juventus are alone in keeping the dream of Italian football alive at the highest level in Europe.
In the midst of such apparent turmoil, I decided to travel to Italy to see if things are as bad on the ground as we’re led to believe.
I’m in Rome to watch Roma take on Inter at the Stadio Olimpico, both giants of the Italian game’s recent past, both languishing in disappointing league positions at this early stage of the season and neither close to reaching the heights they once soared to. It all sounds a bit bleak, I know.
Rome, the Eternal City (whoever said that must have been trying to park their car) tells a different story on match day. As kick-off approaches and the sprawling mass of the Stadio Olimpico imbibes fans through every orifice the excitement builds.
There’s a palpable sense of community as people of all ages and from all walks of life gather in the cafés and bars around the stadium.
Roma’s fans are fiercely proud, the streets are awash with burgundy and gold. They wear the badge on their chest with pride and the number 10 on their back with a reverence usually reserved for divinity.
Francesco Totti is a deity in this city, it’s impossible to spot another name on the back of a Roma shirt. The AS Roma superstore could most likely get away with just stocking the letters T, O and I. Roma’s fans hold him in such high regard you would think no one else ever played for the club. He may not be quite the force he once was but his career and his affinity with the fans means that even at 40, sat on the bench, ‘Il Capitano’ looms large.
As kick-off approaches the fans pour in but the stadium is only filled to just over half its 70,000 capacity. The Inter fans are penned into a narrow corridor of seats in the corner of the stadium where they frantically chant and sing. The noise they make belies their small number.
Their cramped isolation a precaution to guard against the ultras culture still bubbling under the surface of the Italian game.
There’s a mixed standard of player on show. Edin Dzeko, who scored the opener, Mohamed Salah and Gary Medel never quite excelled in the Premier League before being farmed out to Italy while Mauro Icardi, Ivan Perisic and Inter’s goalscorer on the night, Ever Banega, were three of Europe’s most sought after players during the summer. For a league supposedly on its uppers there’s plenty of money out on the pitch.
There’s also money in the Roma coffers, there’s another €1,417,279 after this game. An official from Roma hands out a sheet containing the attendance as well as the gate receipts.
There’s some cracking football on the night too. Played at a blistering pace, the edge of each seat is well worn. The crowd explode for every piece of brilliant piece of play, every contentious decision. As Konstantinos Manolas puts Roma 2-1 ahead the crowd is in raptures. They hold on to win the game, the crowd sing their club song in the face of the Inter fans still caged in their makeshift cell obliged to wait behind after the game.
The city is happy as the crowd filter out of the stadium. Totti’s name is sung – without even getting on the pitch he’s never far from the minds of the Roma fans.
So, how is the health of the league?
It’s true that attendances are down and the quality of the players on show isn’t quite at the level it once was. On the evidence of this game the league is just changing.
The days of catenaccio are long gone, for both sides defending took a backseat to barnstorming attacking. For so long Serie A stood accused of being a boring, defensive league; not anymore.
High scoring games are common these days and the emergence of teams like Sassuolo coupled with some of the bigger teams struggling has freshened the league up a little.
If they continue to produce games like the one I witnessed the league could be in for a resurgence.
Stephen Vaughan, Pundit Arena