As soon as Wayne Rooney diverted a header into the bottom corner of the net and extended Manchester United’s aggregate lead at a packed Old Trafford on Wednesday night, the writing was on the wall for AC Milan. The Milanese club simply didn’t possess the necessary extra gear to mount a fightback and United cruised to a deserved 4-0 victory to progress to the last eight of the Champions League.
True, Milan are a pale shadow of the once all-conquering side of the 1990’s which was graced by such luminaries as Marco Van Basten, Frank Rijkaard, Ruud Gullit, George Weah, Franco Baresi… the list goes on. Silvio Berlusconi built a club that dominated Europe and regularly topped one of the strongest domestic leagues in the world during a golden period for Italian football.
There was a time when every weekend players of the calibre of Diego Maradona, Michel Platini and Liam Brady could be found plying their trade in packed stadiums the length and breadth of Italy. The AC Milan of today does not possess such a strong squad but rather an ageing collection of once former great players which are now unable to match the power and pace of the top English and Spanish sides.
There are numerous reasons the Italian game has fallen into sharp decline. A series of betting and bribery scandals that rocked well-established clubs such as Juventus gave Italian football a bad name. Many of the Italian stadiums have been allowed fall into such a state of disrepair that many fans have been put off attending matches resulting in a dramatic drop in attendances.
Worse still, the growing influence of ultras or hooligan factions within Italian clubs (controlling tickets sales, turning up at training sessions threatening players after poor performances) has no doubt turned many top class internationals away from signing for Italian clubs.
But the main reason Italian football has lost out to the likes of the English Premier League and Primera Liga in Spain over the past number of years is down to money. Italian football does not enjoy the same lucrative rewards that the Premier League does with Sky TV. As a result, few of the top Italian clubs can afford to pay the increased wage demands or buy out the contracts of the world’s best players like Chelsea or Real Madrid can afford to.
Where Milan, Inter and Juventus once had the pick of the world’s elite players knocking on their door, now Real Madrid, Barcelona and the top clubs in England are more likely and rewarding destinations.
But for all its perceived failings there are signs of Italian revival. Consider Inter Milan’s domination of the domestic game and recent re-emergence as a force in the Champions League under Jose Mourinho. Fiorentina were hugely unlucky to lose out to Bayern Munich in the last sixteen round of the CL this season. Roma and Juventus are slowly re-building their squad after years in the wilderness of European football.
And then there’s the Italian knowhow.
Such is the Italians’ knowledge and success rate with treating injuries and prolonging players’ careers that Chelsea has modelled their own new medical / physiotherapy treatment centre based centre in Milan. When Carlo Ancelloti was recruited to take over the reigns at Stamford Bridge the former AC manager brought many of the famed Milan backroom medical team with him to help improve the fitness of Chelsea’s squad and help prevent long-term injuries.
The English media pundits who regularly deride the Italian game for being too slow and cumbersome forget that their international team has its best chance of winning a World Cup this coming summer thanks to the managerial skills of an Italian. Fabio Capello has instilled an Italian discipline on the English International setup and his knowledge and leadership skills have seen England emerge as outside contenders for the World Cup, something they never were under recent managers.
The small matter of Italy having claimed the World Cup as recently as 2006 is also conveniently forgotten when writing off Serie A. Whatever their domestic tribulations, Marcelo Lippi’s new-look Italian international side will still be expected to reach the latter stages of the tournament.
English and Spanish football remains at the forefront of European football for now thanks to the millions pumped in to the respective leagues by Satellite TV companies. As a result Italian football remains on the periphery and will continue to do so for some time until similar amounts are spent in Serie A.
But Italian football is far from dead. It’s just resting until it takes its rightful place at the top table of European football once again.
Ger McCarthy is author of Off Centre Circle, which chronicles the curious life of a West Cork League junior footballer.