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The Demise of Italian Football

Updated on May 23, 2013

Italian Football: Once the Conqueror of the European Game

Throughout the 1970s and the 1980s, very much like today's current predicament, European football was ruled by English and Spanish teams. Real Madrid won the first five European Cups and between a period of six years, between 1977 and 1982, the European Cup stayed in England. (The trophy was won by Liverpool, Nottingham Forest, and Aston Villa) However, as the 1980s progressed, and as the 1990s were introduced, it was Italy who produced the best teams and dominated the further part of European football.

This perhaps started when the Italian national team were crowned World Champions in Spain '82. For the majority of the 70s it was the English, Spanish, and arguably the Germans who attracted the best players from around Europe (e.g. Johan Cruyff going to Barcelona, Kevin Keegan going to Hamburg, Kenny Daglish going to Liverpool) but now, it was the Italians who were attracting the biggest names in Europe. Possibly the biggest transfer of the 1980s was Michel Platini's transfer from AS Saint Etienne to the Bianconeri, Juventus. At the time Platini was Europe's highest property and is still seen as Juventus' greatest ever acquisition. During his time at Juventus, Platini won three consecutive Ballon D'ors (A record which would only be beaten by Lionel Messi in 2012) and numerous silverware.

Platini's acquirement by Juventus can be argued as the beginning of the rise of Italian football. He even helped Juventus become European champions for the first time in their history in 1985 by beating current holders Liverpool. Platini raised the level and standard of football in the Serie A, and incidentally, it made rivals such as AC Milan, Internazionale, and Napoli take notice.

The second greatest Italian acquisition, possibly in history, was when Napoli signed Diego Maradona from Spanish giants Barcelona. Maradona, who's number has been retired by the Naples club, is regarded as the world's best every footballer. Maradona helped Napoli win it's first Scudetto in it's history in 1987, another in 1990 (The only league championships Napoli have ever won) and finished runners-up in 1988 and '89 to Milan and Internazionale. Maradona also helped his team to win it's only European trophy to date in 1989, when Napoli won the UEFA Cup.

Maradona symbolically took the "best player in the world" status away from Michel Platini when he arrived in Italy, especially when Platini retired from the game in 1987; the same year Napoli won it's first ever league title. Subsequently when Platini retired, it was the end of an era for Juventus.

Maradona, like his apparent predecessor, raised the level and intensity again in Italy and the rest of the country recognised this. Milan, more notably than others. After seeing Napoli win the Scudetto in 1987, Silvio Berlusconi took charge of the Milan, evidently saving the club from bankruptcy, and immediately signed the Dutch paring of Ruud Gullit and Marco van Basten; the club went on to win the Scudetto the following year. This was to be monumental in the history, and the coming years for the club and city of Milan. A year later Milan signed another Dutch player, Frank Rijkaard, to make an all out Dutch attack. The Netherlands had just won the 1988 European Championships and now their three best players were all united in Milan. With the leadership of Franco Baresi and youngster Paolo Maldini, Milan now had a team that could compete not just to be the best in Italy, but also to be the best in Europe.

Milan's Dutch trio of Rijkaard, van Basten & Gullit
Milan's Dutch trio of Rijkaard, van Basten & Gullit

Inevitably, it seems, after the acquisition of Rijkaard, Milan went on to win the European Cup in 1989, and again in 1990, to become the best team on the continent. Three consecutive league titles were to follow in 1992, 1993, and 1994 and also becoming European champions for the fifth time in the club's history in 1994 when they obliterated Johan Cruyff's Barcelona 4-0 in Athens. (Still the record for a winning margin in a European Cup final) If it wasn't apparent before, it was concrete now that Italian football, and more specifically Milan, were the level that others had to strive towards in Italy, and more importantly, in Europe.

Milan got to three consecutive European Cup finals between 1993 and 1995. In 1993 they unluckily lost to Marseille 1-0, they historically beat Barcelona 4-0 in 1994, and were merely defeated in 1995 by Ajax when 18 year-old Patrick Kluivert scored the only goal of the game.

The 1995 Champions League Final loss to Ajax was the end of Milan's domination of Europe era. Gullit and Rijkaard had both moved on to other clubs, van Basten retired due to injury, and captain Franco Baresi went on to retire in 1997 after twenty-years with the club. The end of Milan's era opened the door for someone else to take the reigns of Italian and European football. And it was no other than Milanese neighboring rivals, Juventus.

Juventus moved to the Stadio de Alpi after the 1990 World Cup which was in Italy. The national team could only reach the semi-final after Naples resident Diego Maradona and his Argentina team knocked them out. Juventus' new stadium gave them more fans, more interest, but most importantly a bigger transfer budget. Juventus fans had to endure the success of Milan in the early 90s and watch how attractively they played under manager, Fabio Capello. In 1992 the Bianconeri purchased Gianluca Viali from league rivals Sampdoria for a record £12.5m. Viali partnered Italian golden boy Roberto Baggio in attack, but the Turin club still came short in Europe to Milan even though winning their first league title in nine years in 1995.

Juventus in 1998
Juventus in 1998

In 1995 Juventus sold Roberto Baggio to rivals Milan who had just come off another Scudetto and a European Final loss. The Turn public were mortified and furious with the club. However Baggio's sale was down to the development of young Alessandro Del Piero, who blossomed after Baggio's departure. With the 1994 purchases of Didier Deschamps from Marseille and Ciro Ferrara from Napoli, Juventus had a team that could compete both domestically and internationally.

In 1996 Juventus won it's second ever European Cup against current holders, who had beaten rivals Milan a year before, Ajax. After the European Cup win of 1995 Juventus went from strength to strength and became the best team in Europe for the next four years. The following year a certain Zinidine Zidane was bought from French club Bordeaux, and a young Christian Vieri was acquired from Atlanta. Juventus went on to win back-to-back league titles in 1997 and 1998 and reached another two European Cup finals; being the first club to reach three consecutive European Cup finals since Milan. In 1997 Juventus were beaten 3-1 by Borussia Dortmund and were defeated by Real Madrid in 1998 by a goal to nil.

Although they were defeated in the Champions League Final by Real Madrid, Juventus were crowned Italian Champions for the 25th time in their history and were still considered the best team in Europe. The 1998 Juventus team is resoundingly regarded as one of the greatest teams ever assembled in history. Monumental players featured for the team such as Zinidine Zidane, Edgar Davids, Didier Deschamps, Angelo Di Livio, Filippo Inzaghi, Antonio Conte, and of course Juventus' own Alessandro Del Piero. However, despite how capable the team was, Juventus would not reach another European final until 2003 where they would lose on penalties to inevitably, Milan.

From Sampdoria's defeat to Barcelona in 1992 to Juventus' loss to Real Madrid in 1998 there was an Italian club in the Champions League Final. However, an Italian club would be absent from the final for the following five years. The 90s unquestionably belonged to Italy, but in the new millennium Italian Football would fall to it's lowest ever status.

Jose Mourinho after winning the 2010 UEFA Champions League with Internazionale
Jose Mourinho after winning the 2010 UEFA Champions League with Internazionale

Currently the Serie A is officially regarded as the fourth best league in Europe, behind the English Premier League, Spain's Primera Division, and Germany's Bundesliga. Remarkably finances have been the main issue for Italian clubs in regards to their downfall in the twenty-first century. The English Premier League hand out £30m to each club who take part in the league each year and each club are heavily financially assisted by television income as well. Italian football is not televised around the world as much as English or Spanish football because the style of play is slower and more tactical. Although a very intellectual way to approach the game, it is portrayed as "boring" and "static football" by critics around the globe.

Milan were the club to lead the front line for Italy again in the 2000s but only mustered up two Champions League titles in 2003 and 2007. Internazionale won their first European Cup for over fifty years in 2010 when Jose Mourinho led them to a fanatic treble. (Inter won the Serie A, Coppa Italia & Champions League in the same season)

It was Spain's Primera Division and the English Premier League who overtook Italy's Serie A in the early 2000s and in 2011 the German Bundesliga leapfrogged the Serie A into third place. Real Madrid won three Champion Leagues from the years 1998 to 2002, Valencia reached consecutive finals in 2000 and 2001, and the recent emergence of Barcelona, who many regard as best team in history, have made Spain's domestic league the most technical league in the world.

Between the years 2005 and 2009 there was an English club in the Champions League Final. Furthermore, between the years 2005 and 2012 four English clubs have reached the final. (Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester United & Chelsea) This indicates that the Premier League, although not the best technically, is the most competitive league in the world and has the most clubs capable to compete in Europe.

With the exception of Internazionale's treble winning team in 2010. An Italian club hasn't reached a European Final, Champions League or UEFA Cup, in six years; the last being Milan in 2007. Big name players would rather play their football in England or Spain nowadays rather than "rot" in the Italian Serie A.

Furthermore, there is no loyalty to be seen in Italy's top domestic league. World class players have played for a number of the top clubs there. Swedish forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic has played for both Milanese clubs (AC Milan & Internazionale) and Juventus, Italy's "bad boy" Mario Balotelli has now played for both Milanese clubs, and Italian favourite Antonio Cassano has played for both Milanese clubs and AS Roma. If this were to happen in England, Spain, or Germany all hell would come down upon the players. Luis Figo's famous switch from Barcelona to Real Madrid was received with hostility, vandalism, and hooliganism, and the same can be said to when Sol Campbell traded the white of Tottenham to the red of Arsenal.

It is sad that Italy has fallen so far, and I think the only way for Italian football to return back to the peak of Europe would be if the country held a major international competition there. The 1990 World Cup brought money, new stadia, and new facilities to the country, and hopefully, with even a European Championship in Italy, it would help the country's footballing economy and give the Italian supporters something to be excited and enthralled for.

By Luke O'Callaghan


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      5 years ago

      Great hub, very detailed. It's hard to believe how easy it is for players to switch alliances in Italy, especially rival teams from the same city. You mentioned Figo and Campbell, but you could also mention the few players switching between Rangers and Celtic. Kenny Miller even went from one to the other and back again but it wasn't met with nearly as much hostility as Mo Johnstone, which even made the News at Ten!

    • Talty profile image


      5 years ago from Preston

      This is a very good hub, informative and intelligent. I agree Italian football has been declining recently but with it now being show more regularly in England (on ESPN) the interest may start coming back, especially now Balotelli and his circus acts are part of the show.


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