Lee Wellings: Quiet crisis for Italian club football

When Italy won the 2006 World Cup they did so with their club football in turmoil. A corruption scandal engulfed the club game, grave enough for Juventus to be stripped of two league titles and others hit with relegations and points deductions.

No such obvious crisis in 2014. But severe problems are there. We’ll come to hooliganism in a moment but quality-wise Italian football IS in a bad way.

It mysteriously doesn’t seem to be affecting the national team, the Azzuri could even challenge for another World Cup triumph. But maybe that’s a bit too fat-fetched this time.

It’s club football that is suffering most. Italian teams have always been a big deal in European competition but this season their challenge has been close to embarrassing. The outlook is damning.

Spanish club teams have firmly established themselves as the best. Three Champions league semi-finalists, and now both finalists. Two Europa League semi-finalists too.

English clubs have had not had a vintage year, but Chelsea and Manchester City had their moments, while domestically Liverpool have made it a thrilling title race.

France has PSG, and Germany has Bayern – a mark of their overall quality being how surprising it was they were taken apart by Real Madrid in the Champions league semis.

And Italy? The place that gave us all conquering Milan sides, classy Juventus and Inter’s triumph just five years ago has barely offered a whimper.

The only bright spot came from a team with the potential to excite – Rafa Benitez’ Napoli, who were desperately unlucky to exit the Champions League with four wins from six group games.

Juventus were shocked by Galatasaray and fell at that stage. Benfica have seen them off in the ‘second chance’ saloon that is the Europa League. Milan were at least better in Europe than in Serie A where they are languishing in eighth place.

The big stars, the glamorous signings are no longer attracted top Serie A. the money is no longer there. In fact it’s now somewhere for players no longer needed in England. Juve cleverly getting the best out of Paul Pogba for instance, where Manchester United failed, and Tevez from Man City too. Ditto Fiorentina and Aquilani, or Reina at Napoli.

In the 80s and 90s we had virtually reached the stage where you were ‘nothing’ if you didn’t crack Italy. Those in their prime were lured by the money and the status. Serie A teams were full of superstars – none bigger than Maradona at Napoli.

But mediocrity and a lack of transfer funds should actually not be the main concern of Italian club football. The Coppa Italia final was a microcosm of all the good and bad, largely bad, of Italian football 2014.

The game almost didn’t take place because of the horrendous scenes outside the Olympic Stadium in Rome. Several Napoli fans were shot, with a ‘Roma supporting’ gunman initially blamed. This wasn’t bad blood between Napoli and fellow finalists Fiorentina, as much as a free for all for Italy’s notorious hooligans to make a mark.

I sometimes ponder if Italy is the only nation where hooliganism is achieving what hooligans crave. Recognition, dare I say it, respect. I am wary of the element of enthusiasm in which some misguided commentators describe the ‘Ultras’ of clubs, extreme fans with often extreme actions. Such as Napoli fans smashing up Arsenal’s ‘Piebury Corner’ cafe this season – described with a little too much relish by some.

When you observe hooliganism unfolding, as I often have for news outlets on what we call ‘hooliwatch’ the pathetic neediness that underpins the showing off replaces some of the fear of the violence unfolding. The desperation for respect amongst peers, of belonging, of bravado, is tangible and sad.

So what a situation the Italian authorities, Napoli and Fiorentina found themselves in on Coppa Italia final evening. The bizarre scene of Napoli’s Hamsik (not his fault) as part of the negotiations with Ultras as to whether the game would go ahead. In the circumstances a sensible move. But stark evidence of fan power out of control in Italy.

So grave were events off the pitch, witnessed by the Italian Prime Minister, the Government has vowed to finally act to tackle hooliganism.

When the game started all the classic ingredients of Italian football 2014 were there. On the positive side the unusual amount of flair, compared to the past. It was an open exciting team and I openly love watching Napoli play. Then the kits. It was like Milan fashion week shifted to Rome. The familiar blue of Napoli and distinctive purple of Fiorentina shimmered under floodlight giving a style many domestic finals could only dream of. Superficial isn’t it? Surely it would be better to have top class football.

And ultimately the quality wasn’t quite there. Napoli deserved a 3-1 win, but they were sliced open unnecessarily for Fiorentina’s goal. And their defence wobbled and creaked for much of the game. Not very Italian.

A day later came an incredibly unsatisfactory ending to a non-title race. Roma beaten 4-1 at Catania to give Juve the title. They were always too far behind, yet were clear of Napoli…who were in-turn clear of Fiorentina…with the Milan clubs off the pace. Up against the dramatic conclusions in Spain and England I wouldn’t like to be in charge of selling global TV rights to Serie A at the moment – where once it was a dream job.

And as if there wasn’t enough to worry about as the Italian season draws to a close, now there is suspicion over a Serie D match, as reported on this website, Cavese 1919 beating Licata 19-5. And just to be clear, this was football not rugby.

Personally I’m tickled pink that a team whose fortunes I follow closely, Palermo of Sicily, are back up into Serie A next season. Guaranteed to sustain my interest through 2014/15, but there are many outside Italy who no longer bother watching.

Earlier this year I watched the Italian national team play Nigeria in a friendly finishing in a 2-2 draw. While this is hardly a vintage Italy team all is far from lost for them. They were technically as accomplished as we’ve come to expect. In Balotelli they have someone who does brilliant things in big games (unlike, say, England) and in Pirlo they simply have a genius.

Italy are at their best in adversity. It could be argued Italian footballers are at their best after turmoil – look at Paolo Rossi in 1982 as the best evidence of that. From prison to a hat-trick against Brazil, and a World Cup winners medal; as leading tournament scorer.

The problem this time is that the turmoil is contained. Italian club football is ever so gently average. And hooliganism has become ever so gently accepted. There is no hand waving. Maybe the Rome shooting will change that, maybe Italian club football WILL rise again.

The Government has called the hooliganism ‘shameful.’ And as for football, just how much pride should there be in what we are seeing in 2014? The strength of a revered league, and powerful clubs, has quietly ebbed away.

Lee Wellings is the Sports Correspondent for Al Jazeera English based in London. Contact him at ten.a1582855164reeza1582855164jla@s1582855164gnill1582855164ew.ee1582855164l1582855164. Follow Lee on twitter @LeeW_Sport