Italy’s abysmal World Cup campaign last summer and another highly disappointing year for the Italian clubs in the European competitions (Inter’s triumph in 2010 being the exception proving the rule) have shown the extent of the state of crisis Italian football is in at the moment. In the Champions League, AC Milan were knocked out by newcomers Tottenham and AS Roma were humiliated by Shaktar Donetsk, crashing out with a 6-2 aggregate (Sampdoria, who finished fourth last season, didn’t make it past the qualifying hurdles). Inter, again, were the only club to qualify into the last eight (the total for the Italian teams in the second round: six matches, one victory). The Europa League was no kinder to the Italians as Juventus, Sampdoria and Palermo didn’t even get past the group stage, while Napoli were knocked out in the second round. These dreadful results make it official that Germany surpasses Italy in Uefa’s ranking which means that Serie A will lose its fourth Champions League berth to Bundesliga.
And it is not just the senior national team and clubs that represent the decline. The Italian Under 21-year-olds have been among the European elite for decades but recently they have also done little to balk the downward trend. Since the U21 European Championship victory in 2004, Italy have reached the semi-finals only in 2009 when they were knocked out by eventual winners Germany (no shame there, but too few players from that squad have made the leap to the senior side, while over a half a dozen have from the German team). Last autumn, the Italian U21s failed to qualify for the 2011 tournament, conceding a 2-0 home victory away to Belarus who certainly are no heavyweights of Europe.
As many other nations in Europe have stepped up the pace (both figuratively and literally), Italy have been complacent in their own sense of false superiority. The reasons for their fall from grace are manifold and go deep into the cultural and structural roots of calcio. While there are plenty of fascinating and constructive elements to the Italian game, two main conclusions can be drawn to explain the downward trend: strategic conformity and the lack of investment in youth development.
Italian football out of tune with tactical trends
Football has changed significantly since the 2006 World Cup when Italy won the tournament with a tactically versatile squad that included some of the best players in the history of Italian football at the peak of their powers (for example, Gianluigi Buffon, Fabio Cannavaro, Alessandro Del Piero, Alessandro Nesta, Andrea Pirlo, Francesco Totti and Gianluca Zambrotta). At their best, this Italian team, though built (like all great side’s still are) on a foundation of a resolute defence, played some excellent football both in a tactical as well as in an aesthetical sense (the opening match against Ghana, the last group game against the Czech and the semi-final with Germany come to mind). Nevertheless, even if Italy were able to enthrall with complete organisation and clinical conter-attacking, they still lacked a sense of proactivity that characterises the football of today.
Italy’s triumph in 2006 was, similarly like Inter’s Champions League victory, a one-off event. Italy had a good squad with an excellent mix of players who fitted perfectly into different tactical systems and a great coach who was at the top of his game and able to mastermind different tactical strategies to perfection. Since 2006, however, Barcelona’s (and Spain’s) model has, for many at least, become the benchmark of how football should be played. But it is fittingly Germany who epitomise football in the new decade. For all their dominance at the moment, Barcelona/Spain perhaps represent more the combination of their own footballing pedigree and an exceptional generation of players than something that represents the development of football in a universal sense. Although the Germans may not showcase the same level of proactvity as Spain, their way of playing provides a model for national teams and clubs around the world that can be attained more easily due to its more eclectic nature. The key factors of football in 2011 are pace (transitions, movement, passing), possession, organization (both in attack and defence), tactical flexibility, physicality (more to do with stamina and athleticism than brute force) that are all bound together in an overall sense of cohesion, and Germany definitely have these characteristics in abundance.
Looking at these pieces of the modern football puzzle, it is no wonder that the German team is nowadays filled with young, skilful, and dynamic players. The Italians, on the other hand, are still too fixated in their own system, in their obsession with experience and their mistrust in youth. After all, it is telling that Gianluigi Buffon noted lack of experience as the main reason for their poor performance in the 2010 tournament while Germany succeeded with an inexperienced squad. Cultural identity and experience are always needed in international football, but so are new ideas and fresh legs.
Deficiencies of Italian youth set-up
The question of how to find a balance between experience and youth is always a difficult one to answer. But a more important question, and one that is too seldom presented, is how can young players gain the experience if they are not given a chance at the highest level. Former cultured midfielder Demetrio Albertini (who played for AC Milan, Atletico Madrid and Barcelona), the vice president of FIGC (the Italian Football Federation), was clear to point out that this is exactly what is wrong with the Italian youth setup, giving Spain’s reserve league system, Barcelona and Andreas Iniesta as examples of what Italy should strive towards: “If you face opponents from Serie A or Serie B in a reserve league, you are ready for the top flight at 18 or 19 – like Iniesta, for example, who is 26 and has been playing La Liga for eight years […] Notable players have come through Barcelona’s reserve team, which identically plays the same formation as the first team[…].” It’s all quite simple: better opponents make better players and a fixed system nurtures young players to the first team.
So looking at the following list that features some of the most promising Italian players from each age-group starting from those born in 1985, and contrasting their current clubs with where they started their professional careers, go some way in showing the extent of this problem:
Riccardo Montolivo (midfielder; born 1985; Atalanta -> Fiorentina), Domenico Criscito (D/M; 85; Juventus -> Genoa), Antonio Nocerino (M; 85; Juventus -> Palermo), Andrea Coda (D; 85; Empoli -> Udinese), Gianluca Curci (G; 85; Roma -> Sampdoria), Emiliano Viviano (G; 85; Brescia -> Bologna), Luca Cigarini (M; 86 Atalanta -> Sevilla), Lorenzo De Silvestri (D; 86; Lazio -> Fiorentina), Sebastian Giovinco (F; 87; Juventus -> Parma), Robert Acquafresca (F; 87; Inter -> Cagliari), Daniele Dessena (M; 87; Parma -> Sampdoria), Arturo Lupoli (F; 87 Arsenal -> Ascoli), Andrea Poli (M; 89; Sampdoria), Francesco Bolzoni (M; 89; Inter -> Siena), Alberto Paloschi (F; 90; AC Milan -> Genoa), Mattia Destro (F; 91; Inter -> Genoa), Davide Santon (D; 91; Inter -> Cesena)…and the list goes on.
Obviously, all this is over-simplifying the matter a bit. The list is not supposed to suggest that all the players featured on it are somehow lost causes. It is a fact that for some players the best way forward is to take a step backwards early in the career (Giampaolo Pazzini (84), now at Inter, being an example). And, of course, there are players who have gone the other way in their careers (including Leonardo Bonucci (87) and Andrea Ranocchia (88) now at Juventus and Inter respectively).
Nevertheless, the fact in itself that most of the aforementioned players have transferred from a big club to a smaller one (and stayed there) does paint a pretty straightforward picture. As Albertini noted, a young player should be ready to play at the highest national level roughly before turning twenty. After that he should be exposed to the requirements of the European competitions and international football. Therefore, even if a potential young player gets more playing time at a smaller club, but at the same time does not get the chance to play at the highest level in a team competing in Europe, he will be devoid of an ingredient of development that is simply essential nowadays.
Italian Football Federation laying out blueprint for proactive future
FIGC has reacted to this obvious problem many Italians have been ignoring for too long. The appointment of Cesare Prandelli as the Azzurri coach sent a clear message in terms of how FIGC wants to develop Italian football. Prandelli has always been a spokesperson for proactive football and has kept youth development close to his heart. Also, the appointment of attacking legend Roberto Baggio as technical committee president is in line with this new approach.
As a more controversial and panic-stricken solution, however, FIGC immediately ruled after the World Cup that Italian clubs cannot sign more than one non-EU player during a season. This ruling touches upon a number of contentious issues (that are a discussion subject for another time) but the reason behind the decision cuts into the heart of the discussion at hand. While in the process of building a stabile and sustainable foundation for progressive and collective development in the long term, FIGC may have seen, rightly or wrongly, this radical decision as the only solution to make an impact in the short term in order to clear the path for Italian youngsters into the top teams in Serie A.
What Italian football needs now is a sense of patience running through the whole structure of calcio. The old foundations need not be, and should not be, demolished in their entirety but reconstructed according to the demands of the modern game. Renewal does not exclude tradition and, therefore, calcio can reinvent itself without loosing its wealth of tradition and identity.