Italy’s football clubs could be on cusp of ‘Renaissance’

19 May 2023 4 min. read
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In the years since the Calciopoli scandal, Italian football has endured an uncharacteristically lean period. A new report however suggests the national league is undergoing something of a Renaissance, with the highest number of Serie A clubs reaching European semi-finals in a decade.

It might sound impossible, now, but Italy was once one of the dominant forces in European club football. Between 1963 and 2007, AC Milan won the continent’s biggest competition (the European Cup, now known as the Champions League) seven times – finishing runners-up four times.

It is an enviable record only surpassed by the dominance of Real Madrid – and speaks to the elevated state of Italian football before scandal and financial crisis hobbled in two decades ago.

Italy’s football clubs could be on cusp of ‘Renaissance’

The Calciopoli scandal rocked Italian football across its top two divisions. In 2006, a number of telephone tappings between clubs executives and referee organisations led to allegations of top clubs selecting favourable referees during the football seasons of 2004/05 and 2005/06. This implicated league champions Juventus and several other clubs, including Fiorentina, Lazio, Milan, and Reggina.

Juventus had its titles from those seasons stripped, while it was also administratively relegated to Serie B as punishment. While Milan went on to win the club’s final Champions League trophy in the following season, the club would swiftly fall from its seat of power in Europe. Similarly, neighbouring Inter would triumph in 2010 – the last Italian club to win Europe’s top title – but soon found it was unable to retain top talent as Serie A lost its lustre.

A Renaissance?

A new study from sport consultancy firm Football Benchmark suggests that Italian football may have quietly returned to the top table of the continental game, however. Ten years ago, the only representative Italy had in the final four of a European tournament was Juventus – who, after recovering from relegation, would win nine Serie A titles in a row.

Now, Italy has five clubs in European semi-finals, with Inter, AS Roma and Fiorentina even reaching the finals of the Champions League, Europa League and Conference League respectively.

Even accounting for the creation of the Europa Conference League (in which Fiorentina is the remaining Italian representative), Italy has not mustered four teams in Uefa semis for a decade. Part of this new success may be due to a more competitive domestic scene. The Scudetto has been claimed by a different winner in each of the last four seasons (Juventus, Inter, Milan and now Napoli) – and actual title chases have undoubtedly helped prepare the country’s elite clubs when it comes to facing foreign opposition.

Whether this is enough for a longer-term Renaissance remains in doubt, though. Juventus currently has the largest staff-costs in the league, at €337 million per year. However, a bungled attempt to enter Europe’s ill-fated Super League, and allegations about possible wrongdoings in the transfer market which are set to go to trial, mean Juventus is exposed to a finely poised set of financial risks.

Italy’s football clubs could be on cusp of ‘Renaissance’

At the same time, while clubs in England like Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal have found sustainable ways to grow revenue by stadium moves, Italian clubs face massive challenges to do the same due to bureaucracy faced by owners. Football Benchmark points to recent stories of Fiorentina and Venezia, and long-lasting ones of AS Roma, Inter and Milan, all struggling to get hold of the numerous stakeholders in order to come up with a common ground solution.

With this in mind, Italy’s leading clubs face an uphill struggle to attract, or hang onto top talent. Illustrating this, of the top 10 European transfers this season, none are to a Serie A outfit. The only one involving Italy at all is the sale of Dutch central defender Matthijs De Ligt from Juventus to Bayern München.

Meanwhile, no Serie A club made any new signing above €50 million, with the closest being Brazilian central defender Bremer – moving from Torino to Juventus for €41 million.

Even so, Football Benchmark warns the rest of Europe’s top teams against too-easily dismissing the rise of Italian clubs. Last year, AS Roma picked up the Europa Conference League, and became the first Italian team to win a European club trophy since 2010. Meanwhile, despite World Cup disappointments, Italy’s international triumph at Euro 2020 suggests there is a depth of talent which could help fire its clubs to glory, with or without a heightened budget.

Looking ahead, the researchers concluded, “The comeback of Milan-based giants after years of disappointment, the rise of Napoli and Fiorentina, and the confirmation of Juventus and AS Roma are all a sign that European powerhouses will have to deal with Italian sides once again; only time will tell whether such competitiveness on the international stage will be crowned by trophies being lifted, and if that can be sustained year after year, or is just a one season wonder.”