Italy has long been one of the powerhouses of continental football; in fact, only Spain can claim to have produced more UEFA European champions. Although Italian football clubs have been strong in Europe since the 1960s, their most recent period of dominance came in the late 1980s and 1990s. Italian clubs were then the wealthiest in Europe, and the world’s best players flocked to play in Serie A.
Between 1989 and 1998, there was only one Champions League Final that did not feature an Italian club, as first Milan and then Juventus established a consistent presence at the top level of European football. Even a smaller club such as Sampdoria was able to enjoy a spell in the spotlight, pushing Barcelona to extra time in the 1992 Final.
Yet as the new millennium approached, Italy’s dominance waned. At one time, bookmakers would have routinely marked up the Italian entrants to the Champions League among the favourites, but such has been the decline of Italian teams in Europe that in recent years only Juventus have kept Il Tricolore flying in the Champions League betting markets.
The decline was gradual, but unmistakable. Milan still won the Champions League twice, in 2003 and 2007, and Inter lifted the trophy as part of a Treble in 2010, but those successes have been dwarfed by the eight Champions League titles that have gone to Spain since 2000, and equalled by the rising power of the English Premier League, which has produced three winners.
Money was the main reason for the decline. As foreign investors moved into the Premier League with huge revenues from TV rights, and Spanish giants Barcelona and Real Madrid scrambled to catch up, the best footballers moved away from Italy to England and Spain, and the Calciopoli scandal of 2006 further tarnished the reputation of Italian football.
Unable to attract the world’s best players, the quality of Italian domestic football began to decline, and the top Italian teams struggled to assemble squads capable of competing both in Europe and domestically.
The relationship between a team’s European and domestic form can be complicated, and this subject is explored in depth in this article from 888sport, but the Champions League is the pinnacle of club football, and the failure to attract the world’s best players has made it hard for Italian clubs to compete in this tournament.
Only Juventus, with their huge resources, have managed to remain competitive at a European level. In 2015, they became the first Italian team to reach the Champions League Final in five years, and they have been dominant domestically.
However, the signs for Italian football are promising. The takeover of Roma by American investors in 2011 was a new development, and this led to the club becoming the main domestic challengers to Juventus. Inter can also be expected to improve, thanks to its new Chinese owners. If the pattern of foreign investment grows, and the global stars return to Serie A, there is every chance that Italian clubs will once again be dominant in European football.