I, like perhaps many others reading this, grew up on Channel 4’s Football Italia of the 1990s - intrigued and drawn in by an alternate football culture to the one at home – mesmerised by the shows of colour and passion in the stands. But the biggest draw of all was the absolute wealth of top players.
Paul Gascoigne’s arrival in Serie A took English interest in Italian football to a whole new level, but he was just one of a galaxy of star names in Italy at the time, which included the likes of Roberto Baggio, Ruud Gullit, Gabriel Batistuta, Stefan Effenberg, Frank Rijkaard, Nicola Berti, Beppe Signori, Sosa, Roberto Mancini, Jean-Pierre Papin, Marco van Basten, Florian Raducioiu, Gianluca Vialli, Fabrizio Ravanelli… I could go on and on, and I’ve not even mentioned a single defender there. To put it simply, Italy’s top-flight was the number one place to be, the world’s single biggest collection of top-class footballers.
The modern day Serie A cannot yet claim to boast such a level of riches, but this is a league now very much on the up and once again building stocks of the world’s top players. Just this week Roma confirmed the arrival of Monchi from Sevilla, a world-renowned recruiter. Saturday saw an announcement that Naples-born Lorenzo Insigne had pledged his long-term future to his home-town club. That came hot on the heels of news that Paulo Dybala had agreed a new deal with Juventus. Two other players who agreed improved long-term contracts in the recent past are Mauro Icardi and Andrea Belotti, two of the most valuable assets in world football right now.
Whilst delighting supporters of their respective clubs by staying put, all these players will also have pleased those people in the offices of Serie A whose job it is to sell and promote the league’s brand. Top talent attracts more top talent, which drives fan interest, which drives revenues, which attracts more top talent, which drives more interest… you get the picture.
The Premier League has achieved these desirable conditions better than any other league in the world, but I believe Serie A is catching up, and I don’t just mean in terms of the proliferation of star players. It’s taken a lot longer that many would’ve wanted, but several Serie A clubs are now beginning new stadium projects, well aware of the huge benefits it can bring, as proved by Juventus who, as ever, were well ahead of the curve on this. Smaller but much fuller venues is the way forward, and, as Serie A attempts to attract a greater global audience, this matters a great deal. TV viewers in another country switching on to see vast empty stadia are quite understandably going to question why they should spend an hour-and-a-half watching a game that even the local population don’t appear inspired enough to go and see.
The recent Milan derby was played in front of a complete sell-out at San Siro which looked absolutely magnificent in the sunshine, and while the 12:30 kick-off time was criticised in some quarters, it helped attract a record global TV audience in excess of 800 million people, who were treated to one of the games of the season.
Attacking spectacles like that are absolutely crucial to spreading the word far and wide that this is a league not just with great rivalries and tremendous history, but hugely entertaining football and goals - lots and lots of goals. It still never ceases to amaze me how many people still think Italian football is slow, ultra-defensive and low-scoring – it couldn’t be further from the truth. Six players have already scored 20 goals or more in Serie A this season – at the time of writing the Premier League, La Liga and Ligue 1 each have two, and the Bundesliga has three.
There have been 17 hat-tricks scored in Italy’s top-flight this season – that’s compared to 13 in the Bundesliga, and nine each in the Premier League, La Liga and Ligue 1. Serie A averages 2.87 goals-per-game, of Europe’s top-five leagues only La Liga (2.89) exceeds that.
All this said, it’s perhaps a little ironic that right now the country’s best team is being quite rightly lauded for an ability to defend majestically, and on the biggest stage too. Juventus made Barcelona’s much-celebrated front three look relatively toothless in the Champions League quarter-finals and haven’t conceded a goal in the competition for 531 minutes. But this isn’t a defensive Bianconeri side, far from it - the country’s standard bearer right now seems to have found an almost perfect balance between defence and attack.
They are good enough to win the Champions League, and if they do, for the first time since 1996, it will be another big boost to the image of Serie A and its world-wide marketability. You could say something very similar about the kudos that a strong national side brings, and the future looks very bright in that respect too. Players like Gianluigi Donnarumma, Alessio Romagnoli, Mattia Caldara, Daniele Rugani, Roberto Gagliardini, Marco Verratti and Andrea Belotti all have several tournaments in them potentially. Donnarumma might even make the 2038 World Cup!
All but one of those talents play their football in Serie A, which still has ground to make up in terms of attracting the best ‘off the peg’ talent from elsewhere – but as far as developing and retaining top players is concerned, it is right up there with the best already.
Italy’s top-flight of the near future might look a lot different to the one many of us enjoyed greatly on Channel 4 in the 90s, but I think it’s got the potential to be just as good to watch.