Serie A. I've never been able to understand why everyone around me isn't as obsessed with it. I discovered it in my early teens and was immediately drawn in. The fans were louder, the strips more colourful, the goals more spectacular. In comparison, British football has always seemed so very dreary...the Reliant Robin to Italian football's Ferrari, the Emmerdale to its Sopranos.
Certain myths have sprung up surrounding Serie A though, and as Italian clubs have begun to struggle in Europe, those myths have only grown stronger. The most oft repeated and ludicrous of these accusations is that it's boring. One thing Serie A has never been is boring.
These days, when I'm foolish enough to confess my fondness for calcio in public, I'm forced to explain, to justify myself, as if I've just admitted I'm part of a Satanist cult. Strangely, the most vociferous Serie A sceptics often transpire to be those who never watch it. They're simply regurgitating something they've heard someone equally uninformed blab.
The following is for those people. If you know one, post it through their letterbox, or form it into a paper aeroplane and throw it at their head.
Because this article will discuss a lot of off the field factors, it's important to stress from the start that the end result – the quality of the actual football ain't half bad. No, it isn't what it was in the early nineties heyday, but the Premier League and La Liga aren't as far ahead as some would have you believe. From Zlatan Ibrahimovic to Edinson Cavani, Thiago Silva to Wesley Sneijder, a significant proportion of the world's best players still ply their trade on Italian shores.
2. The Scudetto race
Whereas only two teams can win La Liga and four have a chance in the Premier League, it's no exaggeration to say there are six viable contenders for the Serie A crown. Milan are the holders and favourites, Inter have lost Samuel Eto'o but retain the core of a squad which has won 13 trophies in the last five years, Napoli proved their credentials last season, Juventus are flush with new signings and determined to avoid another false dawn, Roma will benefit from Thomas Di Benedetto's cash and Luis Enrique's tactical flair, and Lazio are emboldened by their shiny new Miroslav Klose-Djibril Cisse strike axis.
That competitiveness runs right through the Division, making Serie A so thrillingly unpredictable that betting on it is a futile and infuriating process...or so I've heard. In a League where only three of the last 15 promoted clubs have been relegated at the first time of asking, no one can afford to rest on their laurels. Just ask Sampdoria, the Genovese giants whose illustrious history and large fanbase couldn't save them from sliding into Serie B last year.
Chips, flicks, scissor kicks – regular viewers of Serie A are rewarded with an inordinate amount of spectacular goals. The most special ones become ingrained in your memory, like Ibrahimovic's flying backheel against Bologna, Francesco Totti's impossible angled volley against Sampdoria, or anything that leaves the boot of 'Mr Dreamgoal' himself, Fabio Quagliarella.
In other Leagues club Presidents are shadowy figures, seen but not heard. In Serie A they're the stars of the show, with cameras trained on the VIP box during games capturing all their wild gesticulations. Palermo's Maurizio Zamparini, Cagliari's Massimo Cellino, Napoli's Aurelio De Laurentiis – you wouldn't want to work for any of these men, but they certainly keep us entertained.
And the crazy characters aren't confined to the boardroom either. On field we've got Ibrahimovic, the man who once replied 'I am brilliant' when asked to describe himself, who likes to practise taekwondo and impersonate police officers in his spare time, and Antonio Cassano, whose heroic one man stand against Milan's fitness Coach has touched us all. If scoundrels aren't your thing there's plenty of saints, like humble Antonio Di Natale, endlessly loyal to Udinese despite the overtures of bigger clubs, or Catania's new signing Nicola Legrottaglie, who can't wait to wrap up his playing career so he can become a missionary.
7. Young talent
Where is the world's best young talent to be found? The €69m spent on Alexis Sanchez and Javier Pastore this summer suggests Italy has a claim. Precious few of these gifted prodigies are natives sadly, but clubs like Udinese and Palermo have shown a knack for turning unknown youths into major assets, and many more are bound to make that transition in the season ahead.
I'll spare you estate agent jargon like 'rustic charm', Serie A's stadiums are dated and crumbling, and most clubs will eventually construct their own modern grounds when they see what the Juventus Arena does for the Bianconeri's revenue. We'll miss the striking architecture though, the Marassi's red brick towers, the Friuli's space age arch, so enjoy it while you can.
No one does rivalry quite like the Italians – observe the funeral procession Genoa fans organised through the streets of the port city to mark Samp's relegation. Some are fuelled by geography, like the Milan, Rome, Tuscan and Sicilian derbies but others, like the Juve-Fiorentina feud, are fuelled by nothing other than good old fashioned hatred.
10. Because it's different...
Where else would you find the ritiro – where players are locked away in isolation together ahead of big matches, the moviola – when TV shows repeat clips of controversial incidents over and over again, and the gemellaggi – the twinning of clubs which results in fans turning up at other grounds just to jeer their enemy's enemy. Serie A is nothing if not distinctive.
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