Serie A has always been considered one of the top domestic leagues in the world. The prestige it has acquired over the years is built on the incredible success Italian clubs have had internationally, as Serie A has produced the highest number of European Cup finalists: teams from this country have reached the final of the competition on a record 27 occasions, winning the title 12 times.
Serie A led the UEFA ranking of European leagues from 1986 to 1988 and from 1990 to 1999. The ranking is based on the performance of national clubs in the Champions League and the Europa League during the last five years, therefore, the five Champions League titles in a decade for Italian clubs from the mid-80s to the mid-90s made the Scudetto the original best domestic prize in Europe. Juventus, Milan and Internazionale where all on their prime, recruiting the best players in the world, from Marco van Basten to Diego Maradona, and taking international titles home every year.
At the present moment, Serie A is ranked third among European leagues according to UEFA’s league coefficient, behind La Liga, the Premier League. It’s ahead of the Bundesliga and the Ligue 1, though. The Calciopoli, as it’s known the corruption scandal that burst out in 2006 caused the downfall of Italian Football as a whole, as a massive exodus of top-players occurred. Additionally, the relative undisputable dominance of Spanish teams -Barcelona and Real Madrid- over the last decade in international tournaments, as well as the high competitiveness and big wallets of Premier League teams, helped to put Serie A in the shadows.
However, things seem to be different this season. The landing of Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlo Ancelotti indicate that Serie A is now finally creeping back after long and mediocre years. Additionally, Napoli’s Gonzalo Higuain has ignored Chelsea to join AC Milan on loan, and there are also reports of Ronaldo’s former Real Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane joining him at Juventus, while Karim Benzema and Luka Modric, ex-teammates of CR7, have both been linked to AC Milan and Inter respectively. What’s behind the resurgence of Serie A? Most of all, why did it fell behind in the first place? On this article, we’ll address the latter issue, digging into one of the most severe scandals in football history, certainly the worst in Italy.
Calciopoli, the doom of the league
It was 2006. The Azzurri won their fourth World Cup, defeating their long-time rivals France in Berlin 5–3 on penalty kicks after a 1–1 draw. Italian football was on its peak at the international level, but it was a total chaos within its frontiers. A major scandal known as Calciopoli – an ironic adaptation of Tangentopoli (“Bribesville”), which was the name given to some corruption-based clientelism in Italy in the early 1990s– was uncovered in May 2006 by Italian police, implicating Juventus and other major teams including Milan, Fiorentina and Lazio. A number of telephone interceptions showed an intertwined network of relations between team managers and referee organizations, which were established to fix games by selecting favorable referees.
Napoli was another team that was attacked by the newspapers around the Calciopoli issue.
The scandal discovered a vast and shadowy network of untraceable phone cards, secret payoffs and proposals no match official could refuse. It was later stated that throughout the season, players of rival teams were punished with a calculated number of yellow cards in an attempt to ensure their suspension when their teams faced the record Italian champions.
The repercussions of this were horrendous for Italian football. Not only were Juventus stripped of two league titles from the period that was under investigation (2004/05 and 2005/06), but it also led to a mass exodus of players such as Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Emerson, Zambrotta, Patrick Vieira, Fabio Cannavaro and Lilian Thuram.
During this time, the Italian national team failed to qualify beyond the group phase at the 2010 and 2014 World Cups, showing an incredibly mediocre performance, and even failed to qualify for the first time in 60 years for the World Cup held in Russia this summer. Furthermore, Parma’s 2015 bankruptcy and reformation, having to start again from Serie D, was a symptom of the tremendous dark era in Italian football, having gone from winning two international UEFA tournaments in 1995 and 1999, to the bottom of Italy’s entire league football system.
Parma 1913 playing against San Marino in the 4th tier of Italian football, Serie D.
A.C Milan, a club who was among the best during the mid-80’s, 90’s and early 2000’s, also suffered much after the scandal. Their punishment for being involved in the Calciopoli was being deducted of 30 points for the 2005–06 Serie A Championship, and 8 points for the 2006–07 season. Despite all this, the Rossoneri went on to lift the Champions League in the 2006-07 season thanks to an inspired campaign by Kaka, defeating the likes of Bayern Munich and Manchester United, the favorites teams to win the Champions. Their struggle in the group phase and over-reliance on Kaka, however, showed that the club wasn’t in optimal conditions. Next season was a complete disaster for the Rossoneri, failing to qualify to the Champions League and showing a terrible performance at home. New blood to settle the basis for a better future wasn’t brought, and Milan tried to sign players well past their prime, such as Ronaldinho, instead of flushing in youngsters.
The former top league in Europe felt into a continuous decline after 2006. It seemed as it would never recover from the situation, however, Serie A’s recovery appears to be imminent. The reinstatement of its Champions League qualifying slots from three to four clubs this summer, six years after it was downgraded, plus the elite newcomers, give a hint of what we’ll see next seasons. Wait for our next entry to understand what’s behind the resurgence of Serie A!