It wasn’t long ago, when two Italian superpowers - Milan and Juventus - walked out of the tunnel at the Theatre of Dreams to kick off the first all-Italian final in the Champions League. The year was 2003, and it was a year worth marking, as it triggered the dominance of Italian football in Europe and what better way to announce its arrival than doing it at Old Trafford, infront of a houseful of English crowd.
The very same people who over the years have only looked down upon the Serie A, never mind the poor record of their own league on the continental stage back then. Milan lifted the Champions League, and would sit at the top of the Uefa rankings for the next five years, while Juventus and Inter continued to threaten the rest of the continent boasting some of the best players of that period.
For the Rossoneri in particular, it was as if there was no looking back from 2003, as they would go on to reach the finals thrice in five seasons winning the competition twice (had it not been for the madness in Istanbul, could have been thrice) and reaching the quarter-finals and the semi-finals once.
What went wrong for them and where?
Barcelona were starting a new era and were in transition until 2005, while Real Madrid were busy collecting Galacticos winning nothing in the process and the less said about Manchester United the better as Sir Alex Ferguson endured one of the worst seasons in the club’s history failing to go past the group stages on this occasion.
Chelsea were pretenders under Mourinho, (atleast in Europe), with Liverpool surprisingly lifting one thanks to Milan’s old habit of celebrating before the final whistle but that did little to hide the cracks at Anfield as they continued the stutter back home.
Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal had just started selling their best players leading and Bayern Munich virtually didn’t really exist outside of Germany. From 2002-03 to 2005-06, barring that one season in 2004, Italy always had atleast three participants in the top 8 and it was a golden period for the country after a short hiatus at the start of the millennium.
Despite the 2006 World Cup?
As if that wasn’t enough already for the non-believers to swallow, Italy lifted the World Cup in 2006 to make the country an object of envy for everyone around the world. But that very year started what would later go on to be realized as the ‘slow death of Italian football’ with the match fixing scandals totally arm twisting the league into an all-time low, something that until today it has found itself difficult to come out of!
The Serie A since then has continued to decline season after season, and the imminent rise of the English and the Spanish league at the same time, has made it virtually impossible to climb back to previous levels of glory.
Below we look at the important events that have significantly affected Italian football over the past 6 seasons:
2006-07: Calciopoli cripples Juventus and hence the Serie A
History has been privy to the fact that Italian football’s success is directly linked to the success of the Old Lady, referring to Juventus – the most successful and popular Italian club in the world. While Milan continued their dominance in the continent, Juventus had absolutely no match whatsoever back home. The intense rivalry and competition between the two sides could easily be compared to the one that’s enjoyed only by Real Madrid and Barcelona today as the Italians enjoyed the same stature before 2006. But the match fixing scandal crippled Juventus, relegating the club to the second division not forgetting the two titles that were revoked.
Playing in the second division meant no European football, and hence started the most tumultuous period in the club’s history directly affecting the league. Milan however, faced less severe punishments but docked points meant they would have to enter the Champions League from the qualifying stages hence forcing the club to restrict all transfer activities until the confirmation of their participation in the group stages as the club were hit financially leaving them with little to replace club legend Andriy Shevchenko who had just moved to Chelsea the same summer.
While big players like Lillian Thuram and Gianluca Zambrotta were sold to Barcelona, Inter made the most of the washout at Turin acquiring the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Patrick Vieira. Even though these two players stayed in Italy, what it did was shift the balance of power to one single team making Inter the most powerful side in Italy and with Juventus relegated and Milan’s inability to focus on the transfer market that summer meant the blue half of Milan would go on to enjoy a one sided league campaign for the next few years, which in turn triggered the decline of quality in Italian football.
Loyalists like Del Piero, Buffon, Nedved, Camoneresi, and Trezeguet, however, went down with the club to help them back from second division leaving the top division low in both stature and quality.
2007-08: The beginning of the end of Milan's reign in Europe
Despite the Calciopoli and the verdicts announced against Milan, 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 favourites to lift the title – with an Inzaghi double enough to avenge the humiliation against Liverpool in the finals. But their struggle to get through the group stages and the second round coupled with the struggle back in the Serie A did more than enough to suggest that the side was ageing and was over reliant on Kaka having yet not found a replacement for Shevchenko.
Now, usually one expects a club to go from strength to strength after a successful European campaign but Milan did the exact opposite with Berlusconi very proudly announcing that the squad in hand was good enough to beat anyone in the continent, blinded by the success of the previous season. A lackluster Mercato meant Milan lost a chance to build for the future and it was this very season that marked the beginning of the end for the club’s golden era.
Club symbols like Gattuso, Pirlo and Maldini were showing signs of slowing down and an injury ridden campaign by Kaka meant the club would bow out to Arsenal in the round of 16 in the Champions League, a competition they had won less than eight months ago.
But worse would come months later as a fifth place finish in the league during that season meant Milan would not participate in the next season’s Champions League, a tournament they dominated for much of the first half of that decade. Milan would never get past the second round of the competition until the 2011-12 season where they would go down to Barcelona amid controversial circumstances. One can argue that the 2007-08 season truly marked the end of the club’s hold on Europe once and for all further weakening the Serie A’s stature in the continent.
Kaka winning the Ballon D’Or during the season would do little to lift the club as injuries would never let him reach the same levels of the past seasons.
2008-09: No Italian club in the quarter finals of the Champions League
This season was the most adventurous yet the most embarrassing for Italian football in recent memory. A depleted Juventus made their return to the Champion League and Milan’s failure to qualify meant the league would be represented by Cesare Prandelli’s competitive yet unprepared Fiorentina joining AS Roma and league champions Inter, who were tigers at home but rats abroad.
However, Inter signed Jose Mourinho after his sacking from Chelsea with continental glory in mind and the arrival of the ‘Special One’ was a statement not only by Inter but the league that both still had it in them to attract big names. On the other half of the city, Milan continued with their fetish for Brazilian footballers signing Ronaldinho from Barcelona with the two time Ballon D’Or winner no longer needed by the Catalans. It was widely regarded as a senseless signing as the club was signing a player well past his prime instead of flushing in young blood for the future. Not only that, another well past his sell date player was signed, as Milan brought in Andriy Shevchenko back on loan from Chelsea and it was clear that the club were trying to make up for the lost fan base thanks to their failure to qualify for the Champions League by signing former icons.
But in the end, the season proved to be a disastrous one, as for the first time since the 2001-02 season, the country had no representation in the quarter-final stage of the most prestigious club competition in the world. Milan would further the humiliation, as they would bow out of the last ever Uefa Cup competition (it was rebranded as the Europa League) in the round of 32!
This season also marked the end of the career of the most revered legend in football, with Paolo Maldini finally deciding to call time on an illustrious journey which spanned over two decades with AC Milan. An era had come to a close and both Milan and Italy lost a symbol.
2009-10: Departure of Kaka and Ibrahimovic
Suffocating financial conditions at the Via Turati meant that Milan would be forced to sell Kaka to Real Madrid for a whopping 63m euro, thus making him the second high profile player and a former Ballon D’Or winner to leave the peninsula after Andriy Shevchenko in a space of three seasons. With Juventus still recuperating from the aftershocks of the Calciopoli scandal and Inter’s growing reputation as perennial chokers in the Champions League meant that the Rossoneri’s return to the top tier competition would be marked with the club fielding its weakest ever side in over a decade.
The league had lost an identity with Kaka’s departure, and Ibrahimovic’s decision to swap clubs with Eto’o for European Champions Barcelona further dented Serie A’s reputation as a league with no takers. However, an inspired campaign by Inter led by Mourinho’s magic would bring the Champions League back to Italy with the Nerazzurri winning the competition ending their long wait for continental glory and saving the country’s face to some extent with the league running on extended time to beat competition from the Bundesliga in Uefa’s co-efficient rating system for countries across Europe.
2010-11: The beginning of the end of Inter's reign in Italy
If Milan victory’s in the 2006-07 Champions League sparked their end in Europe, co-incidentally, the 2009-10 victory by the Nerazzurri triggered Inter’s decline in the Serie A. Jose Mourinho’s departure to Madrid and mismanagement by his successor Rafael Benitez meant Inter would take a nose dive both domestically and abroad, signally an end of a four year dominance by the club in Italy.
Milan in turn would go on to bring back Zlatan Ibrahimovic from Barcelona who would inspire the red half of the city along with the likes of new signings Robinho and Kevin Prince Boateng to shift the balance of power in the Rossoneri’s favour. Thiago Silva would go on to further enhance his reputation as the best defender in the world, while Juventus continued to stutter finishing a lowly seventh in the league for the second time in a row.
The season marked Inter’s downfall leaving Milan as the only club with some class in Italy worthy of competing in Europe. However, on the other end of the spectrum, while the big clubs continued going down, encouraging performances by clubs like Udinese and Napoli meant that Serie A was turning into a more balanced league with few favourites and increasing unpredictability unlike other big leagues across the continent.
2011-12: Italian league falls behind the Bundesliga
The horrendous collective performance by the Serie A teams in Europe over the course of the last five seasons came to a fitting end before the start of the 2011-12 season, as the Italy fell behind Germany in terms of coefficient points under UEFA’s regulations leading them to concede a Champions League place to the Bundesliga from the 2012-13 season. That they were miles behind the Spanish and the English Premier League had been established a long time ago, but falling behind the Bundesliga marked a new low in the league’s history once considered as the best league in the world.
If Milan’s performance in the Champions League raised a few hopes, it was Juventus who stole the show as an unbeaten season meant that an Andrea Pirlo inspired Old Lady’s seven year wait for a league title finally culminated in joy and Italy now had two strong teams with Milan and Juventus finally moving in the right direction even if Inter continued to falter failing to qualify for the Champions League the following season. Napoli impressed in Europe while Udinese continued to produce immense talent and Serie A seemed to be back on track until…
2011-12: PSG's raid cut short Milan and Serie A's rise to the top
Another match fixing scandal rocked the peninsula but the national team impressed with a runners up finish in the Euros to continue Italian football’s slow but steady ascent to the pinnacle of the game. However, cash rich PSG continued their raid on Serie A like the previous season when they acquired the likes of the Jeremy Menez, Javier Pastore and Salvatore Sirigu. The Parisians would go on to make the biggest coup in recent history snatching the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Thiago Silva and Ezequiel Lavezzi leaving the Serie A with little to boast about this season having taken away one of the best forwards and the best defender in the world from the peninsula.
Also, if last season marked the return of Milan and Juventus, it also brought down the Rossoneri to the levels of 2009 with the club having lost big icons in Filippo Inzaghi, Gennaro Gattuso, Alessandro Nesta and Clarence Seedorf in an emotional farewell back in May. Juventus brought down the curtains on another legend’s career as Alexander Del Piero finally left the club to join Sydney FC ending yet another era in football.
Not only the clubs, but the whole Italian league is in a state of transition but their failure to comply with the financial power of others in Europe means more and more investment is being made in the youth of the country and even though the league has been approaching a slow death, one can only hope that it does not succumb to the wounds of the past and gets back amongst the very best in Europe.
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