Why Cutting the Number of Teams in Serie A Is the Right Move

Colin O'BrienContributor IMay 14, 2013

GENEVA, SWITZERLAND - MARCH 21:  Italy F.I.G.C. president Giancarlo Abete looks on prior to the international friendly match between Italy and Brazil on March 21, 2013 in Geneva, Switzerland.  (Photo by Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images)
Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images

At first glance, fewer teams playing less football might not seem like the way to improve the modern game. Over the last decade, Europe's major leagues have become 24-hour circuses, all part of the same, non-stop, all-consuming media machine that craves more games and more gossip. Soccer has become all about quantity and to hell with the quality.

The same is true across Europe, but with the coffers overflowing in the likes of the Premiership and the Bundesliga, downsizing would be antithetical. If it ain't broke, they're not gonna fix it.

Elsewhere, however, a "less is more" mantra makes sense. Spain's La Liga would be all but redundant without Barcelona and Real Madrid, and Italy's Serie A is struggling to keep pace with its neighbours. Which is why it would make sense for it to trim down and reinvent itself as a smaller league, but one packed with quality. Serie A already has a lot of strength in depth.

Part of the attraction of the league is that even its more humble sides pack a punch. On their day, a side like Catania or Atalanta are good enough to beat the league's superpowers, and generally speaking each season throws up at least one surprise package.

In recent years Udinese, Lazio, Catania, Napoli and Fiorentina have all performed better than expected and have often been instrumental in the championship's outcome. Cutting back the number of teams, then, might seem like something that could risk eliminating an interesting team or punishing a smaller side intent on a long-term development strategy. But it wouldn't.

Reducing the number of teams in the league would cut costs for everyone, which is never a bad thing. It would also make it extremely competitive—something that would also make it an incredibly marketable product.

One of the strengths that Serie A possesses is that many of its squads are among the most instantly recognisable in the world, so to be able to promote a smaller league in which these recognisable, historic clubs are constantly fighting for something would do wonders for Serie A's popularity abroad.

At home, it would offer a little breathing room for clubs competing on several fronts. Handling a European, domestic and cup challenge might not trouble a club like Juventus or AC Milan, but it stretches the resources at all but the biggest teams, often with devastating effects.

Fewer league games would make a multi-faceted campaign easier to manage for a side like Udinese or Fiorentina, who can't afford to build large, top-quality squads to act as a backup.

Nor would it be anything new. For much of its existence, Serie A had just 16 teams—from 1967 to 1998—before it was increased to 18. The decision to have 20 sides compete wasn't made until 2004. On top of that, relegation used to claim four teams each summer instead of the current three.

Even reducing the league by just two teams and increasing the relegation places by one would have immediate effect on the league's competitiveness. Ahead of this season's final match day, 14 points would separate the bottom nine clubs, and four of the bottom five would still have survival to play for.

Alternatively, the league could choose to follow Lazio president Claudio Lotito's suggestion and reduce the number of automatic relegations, but create a new, cross-league playoff between the lower teams in Serie A and the top finishers in Serie B. It's a novel idea, and one worth considering.

The switch to 20 clubs has been heavily criticised in Italy for years, and now it seems that even those at the top of the game are seeking change.

Speaking at the end of last year, (here in English, from football-italia.net) Italian Football Federation president Giancarlo Abete said:

“I can say we all hope to return Serie A to 18 teams as soon as possible. We are also studying a plan with UEFA to reward the Europa League semi-finalists by giving them qualification for the next season’s Champions League.”

The latter remark takes the down-sizing idea an interesting step farther, because it would reward teams—particularly the smaller sides—who choose to make an effort in UEFA's second competition.

Italy lost one of its Champions League places to Germany recently—not because of poor performances in that competition, but because the governing body's points system rewards success in both competitions equally.

The fact that Serie A's sides have chosen to ignore the Europa League, often fielding a team of reserves or youth team players, in favour of domestic gains hurt the league as a whole. Abete's proposition would incentivise a continental commitment and improve the spectacle for the fans at the same time.

And as a knock-on effect, the sight of Italy's squads making an honest effort at Europa League success might even go a long way to legitimising a competition that many see as irrelevant these days.

That, in turn, could spur other leagues to offer similar rewards, breaking the big-money hegemony that the continent's biggest clubs currently enjoy. There would be less of Arsene Wenger's depressing statements about the importance of finishing fourth and more interesting football being played for higher stakes. 

The finer points of it would have to be discussed with the clubs and mulled over in detail, but from the point of view of the fans, the football and even the clubs themselves, it seems obvious: less really is more.