Italian Football in Crisis: No Doubt About It

Frank TiganiCorrespondent IMarch 19, 2010

LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 18: Referee Bjorn Kuipers shows the red card to Jonathan Zebina of Juventus during the UEFA Europa League Round of 16 second leg match between Fulham and Juventus at Craven Cottage on March 18, 2010 in London, England.  (Photo by Phil Cole/Getty Images)
Phil Cole/Getty Images

In the wake of Juventus' capitulation in the Europa league to the much un-fancied Fulham, it is now more clearer then ever that Italian football is in the midst of a crisis.  

Despite Juventus' struggles this season, the Old Lady was very much expected to progress to the quarter finals of the Europa League after having earned a 3-1 lead from the first leg. 

But, rather incredibly, Italy's most successful team ever managed to completely surrender their lead to a team from the mid-table of the Premier League that has no European pedigree and that has a playing roster that is hardly made up of world beaters. 

To see Juventus collapse so dramatically is a sign of the times. For such a result would have been seemingly impossible for the two decades prior to 2005. 

But today, it is increasingly common to see Italian sides crash out of Europe especially against English opposition. The reason for this being is that whilst English football has grown from strength to strength over the last ten years, Italian football has been in a sure state of decline. 

In the last five years, with the exception of AC Milan, Italian teams have struggled in Europe's premier club competition, the Champions League.

AC Milan made the semi finals in 2005-06, a year after having loss the 2005 final, and then again in 2006-07 when on their way to winning the title. However, despite Milan's successes, no other Italian team has made the semi finals of the Champions League since 2003. 

Furthermore in recent years, Milan, the one Italian team that has done Italian football proud in Europe, has fallen from grace, having failed to make it past the round of 16 ever since their triumph of 2007. 

The performance of Italian teams in Europe's second tier competition, the UEFA Cup which is now called the Europa League, has not been much better. Fiorentina is the only Italian side that has made it to the semi-finals of this competition in the last five years.

The last time an Italian team made it to at least the semi-finals of the UEFA Cup before Fiorentina's losing appearance in the semi-finals the 2007-08 edition, was Lazio way back in 2004. 

Clearly, the lack of achievement by Italian teams in Europe is enough evidence that Italian football is in real trouble.

For a nation that once dominated European football throughout the 1990s, the current state of Italian teams can be seen as nothing less than a major crisis. 

Indeed, it was only seven years ago (2003) that Italian football still had some of the strongest sides across Europe and this was shown by the appearance of three Italian sides in the last four of Europe's premier club competition. 

But since this time, Italian football has severely stagnated. The reasons for this are numerous. 

Poor management is definitely one, along with increased financial constraints and the rise of English football that has made it more lucrative for the worlds best players to travel across the channel. 

But the major reason for Italian football's demise has unmistakably been because of Calciopoli. 

For before the scandal that rocked Italian football erupted, Italy's top clubs like Milan, Juventus and Lazio all had strong sides that in Europe were competitive. However, Calciopoli severely harmed the finances of Italy's top clubs, apart from Inter, and as a result Italian clubs were unable to lure the world's best players to the peninsula.

Instead, these players ventured elsewhere, namely to England and Spain where they helped make the Premier League and La Liga stronger leagues. The Serie A, on the other hand, was greatly weakened since the absence of top quality players lessened the standard of the league. 

The effect this has had on the development of players in Italy, both foreign and Italian, cannot be understated. The lack of world class players in the league has made it impossible for younger players to be tested against the world best. Meanwhile, younger players in both the Premier League and La Liga have been able to test their abilities against the world's best, week in week out. 

As a result, the younger players in Italy have perhaps not developed to their full potential and this may explain why Italy's current crop of international players are the worst in living memory. 

With shortage of talent coming through the ranks in Italy, due in no small part to the leagues declining standard, Italian coaches both at national and international levels have shown little faith in the younger generation and have held on to the older stars of yesterday. 

But, this is also now becoming an approach that is untenable. For the likes of Cannavaro, Zambrotta, Pirlo, Gattuso, Toni, Del Piero, and Totti are you relied upon far too much whether it be at club level or for the Azzurri, or both.

Given that all these players are well past their best in addition to not having the physical ability any longer, it makes perfect sense why Juventus, who rely too heavily on Cannavaro and Del Piero, have struggled. Milan are also guilty of the same doing, relying far too heavily on the likes of Pirlo and Gattuso, not to mention a host of other names of players who are well beyond their prime. 

As for Italy, last years Confederations Cup disaster should have come as no surprise, given that the likes of Pirlo, Cannavaro, Zambrotta, and Gattuso were all too heavily relied upon to once again deliver for the Azzurri. 

On all fronts, both at club level and at national level, Italian football is suffering. With the exception of Inter's remarkable win against Chelsea (with a side that contained not one Italian and that is coached by a Portugese), the fortunes of Italian sides in Europe this year has been nothing short of miserable. 

Milan were convincingly ousted by United, having lost at home before being trounced at Old Trafford. Fiorentina, though unlucky, were eliminated by a Bayern side far superior in quality whilst Roma, Lazio, and Genoa made next to no impact in the Europa League. 

Juventus' capitulation at the hands of a modest Fulham side, however, was the perhaps the most distressing loss of all for Italian football. For though Milan's loss to United was nothing short of embarrassing, at least it was against arguably the strongest side in England and one of the strongest in Europe.

But for Juventus, Italy's most successful ever club side to lose to a mid-table English side, one that has no European pedigree whatsoever and after having gained a 3-1 lead from the first leg, should sound alarm bells for Italian football. 

It is undeniable that Italian football is in a crisis and one with no end in sight. Unless Mourinho can guide his Inter side of International stars to European glory, then most likely Italy will lose it fourth Champions League spot and the demise of Italian football will be complete.