Serie A Finally Sees Signs Of Light

It has been a difficult decade for Serie A following Calciopoli and financial strains, but Daniel Storey sees signs of revival in the league's top clubs this year...

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"It is always darkest just before the day dawns."

Positivity has been a long time coming in Serie A. The Calciopoli scandal of 2006, in which Juventus were relegated and others docked points after evidence revealed a reasonably widespread practice of leaning on referees ahead of certain matches could be seen by some as the nadir, but in fact it simply acted as a vehicle for further negativity.

Racism aside (and that is not to demean its abhorrence), Italian football's problems have been solely down to one factor - money. The Italian economy in general has shrunk by almost eight per cent between 2007 and 2011, and more than half a million industrial jobs have been lost since 2007. In July this year, unemployment in males between 15-24 reached 41%.

Such statistics make it obvious that attendances at football matches would fall - the game may be an obsession, but as the average wage decreases (and the Italian average wage is less than two-thirds of that in England with similar ticket prices) watching live football soon loses much of its magnetism. Since 2000, the average Serie A attendance has declined from 31,000 to below 22,500 in 2011/12. More worryingly, last season 17 of the league's 20 clubs had grounds less than 70% full on average. For Milan's first Champions League game of last season, the San Siro had 53,000 empty seats.

Italian clubs have also been significantly let down by their authorities and government. Whilst the Premier League's latest TV deal is worth approximately £5.5billion (£2.5billion of which comes from overseas) and England's teams share £2billion a season, Italian clubs receive just half that figure. Crucially, only 10% of that figure is from abroad - Serie A has simply not marketed itself outside of Italy efficiently, despite the sterling efforts of James Richardson, a warm piazza and a cup of cappuccino.

Furthermore, regulations on potential revenue streams remain detrimental to clubs, explained by none other than Paolo Maldini: "In Italy we still have laws that don't work. If you go outside the San Siro you can see people selling fake merchandising. You can't allow this. We need to learn from leagues that make money." Such suspicions are confirmed by the figures. In 2009/10 La Liga clubs made €190m in merchandising revenue, with the Premier League total standing at €168million. Serie A came in at €77million.

The lack of money in Serie A was demonstrated perfectly by the comparative inactivity in high value transfers, summed up by the following statistic: Between 2006 and 2011, 34 players were bought by Italian clubs for more than £10million. In the same time period, English clubs bought 88. Perhaps more importantly, Serie A clubs also weren't able to generate money through player sales from abroad. Between 2006 and 2010, only eight players were sold abroad for more than £10million, and Rolando Bianchi was one of those. A league with relatively little money being spent and even less being received from external sources is a quick recipe for debilitation.

The end result was inevitable. Two clubs dominated the domestic scene (first Internazionale and then Juventus), but were unable to make a significant enough mark on the continental stage, highlighting the dearth of domestic competition. Despite the heroics of Jose Mourinho's Inter in 2009/10, in the six seasons since 2006/7 Italy have had just one team in the 24 semi-final spots in Europe's premier competition, and in 2011 lost their fourth Champions League place to the Bundesliga.

All that paints a markedly desperate picture, but perhaps Italy needed such a significant decline in order to rebuild. A lack of money doesn't mean that we all pack up and go home, but rather necessitates a change of approach. It is this shift in approach, a back to basics strategy, that hints at a more positive future.

Pre-Calciopoli and economic crisis, the largest Italian clubs hugely under-invested in their academies, preferring to purchase ready-made talent. Mauro Bianchessi, head of youth scouting at AC Milan has seen a change. "I have been at Milan since 2006. Back then there was a different economic situation and different aims for the first teams. To win the league or Champions League players were needed who were ready. The current economic situation combined with new UEFA FFP regulations has forced our big clubs to invest heavily in youth development." Likewise, Inter Milan built a new youth academy complex, whilst Juventus used a successful share issue in 2011 to invest in their academy.

It will take time, of course, but a change seems apparent. Many players, including Stephan El Sharaawy and Mario Balotelli are now recruited at the age of 17 or 18 from the best academies in the country (Pescara perhaps the most notable example), whilst other bright prospects such as Alessandro Florenzi (Roma), Mattia De Sciglio (Milan) and Lorenzo Insigne (Napoli) are genuine academy products that have made appearances for the Azzurri. Moreover, the Under-21 side recently reached the final of the European Championships (the first time since 2004 that they had progressed beyond the semi-final stage) and Inter won the inaugural NextGen tournament last year.

Differences are even being made on the international stage. Cesare Prandelli may have largely stuck to experience during Euro 2012, but Balotelli was only the second player aged 21 and under to play at a tournament for Italy since 1996, and De Sciglio and El Sharaawy, both still 20, featured in the Confederations Cup this summer.

Most importantly given the previous evidence, players from Italian clubs are now finally starting to attract significant fees from Europe's nouveau riche, and the selling clubs are able to hold out for high prices, with no desperate need to cash in whatever the offer. To repeat the earlier stat, between 2006 and 2010 only eight players were sold abroad for more than £10million. In the three years since, that figure has increased by 24, with Edinson Cavani, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Thiago Silva, Javier Pastore, Marquinhos and Gaston Ramirez just a few of the names to have attracted significant price tags.

Italian football's reconstruction probably depends on the 'buy low, sell high' strategy of other developing leagues, and this is where Serie A has been most impressive of late. The four players leaving the league at the highest price this summer (Cavani, Marquinhos, Erik Lamela and Stevan Jovetic) cost foreign clubs a combined £124million. Roma made £22m profit on Marquinhos and £13m on Lamela, Napoli £45m on the price paid in 2011 for Cavani, whilst Fiorentina made a significant profit on their £7m outlay for Jovetic by demanding £23m from Manchester City. Four players, £96m profit and evidence that Italy's clubs finally seem to be seeing financial sense.

One could bemoan the loss of talent, but it has provided clubs with revenue to invest in their squads, as the back to basics strategy begins to bear fruit. The £32million paid by Napoli for Gonzalo Higuain is the highest fee paid by an Italian club for over a decade, but the Argentine is not alone. Carlos Tevez, Kevin Strootman, Dries Mertens, Mario Gomez and Lucas Biglia are all players that spurned alternative (and attractive) offers to move to Italy.

Finally, as the circle of regeneration is completed, high transfer fees received by clubs outside of the obvious title challengers (and by that I only mean Juventus) creates competition within Serie A. There is no doubt that the Old Lady are the favourites for the Scudetto, but a reinvented Napoli under Rafa Benitez, a Gomez-led Fiorentina and a forward line at Milan amongst the most exciting in Europe should all harbour genuine ambitions of generating a meaningful title race.

It is a prevalent time at which to offer a positive outlook on Serie A, after a weekend in which 43 goals were scored in the league's ten games - the highest total for eight years. And whilst there is no doubting that Italy still has deep-rooted issues within its game that act as a ceiling on its sustainable progress, if there is a silver lining to the country's financial cloud it is that Serie A's biggest clubs have been forced to go to back to basics in order to generate revenue.

Vitally, for a league that has regularly been close to its knees in the struggle to market itself abroad, that makes for an absorbing season.

Daniel Storey - you can follow him on Twitter here

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