Three Serie A sides in the Champions League quarter-finals - but is calcio really back?!
Anna Guarnerio is well aware that she couldn't have picked a better time to become Serie A's International Media Rights Director. Just over four months into her new role, Italy's top flight has three teams (AC Milan, Inter and Napoli) in the quarter-finals of the Champions League for the first time in 17 years.
It's making selling the message that 'Calcio is back' a hell of a lot easier.
"I've definitely been lucky with the timing!" she tells GOAL, laughing. "Myself and a colleague were in the Middle East when the second legs of the Champions League last 16 games were being played and we were watching how our clients were covering the Serie A sides and were looking at the likes of CBS, our American broadcaster, and they were pushing that message a lot, that 'Calcio is back'.
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"And we kept receiving messages from our clients, who were really enthusiastic about what they were seeing from the Italian clubs. Whether they were Champions League rights holders or not, they were saying, 'This is a great story.'
"So, having three teams in the last eight, and six Italian teams still in Europe overall (Juventus, Roma and Fiorentina), helps with the international perception of calcio, which comes at a particularly important time for us as we look to change the image of Serie A abroad ahead of a new cycle of TV rights."
Guarnerio is acutely aware, though, that the league was in dire need of a helping hand from its top teams on the field, because, off the field, things have not been going well for some time now.
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'Where the f*ck am I?!'
We're chatting in the plush surroundings of the 'President Club' at Udinese's Dacia Arena, a new, 25,000-seater stadium that is a rare commodity in the Italian game.
For starters, it boasts state-of-the-art facilities, while the training pitches are just a short walk from the main stadium's dressing rooms – making it an anomaly in Serie A.
As Maurizio Sarri famously pointed out last year, "Here, we are 30-35 years behind the other leagues, but nobody talks about structures and training grounds. When I moan about the pitches, they say that I always complain. But if you watch a Bundesliga game and you switch to one in Serie A, you ask yourself: 'Where the f*ck am I?'"
Ownership is obviously a major issue in relation to the state of Serie A stadiums, many of which have not been renovated since Italia '90 and are controlled by the local comune.
Once again, Udinese are something of an outlier in this regard, as they are one of only four Serie A sides (Juventus, Atalanta and Sassuolo the others) to own their own ground.
AC Milan, Inter, Fiorentina and Roma have all tried to redevelop or build stadiums in recent seasons, but have become bogged down by a level of bureaucracy that is seriously hindering the modernisation of the Italian game.
The only reason why progress might be made in the coming months is the country's bid to host Euro 2032 – a situation that even the country's minister of sport, Andrea Abodi, described as "mortifying".
"I am becoming intransigent," he admitted to reporters. "We are a nation full of contradictions, but I hope the time for excuses and alibis is over. There is nothing we need to invent here, we just need to all take on the responsibility, starting with me.
"But it's not about just a minister, but a logic of multidisciplinary cooperation with clubs and local authorities. Stadiums are social infrastructures, they can revitalise urban areas, create jobs and reflect all the characteristics of community financing. Instead, we are still here asking ourselves questions about competition and priority."
Guarnerio says Serie A is trying to do its part for a variety of reasons, not least because the sight of thousands of empty seats in crumbling stadiums hurts the brand.
"Consider the image that the Premier League sells to football fans across the world," she says. "The stands are modern, close to the pitch and full of people.
"Now, if we look around us here today at the Dacia Arena, this is an excellent stadium, and it's helping us change the perception of Serie A. However, this is one of the few examples in Italy of a top-class facility.
"So, a task group has been set up specifically for stadiums. We're asking clubs what we can do to help them improve their grounds and their facilities."
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'No room for young Italian players'
There are obviously many other concerning issues that need addressing.
During the last international break, Azzurri coach Roberto Mancini visibly bristled at the suggestion that the presence of three Serie A sides in the last eight of the Champions League proved that calcio was back.
"I would not speak of a rebirth of Italian football," he told reporters. "Maybe we could say that if there were 33 Italians playing for AC Milan, Napoli and Inter, but we cannot, because there's not even half that amount."
According to the former Italy international Andrea Carnevale, the talent is there; but the opportunities are not.
"The problem is that the big teams – Inter, Roma, Milan, Juventus – all want to win trophies," Udinese's head of scouting tells GOAL, "while clubs like ours want to survive.
"So, everyone wants proven players to help them realise their objective, and that means signing foreigners. Juventus signs superstars like Cristiano Ronaldo to try to help them win the league, while we look abroad to find bargains.
"There's no room for the young Italian player. Roma, Inter, Milan, Juve send their youngsters to other, smaller clubs to help them grow, because they're not deemed ready for the top flight yet. So, there are good Italian players in Serie B that one can take into Serie A, but there are not many."
The net result is that some youngsters are now moving abroad in search of game time at senior level, with Wilfried Gnonto a perfect case in point.
He made the bold decision to turn down a professional contract at Inter in order to play first-team football at FC Zurich, and he is now excelling in England with Leeds.
Mancini is hoping that Gnonto – who now has 10 caps for the Azzurri at the age of 19 – will prove a trailblazer - and that his rapid rise to prominence will prove a source of inspiration to other exciting young prospects.
Of course, the fact that one of Italy's most promising players is now plying his trade in the Premier League points to another problem: a talent drain.
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Napoli: 'A triumph of scouting'
In the summer of 2021, Serie A lost its newly crowned MVP (Romelu Lukaku, to Chelsea), its best goalkeeper (Gigi Donnarumma, to Paris Saint-Germain), centre-back (Cristian Romero, to Tottenham), right-back (Achraf Hakimi, to PSG) and its most high-profile player (Cristiano Ronaldo, to Manchester United).
Last summer, Kalidou Koulibaly and Mathijs de Ligt departed, for Chelsea and Bayern Munich, respectively.
The two most high-profile signings, Lukaku and Paul Pogba, have, thus far, proven a shadow of former selves, unfortunately reinforcing the misguided perception that Serie A is as a 'retirement league' or, as former Netherlands international Jan Mulder put it, a home for "celebrities in their twilight".
That is not to say, though, that there are no longer any great players in Serie A – far from it.
This season's runaway league leaders, Napoli, aren't just overflowing with talent, they're a symbol of what can be achieved through shrewd recruitment. Indeed, Carnevale calls his former club "a triumph of scouting".
Napoli, remember, didn't just lose Koulibaly last summer, they also said goodbye to fellow club legends Lorenzo Insigne and Dries Mertens, as well as Fabian Ruiz and Arkadiusz Milik.
And yet the Partenopei are now the pride of Europe, a side 16 points clear at the summit of Serie A and through to the last eight of the Champions League for the first time in their history, all while playing a brand of football that has drawn praise from all across the continent.
"Napoli are proving that there's no need to take big names or pay big wages," Carnevale, one of the heroes of the club's first two Scudetto successes, tells GOAL.
"Napoli have lost great champions like Koulibaly, Mertens and Insigne, gone out and taken two or three unknowns of great potential, such as Khvicha Kvaratskhelia and Kim Min-jae, and put them in a great squad with a great coach in Luciano Spalletti.
"Now, they're dominating the league. So, the example of this Napoli team, must teach the other teams the value of good scouting. They're showing that you don't always have to spend a huge amount of money. One can also win by following Napoli's lead.
"This is a great way to revive not only a club, but a league."
'We don't see beyond our noses'
Of course, the obvious fear is that this Napoli team will be promptly picked apart by the Premier League and state-sponsored clubs like PSG.
Victor Osimhen is fully expected to earn a big-money move this summer, which would obviously be great for Napoli's coffers, but would strip Serie A of another of its leading lights.
The issue here is obviously money – or, to be more accurate, money derived from the sale of TV rights.
There was a time when Serie A wasn't just the best league in the world, but the richest, meaning it attracted all of the best players. Just as the Premier League is doing now, essentially. So, what happened?
"There was a lengthy crisis of competitiveness in relation to international competition, caused by management errors and the lack of a clear, long-term strategy," Marco Bellinazzo, author of 'The Death of Italian Football' told GOAL.
"In this era of TV rights, all of the money that went into the Italian clubs' coffers was consumed by sporting costs, wages and transfers, without making the necessary investment in infrastructure, promotion, marketing, and the simple know-how required for Serie A clubs remaining attached to the first-class carriage of the train.
"The arrival of the nouveau riche, who have directed their money elsewhere, and the decline of the old Italian patron, resulting in the historic sales of Inter and Milan by Massimo Moratti and Silvio Berlusconi, respectively, took care of the rest."
During this same period, the Premier League invested heavily in its product and expertly exploited the popularity of its clubs across the globe, making the top-flight of English football must-see viewing.
The net result is, as former Chelsea assistant coach Luca Gotti told GOAL, "The Premier League has reached an economic level with which Serie A presently can't compete.
"We're lacking a certain standard of excellence and this is often the result of our myopia. We don't see beyond our noses."
'Adding as much value as possible to the TV rights'
The big challenge, then, for Guarnerio and other important figures within the Italian game is to implement a long-term strategy that can restore Serie A to its former glory.
There is grounds for optimism in that regard, and not just because of the European exploits of Napoli, Milan and Inter.
"In Italy, there is no longer the limitation of three seasons for the sale of rights, and no longer a strict obligation to run international public tenders, so this puts us on equal terms with other leagues," Guarnerio explains.
"The law was changed last summer and this means more flexibility, as well as an ability to better respond to the market needs. Because there will be markets where it will still make sense to not finalise deals for more than three seasons. But there will still be markets where the demand is for longer deals, meaning you can maximise your results if you go for a longer period.
"And now we are allowed to do that, which ties in with our desire to adopt a customised approach for each region.
6 – Six Italian teams have been qualified to the Quarter Final stage of the UEFA European competitions for the third time in the history, after in 1998/99 (6) and in 1990/91 (7). Renaissance. pic.twitter.com/SzUXvReUqJ— OptaPaolo (@OptaPaolo) March 16, 2023
"I think, in the past, when choosing the issues to be prioritised, the development of the brand from an international perspective was perhaps not given enough importance. So, they would outsource the management of the international TV rights, which was quite common practice back then.
"But what the league needs to do is to be more in control, because the more steps you have in between, the further you are from your fans. The number of fans and followers we have globally is enormous, it's really insane, so there's huge room for growth there.
"These are the fans that are, geographically, the furthest away from us. So, we need to find a way to bring them as close to the action as our domestic fans.
"So, we are currently studying the most efficient way to be present in all those different regions, in order to increase the value of our brand, to spread our brand as much as possible, with the primary objective of adding as much value as possible to the media rights."
'Made in Italy'
The obvious question, though, is whether it is possible for Serie A to close the gap to the Premier League?
"I think the EPL is a bit of a special case," Guarnerio says. "If you like all of the colonies that Great Britain used to have, the EPL is almost viewed more as a 'domestic' league than an international league. And that's why I think it's a little bit in a league of its own.
"Now, of course, we are looking closely at the case studies of the EPL and La Liga, the leagues that are ahead of us right now, but, at the same time, we are working on how we can improve our product for the future.
"We are also asking ourselves if trying to chase – and copy – the others is really the right thing to do. Of course we can follow their example in certain cases, but we also have several other sports disciplines from which we can take inspiration.
"But the main idea is to focus on Italy. We need to think, 'What can we do that is typical of Serie A? What can we do that probably the others don't – or can't.'
"So, our new 'Made in Italy' motto came out of this kind of brainstorming. We can obviously learn from some of the leagues that are ahead of us, but we must also try to do something different, and potentially unique.
"We believe that the strength of Serie A is that it is unlike any other league in the world, in terms of passion, romance and history. That is what we need to remind the whole world."
And if they can do that, then calcio really will be back.