The price of relegation from Italy's Serie A has never been so high. The Italian league yesterday confirmed that its top-flight would from next season be standing alone in negotiations for commercial income in the domestic game, rather than distributing the gains from such sources as television rights among the top two divisions.
Serie B will effectively lose most of its subsidy, and the leading 20 clubs will conduct themselves more like the English Premier League. In England, the equivalent breakaway happened some 17 years ago, with the forming of the FA Premier League, so there is in Italy a school of thought that yesterday's decision, anticipated for several months, was overdue. What is yet to be decided is to what degree an independent Serie A now distributes its wealth within the top 20. The leading clubs - dominated by the trio of Juventus, AC Milan and Inter Milan - currently negotiate rights from their home games independently of others, but are now studying the formulas that have made the English top division the most economically powerful league in the world. In England, collective bargaining still holds, although Manchester United will still yield a great deal more from television deals than, say Burnley, principally because their matches are broadcast more often.
The breakaway move in Italy is a response partly to the global recession, and partly to a perceived drop in competitiveness of Serie A next to the other major European leagues. In 1992, when English football went down the route of a breakaway, with the elite looking after themselves, the rationale was to strengthen the game in England at a time when hooliganism, under-achievement by clubs in Europe and a struggling national team preoccupied supporters; it was also so that the leading clubs could enrich themselves. Italy is not at such a nadir, but self-interest still governs and there is ample evidence that the status of Serie A has slipped since the 1990s, when it was almost a certainly there would be an Italian club in the European Cup final. Last season, no Italian team got beyond the last 16 of the Champions League.
Italian clubs are still capable of paying some of the very highest salaries in world football - Inter's Samuel Eto'o has slipped comfortably into the role, formerly occupied by Zlatan Ibrahimovic, of the game's top-earner, give or take bonuses - but have found themselves watching in awe at some of the fees being paid this summer in the transfer market. Two of the Italian game's superstars, Ibrahimovic, who joined Barcelona from Inter, and Kaka, who signed for Real Madrid from Milan, left for Spain for fees in excess of 50million (Dh261m) each. And the two Milan clubs effectively replaced them, for lower fees, with players no longer wanted by the Spanish giants - Eto'o from Barcelona and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, who joined Milan from Madrid.
With a greater slice of the financial pie, Serie A's clubs - some of whom, like Fiorentina, Roma and Lazio, have battled with spectacular debts in the last decade - want to flex their muscles more strongly against their wealthy Spanish rivals, and indeed the traditionally rich and the nouveau riche of England. And below the likes of Milan, Inter and Juve, those who aspire to remain in Serie A over the next nine months have an extra motivation for doing so. Which is why a few, smaller clubs now look on in envy at Bari, who were taken over last week by a Texan multi-millionaire, Timothy L Barton. Bari have just come up from Serie B. They are promised funds to reinforce their squad because Barton will have known that staying up will be even tougher in the future.