x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

2008 - a year of the Italian mess

On Jan 1 2008, Milan were the reigning club world champions, a success they had just added to their Champions League title of six months earlier.

On Jan 1 2008, Milan were the reigning club world champions, a success they had just added to their Champions League title of six months earlier. Italy, then as now, the holders of the World Cup, embarked on a run of form to guide them through a tricky qualifying campaign for the European Championship. On Jan 1 last year, a trio of Serie A clubs eyed a place in the last eight of the European Cup.

Twelve months on, there are many echoes, but this column is obliged to report that calcio's cupboard looks sparser by comparison. Milan no longer rule the world, cannot rule Europe and are long way from bossing their own city. Italy finished fifth in Euro 2008. Juventus, Internazionale and Roma stand as second favourites for each of their European Cup last-16 games in seven weeks time. In short, the year 2009 breaks over Italian football with a heavy obligation to restore some of ground lost. Serie A may still rank in the top three domestic competitions in the world, but it has the uncomfortable feeling it might be the one that clutches the bronze medal in the hierarchy, behind England's Premier League and behind Spain, whose national team eliminated the Azzurri on the way to lifting the European championship last June. By July, Roberto Donadoni had lost his job as Italy's head coach. So had Roberto Mancini, weeks after guiding Inter to a third successive scudetto.

Last week, Donadoni cast his eye over the state of Italy's football, and described it as "irrational". He condemned the trigger-happy presidents, who fidget too easily with their coaching staff. Donadoni called Italian football "superficial", which has been a dominant theme among opinion-formers during the current winter break because of Milan's recruiting of the telegenic David Beckham on a short-term loan. Donadoni's point was broader, that Italian football thinks too easily in a short-term way.

He may be right. The men who made headlines in Italy's favourite sport in 2008 were often those who had taken Italy to the game's summit before and found themselves being asked to re-sprinkle their gold dust on an arena still damaged by tawdry scandals - the 2006 Moggigate affair - and where some of the public had fallen out of love with the game. In 2008, Italy harked back to Marcello Lippi, the head coach who guided the squad to the 2006 World Cup, and replaced Donadoni with a brief to repeat the trick in 2010. Or to Andriy Shevchenko, associated with Milan's dominant years, now returned.

Inter took on Jose Mourinho in place of Mancini, charging him to go one better than his predecessor and win the European Cup, as he did with Porto four and half years ago. Mourinho has drawn the spotlight, making enemies as enthusiastically as he wins admirers. Still, there are reasons to be cheerful for the new year. For a start, 2008 was not all bad. There was a terrific, to-the-wire climax to the Serie A title-race, settled in the last half hour of the final afternoon by some brilliance from Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Individual renaissances have been celebrated: By Juventus, back in Europe, back in contention for Serie A, cleaner and more likeable than they were in the soiled years of whispered threats and blandishments towards referees. By Alex Del Piero, who remains the best of the refreshed Old Lady of Turin. By Ronaldinho, again playing enchanting football. By Antonio Cassano, whose appetite for the game is back. On the immediate horizon, three English clubs face the remaining trio of Italians in the Champions League. The suspicion from this column is that it may not be such a whitewash this time around.