x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Italy reduced to a Rome sideshow

There was plenty of local demand for VIP tickets for last night's Champions League final in Rome.

There was plenty of local demand for VIP tickets for last night's Champions League final in Rome. The Stadio Olimpico seemed odd with so few Romans in it. Italian football was merely the sidelined host of the showpiece of the year. A number of English people would rather it had been elsewhere. United's recent visits to the capital of Italy have been disfigured by fighting between Romans and their fans - at least one United follower was hospitalised yesterday after being stabbed.

And there you have part of Italy's reputation as a football land: thuggery, organised skirmishes and ambushes waiting to happen. This may not be a fair stereotype, but it is one that has undoubtedly harmed the Italian game over the past five or six years, with the murder of a policeman in the lead-up to a Sicily derby in 2007 the highest-profile incident of violence around football. It has put some people off attending matches, particularly those who used to go to stadiums on Sundays as families. New security measures have improved the situation in the last 18 months, but mud sticks.

The Calcio is not in one of its happier periods. The quality of what Italian fans watch has been better than it is now, too, and that shows in the degree of success Serie A's clubs are enjoying at the most testing level. United versus Barcelona was the second consecutive champions League final without an Italian team in it, which seems quite a long break given that in 2007 and 2005 there was at least one - Milan - and in 2003 there were two. In the 1990s, an Italian team reached all but two of the finals.

Spanish football caught up with the standards set by Serie A, and the English game has comprehensively knocked Italy off its perch as the most glamorous, globally-admired league in the world. Of English football it can usually be said that most players run hard, and that refereeing errors, while frequent, are honest mistakes. Italian football suffered badly when, in 2006, it was revealed that many referees were in the habit of agreeing favours for certain clubs, notably Juventus.

The style of football is also a factor. The high-pressure Italian game of the 1990s, when huge money was spent on bringing the world's best players to Serie A and clubs ran up monstrous debts, created a fearfulness among some coaches. Italian football has for generations refined and cultivated the art of good defending, but on too many expeditions into the later rounds of the Champions League, the caricature of a crabby, conservative, counter-attacking Italian side playing a against a swashbuckling Spanish team or a industrious, speedy English one has been played out.

The Italians have been made to look ponderous and slow, against English teams. Juve, Roma and Inter were all knocked out by English opponents at the last 16 stage this season. For all this, Italy are world champions. Next month they go head to head with Spain, the dazzling European champions, at the Confederations Cup and provide some hint about how capable they are of defending their title and how much depth there is in the Italian game.

Pre-eminence in European football does tend to work in cycles, and the ambitions of Milan, Juve and Inter are still set on reaching Champions League finals again and again. Milan, clearly, must rebuild their squad to do so: Inter must inject more panache to their game and Juventus more consistency. The process may take a while, but one of them will feature in a Champions League final before too long.