x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Serie A's Year Zero shaped by populist moves

Since an Italian club can now call themselves the European club champions, Serie A has a strong starting point to rally around.

Italian football is at its Year Zero. Or at least that is what, optimistically, the 2010/11 season is being unofficially branded as, in an attempt primarily to see the shocking performance of the national team at the World Cup in South Africa as a springboard to reform and uplift, and secondly, to cultivate the idea that, since an Italian club can now call themselves the European club champions, Serie A has a strong starting point to rally around.

The efforts to correct the diminishing status of the Azzurri so far look largely cosmetic. These have been the appointments of popular and respected figures from a glorious era when Italian clubs were the envy of everywhere else and the national team drew directly on that confidence. Demetrio Albertini, once a byword for the efficiency and cool of the great AC Milan sides of the early to mid-1990s, is now a senior strategist at the Italian federation.

Arrigo Sacchi, his former head coach at Milan, is now among the support staff to Cesare Prandelli, the new national coach, as is Roberto Baggio, the gifted darling of Serie A in that 1990s epoch. Giving Baggio some executive stripes was always going to be a populist move, Italy, as it were, moving to the divine from their state of ridicule. In concrete terms, clubs have been told to fall in line with the need to prioritise the national interest. A new limitation on the number of new, non-European Union citizens signed on at Serie A clubs has been established while Albertini wants a profound restructuring on how clubs organise their youth development programmes, so that Italian players are given the best chance to mature quickly and find a settled environment to nurture their game.

The effects of this will take a while to be felt and in the meantime the strongest squad in Serie A will continue to have very little Italian about its make-up. Inter Milan won their fifth successive league title last May and their first European Cup for more than 40 years with very few players eligible to represent the Azzurri. One of those who was, Marion Balotelli, has since left the club, while another, Marco Materazzi, will be more a dressing-room totem, now that he is in his mid-30s, than an active bulwark in central defence.

Inter have replaced Jose Mourinho with Rafael Benitez, another foreign head coach and one of three new appointments among the traditional top four. Milan, who under Carlo Ancelotti became a watchword for loyalty to a chief tactician, are now on their third head coach in 16 months, following the departure of Leonardo after just one frustrating season in charge. His replacement is Massimiliano Allegri, for whom the post is a considerable promotion. He made a good impression at Cagliari but takes on a club where the job means treading a delicate line between muscle-flexing and diplomacy.

The senior players at Milan are very senior indeed in many cases, forceful individuals who know the corridors, politics and byways of the place intimately. Silvio Berlusconi, the ultimate boss, can also be very hands-on. Juventus are also under new management, the experienced Gigi Del Neri, fresh from reviving Sampdoria. At Roma, Claudio Ranieri has given himself a hard act to follow with Roma's stirring comeback from the lower reaches of the table to a genuine title at the title.

In terms of Italy's overall status, the Year Zero manifesto, it would be a fine thing if an Italian coach like Allegri or Ranieri made a better impression than Milan or Juventus did last season on the Champions League. Serie A - on behalf of whom Sampdoria were last night tackling Werder Bremen in the competition's play-off round a goal down from the first leg - may include the champions of Europe at its summit but beyond Inter, its teams will not be among the most feared by the leading clubs of England or Spain.

sports@thenational.ae