Daily Nation Newspaper - - SPORTS FEATURES -

There was a time when Ital­ians might have been in­sulted by the sug­ges­tion of theirs be­ing the third-best foot­ball league in Europe. Serie A was al­ways il cam­pi­onato più bello del mondo – the most beau­ti­ful cham­pi­onship in the world. How else to de­scribe a com­pe­ti­tion that pro­duced 12 Euro­pean Cup fi­nal­ists be­tween 1983 and 1998, a place where you could watch Diego Maradona take on Franco Baresi, or Zine­dine Zi­dane bat­tle Ronaldo for the Bal­lon d’Or?

No­body is blind, though, to the power shift since. Be­tween TV deals and bil­lion­aire own­ers, Premier League clubs be­came able to of­fer wages the Ital­ians could not match. Barcelona and Real Madrid kept pace by us­ing the Cham­pi­ons League to so­lid­ify their sta­tus as global brands. Serie A’s most mar­ketable teams were too busy squab­bling over the Cal­ciopoli scan­dal. Even the Bun­desliga, rich with well-run clubs and do­mes­tic tal­ent, moved ahead in the con­ti­nen­tal peck­ing or­der. By 2014, the colum­nist Gianni Mura was writ­ing in the news­pa­per La Repub­blica that he had “never seen a Serie A of such scarce tech­ni­cal qual­ity”.

So when Italy climbed back up to third in Uefa’s coun­try co­ef­fi­cient rank­ings last month, it was a cause for mod­est cel­e­bra­tion. In prac­ti­cal terms it meant noth­ing, since the top four na­tions will each send four teams to the Cham­pi­ons League from 2018 in any case. But to move ahead of Ger­many for the first time in seven years was a salve to wounded na­tional pride.

The hope is that it also pro­vided con­fir­ma­tion of Ital­ian foot­ball be­ing back on a pos­i­tive tra­jec­tory. At the time of Mura’s lament, the op­po­site seemed to be true. Ju­ven­tus were plough­ing to­wards a record points tally but had failed to reach the last 16 of the Cham­pi­ons League. The only Ital­ian side who did, Mi­lan, got thrashed 5-1 on ag­gre­gate by Atlético Madrid.

Do­mes­ti­cally, the tac­ti­cal trend was to­wards ever more de­fen­sive for­ma­tions. “Cate­nac­cio has re­turned in its most rudi­men­tary form,” wrote Mura, paint­ing a pic­ture of “bad full-backs dressed up as wingers”, play­ing in “three­man de­fences that are, in fact, a back five”.

Since then, how­ever, Ju­ven­tus have been in two Cham­pi­ons League fi­nals and Serie A has trans­formed into a Wild West of at­tack­ing foot­ball. The goals are fly­ing in at a higher rate in the Ital­ian top flight (2.88 per game) this sea­son than in any of Europe’s other top five leagues. The same was true last sea­son as well. Only one game out of 49 since the start of Septem­ber has ended goal­less. After six straight ti­tles, Ju­ven­tus’s hege­mony is fi­nally un­der threat. Napoli have not only won their open­ing seven games but scored at least three times in each. Just as Mi­lan were el­e­vated in the late 1980s by a former shoe sales­man, Arrigo Sacchi, so Napoli’s rise has been mas­ter­minded by a man who was work­ing in a bank at the age of 43. Per­haps it is eas­ier to take risks when you are do­ing, as Mau­r­izio Sarri de­scribes it, “the only job I would do for free”. And per­haps that bold­ness is catch­ing. Serie A has not tra­di­tion­ally been a wel­com­ing place for teenage tal­ent but these days it is awash with it. Pietro Pel­le­gri, born in 2001, was al­ready the youngest player to take part in a Serie A game, and be­came the youngest to score a brace when he struck twice against Lazio last month. The 19-year-old Fed­erico Chiesa stirs mem­o­ries of his fa­ther, En­rico, at Fiorentina, and Mi­lan, after spend­ing more than €200m on new sign­ings, have started games with a home­grown teenager, Gian­luigi Don­narumma, in goal and an­other, Pa­trick Cutrone, lead­ing the at­tack.

It has been a chal­leng­ing start to the sea­son for the Ros­soneri, beaten three times al­ready, but the am­bi­tion shown by their new own­ers, as well as those of neigh­bours In­ter­nazionale, has re­stored en­thu­si­asm in the stands. Mi­lan achieved the high­est at­ten­dance for a Europa League qual­i­fier when 65,673 fans came to see them crush Craiova. A few weeks later, 51,752 turned out to watch In­ter beat Fiorentina in Serie A, the big­gest crowd the Ner­az­zurri had achieved for an Au­gust fix­ture since their tre­ble-win­ning cam­paign in 2009-10.

Av­er­age at­ten­dances in Serie A are up by more than 1,500 per game from last sea­son. The Mi­lan clubs have played a part but so too have sides such as Napoli and Ata­lanta, the lat­ter con­tin­u­ing to defy grav­ity with a core of play­ers de­vel­oped through their academy sys­tem.

We are not quite back in the age of the Sette Sorelle – Seven Sis­ters – when Ju­ven­tus, Mi­lan, In­ter, Fiorentina, Lazio, Roma and Parma were all con­sid­ered le­git­i­mate ti­tle con­tenders. But Serie A’s pool of stars is spread more evenly than it has been in the re­cent past, al­low­ing eight or nine teams to at least as­pire to a place in the top four.

Dries Mertens has been the great­est rev­e­la­tion, with 24 goals and 11 as­sists in the league since the start of 2017. But even out­side the most ob­vi­ous clubs, Lazio can boast Ciro Im­mo­bile – whose 13 strikes this sea­son are bettered only by Lionel Messi across Europe’s top five leagues – Torino have An­drea Belotti and Ata­lanta the ir­re­press­ible Papu Gómez.

The gap be­tween the top and bot­tom of the di­vi­sion, fur­ther­more, has rarely ap­peared wider. A sur­vey con­ducted by Gazzetta dello Sport found 58% of read­ers in favour of re­duc­ing the num­ber of teams in the di­vi­sion to 18 or even fewer.

Over­all, though, there is more good than bad. The in­tro­duc­tion of the VAR sys­tem for re­view­ing ma­jor ref­er­ee­ing de­ci­sions ap­pears to be mak­ing a pos­i­tive im­pact, de­spite some heated de­bate, with the num­ber of fouls per game down across the board.

Serie A has a way to go be­fore it can con­fi­dently call it­self the most beau­ti­ful cham­pi­onship in the world again. But more goals, fewer fouls and fresh tal­ent com­ing through feel like a good place to start.

Dries Mertens, sec­ond left, and Napoli have shone so far this sea­son.

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