|After looking back on 30 years of Stranieri, Giancarlo Rinaldi ponders what we should expect from the future|
|Once upon a time the Presidents of Serie A football clubs were dubbed the Ricchi Scemi – Rich Fools. It described both their wealth and their willingness to splash out huge sums on foreign players of occasionally dubious value. But what does the future hold for them now that the money, for the most part, has gone? |
Past trends don’t always shape the way life will develop. Indeed, more often than not the significance of events only becomes clear with the benefit of hindsight. Nonetheless, it is always intriguing to sit over the calcio crystal ball and try to fathom how the transfer market might evolve in years to come.
The way Serie A’s use of foreign players has developed in recent times suggests a few possible avenues which transfer policy might follow. There are no hard and fast rules to buying success, of course. However, it would be a foolish club which did not examine how others managed to succeed in order to try to emulate their achievements.
One thing which is clear from looking at the make-up of Scudetto winning sides since 1980 is that foreign stars are here to stay. Their influence has grown rapidly and seems unlikely to disappear any time soon. The figures may have been skewed by the success Inter have enjoyed in recent years, but most of their title rivals are strongly influenced by overseas stars.
If Milan were to triumph this year it would hardly be a victory for the domestic product with their front line of Robinho, Pato, Ronaldinho and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Equally, Roma are heavily involved in the global market with Italians most definitely in the minority. Perhaps only Juventus, with their investment in young Italians, could reverse the trend. However, it would only be fair to note that the initial results have been less than encouraging and appear to be aimed at long-term progress rather than a short-term explosive impact.
Within the market for foreign players, a move towards African footballers does seem quite clear. Liberian George Weah was the first to win a Scudetto with Milan in 1996, but since then players from Nigeria, Ghana, Cameroon and Kenya have followed in his nimble footsteps. This expansion, again, owes plenty to Inter but it is clear that many other sides are catching on. At the start of the current campaign, 15 out of the League’s 20 sides boasted at least one African player on their opening rosters. That figure is only likely to rise.
Many of those concerned are young footballers their respective clubs hope will mature into superstars. This kind of strategy seems to be one more likely to be pursued by sides in years to come as finances get tight and they look to get the maximum return on their investment. Udinese are a role model in this regard, scouring the planet to look for next season’s breakout players. Palermo seem to be getting pretty good at it too. More and more clubs will surely be forced to follow their lead.
A second approach is the one currently being adopted by Milan. Rather than try to go for an untested youth who might explode or a superstar with a price-tag to match, they have been dipping into the bargain bucket. A bit like an eagle-eyed shopper at the sales, they have been quick to pounce on other people’s cast-offs. It doesn’t always work out, of course, but the sums appear to add up in the deals for the likes of Robinho and Ibrahimovic. With big-spending clubs keen to cut their losses and meet squad size requirements there is always a potential deal or two to be done.
Once again, however, this approach has to come with a health warning. Many of these players are discarded for a reason – perhaps their character, injury-prone physique or plunging form. Whatever the cause, they represent as much of a gamble as an unknown teenager. They also have the extra downside of being potentially much higher profile mistakes.
For the time being, certainly, these are trends Italian clubs must follow as they try to cut their cloth for more conservative times. However, a recent investigation by La Gazzetta dello Sport suggested many sides were being more than a little imaginative with their accounting when it comes to actually capping wages. While salary totals in Serie A this term appeared to have fallen by about €40m compared with a year ago, a range of bonuses kept boosting the earnings of the top stars. Undoubtedly these are practices which UEFA’s financial fair-play body will want to examine closely.
Their ‘break-even’ requirement for clubs might yet assist young Italian players in finding more space. Serie A teams still enjoy generous TV money, but they lag behind other nations in terms of merchandising revenue and income from match attendances. Unless they can do something to boost these financial streams – with initiatives like Juve’s new stadium and club tours to expanding overseas markets leading the way – it seems inevitable that they will have to tighten their belts.
These new regulations may also fuel the push towards finding players much younger, and consequently cheaper, than in the past. This could be a good thing for the Italian game which has generally been slow to blood its teenagers. Many sides snap up prospects only to leave them lingering on the sidelines. Now there will be a definite incentive to not only have them in your squad but also to start getting use out of them.
For all these potential pressures for change, however, Serie A seems to remain an unadventurous place – at least for the time being. South American players still rule with Argentines and Brazilians seen as adapting more easily to the game in the peninsula. It has been 14 years since a side without a South American in it won the Scudetto, it could well be even longer than that before the chain is broken. Every single team in the Division started this campaign with at least one at their disposal. Indeed, some sides, like Catania, have chosen to build themselves around a Latin heart.
The side doing most to boost the Italian product is Cagliari with just a handful of overseas stars. How they fare this year might well be a good guide for other mid-tier teams looking to construct themselves around the domestic product. If they can show that it is possible to succeed without a huge number of Stranieri, others may follow suit.
However, it would probably be neither desirable nor likely that foreign players will disappear from the Serie A scene. Instead, it seems clear different markets will be examined in order to try to find footballers at a lower cost who can become club legends of the future or be sold on at a handsome profit.
Among the key areas at present appear to be the former Yugoslav nations where a number of Italian sides have a liking for making purchases. Among the latest to make an impact have been Serbian Adem Ljajic at Fiorentina and Slovenians Josip Ilicic and Armin Bacinovic at Palermo.
No matter how things may unfold, it seems certain that Stranieri will be at the heart of the Italian game for some time to come. At their best they provide an invaluable extra dimension to a team’s play, boost its profile and help rack up extra season ticket sales. While at their worst they keep young Italians on the bench, make extortionate wage demands and act like primadonnas. Italy can’t live with them and it can’t live without them, it would seem. So here’s to another 30 years of foreign stars in the League – from the next Diego Maradona to the next Luther Blissett, and everything in between.
Tuesday, March 22, 2011
The shape of things to come?
Posted by walpaper hp at 10:48 PM