Impact of Foreign players in European leagues – Serie A
Football has truly become a global game. With its worldwide reach, which has never been as prominent as in this millennium,every major European league is able to attract hidden talents from every corner of the planet. This has to markedly changed player demographics in the best leagues. Debojyoti Chakraborty brings to you a whole new series on these foreign imports. Sit back, relax, and let Goalden Times take you on an incredible trip. After Ligue 1 , the second instalment of this series features Serie A.
Serie A, currently sponsored by Telecom Italia, is Italy’s top division professional football league. Founded in 1929–30, Serie A is one of the best football leagues in the world. It, in fact, ruled the charts till the ‘90s, and has produced the highest number of European Cup finalists. Italian clubs have participated at the final for a European honour on a record 26 different occasions, and have come home victorious 12 times. However, in current years, Serie A has only gone downhill. Italian clubs have reached the finals of UEFA Champions league only five times since the turn of the millennium, winning it thrice in the process. Performances are even worse in Europa League where no Serie A team have been a finalist since 1998–99. These poor results have been instrumental in Serie A currently occupying the fourth position among European leagues, behind La Liga, the English Premier League and the Bundesliga. Excessive emphasis on a defensive organization often makes the league games a crazy affair, resulting in poor global acceptance, and, subsequently, preventing Serie A from securing lucrative broadcasting deals. Quite sadly, a prestigious league like Serie A is nothing more than a stepping stone for young footballers or an indication of one’s career going southwards for players beyond a certain age.
A reason for this drastic decline is financial instability. The revenue model of the Italian league of the 1990s was not a practical one, as has been proved in the long run. The Cirio group, a major stakeholder in Lazio, defaulted on its loans; Parma’s sponsors, Parmalat, collapsed soon after; Fiorentina went into administration, succumbing to non-payment of huge debts; and Napoli was declared bankrupt in 2004. It has been an uphill economic battle since then, and, even now, only six Serie A clubs are profitable. Handicapped by absurdly low match day revenues as well as the stigma of match fixing scandals, Serie A has been finding it difficult to attract quality players from across Europe or beyond.
However, let us try to see how the top teams have performed even with the dearth of exciting foreign imports in the Italian league. Our sample size is five—the top five clubs since the 2009–10 season.
We start our Italian tour with Lazio, a club which has performed exceedingly well in the last five years. I Biancocelesti have come a long way since the days when they struggled to feature in the top half of the table. In the last five years, they have miss out on the podium finish twice and have won the Coppa Italia once. And this turn in fortune has been made possible mainly by the contribution of the foreign players. Successful spells by Mauro Zárate, Hernanes, Fernando Muslera, and others have firmly established the club’s stance on foreign import policy. A gradual decrease in the number of domestic players in the first team squad—46.88% in 2009–10 to 23.33% in 2013–14—has brought about this much-sought-after success. The quality at disposal, however, was tested to the fullest in Europe. In the last five years, Lazio have been able to progress to the last eight of the Europa League only once. This happened in 2012–13, the year when they were also crowned with the domestic cup. However, extra matches took a toll on their performance as Lazio finished in a disappointing seventh place in the league table. As soon as the players were free from the burden of midweek matches, the team was back in swing this season, doing full justice to their potential. Currently, they occupy the fourth position in the league table and have stormed into the semis of Coppa Italia.
A team with an eye for the glare, A. S. Roma has had a very low percentage of Italian players under its wings. This is something that has remained more or less constant over the years. In fact, the share went as low as 28.57% in 2012–13. The results, however, have not been that good. The quality of Roma’s foreign players left the passionate supporters from the Italian capital asking for more. A vastly foreign consortium of players saw Roma struggle outside the Europa league spots for three consecutive seasons. However, the team rectified its strategy with an increase in the number of domestic players last season. The result was imminent. Roma finished runners-up in Serie A. However, with the quality of foreign players not something to boast about—and the good ones (Medhi Benatia, Marquinhos, Érik Lamela) frequently sold to encash and fund future transfers—Roma’s European ambitions had to take a back seat. The decline of Serie A and the subsequent loss of one spot from the top tier of the continental championship has been another major factor behind this. Consequently, in the last five years, Roma has been largely out of Europe. In 2009–10, the team crashed out in Round of 16 of UEFA Champions League, and things have gone steadily downhill since then. Roma could not even clear the qualifying rounds of Europa League in the next season. The team did return this year, but have been sent packing from the group stages of the Champions League.
AC Milan, the most successful Italian club in Europe, depicts a sorry state of affair for the Azzurris. Once a superpower in the continent, they have been relegated to mid-table mediocrity in the last two seasons. However, this decline in form has not been like a bolt from the blue. Selling off prized assets (Kaká, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Thiago Silva), excessive emphasis on local players (Mario Balotelli, Giampaolo Pazzini, Daniele Bonera) and thrusting relative youngsters (Stephan El Shaarawy, Mattia de Sciglio) straight into the first team backfired for the Rossoneri. After winning the Scudetto in 2010–11, Milan’s league standings have been second, third, eighth, and 11th (till date, this season) in the subsequent years. The team have been in the Champions League four times in the last five years. Each time, they have crossed the group stages, only to crash out after the first knockout phase. Even then, in the 2011–12 season, they bowed out in the quarterfinals. The indications are crystal clear—the team have to cut down on its heavy dependence on the local players, who are yet to match world-class opponents. Disappointing results have also led to excessive tinkering with the squad and a steady increase in squad size. However, this has done nothing but unstabilized the team dynamics even more.
Napoli is definitely the most improved side in Italy’s top division in recent years. Gli Azzurri have shrugged off their mid table dwellers tag to cement themselves as a top contender for the podium finish. Not only on the league front, the team have dominated the cup competitions as well, having won it twice in quick succession (2011–12 and 2013–14). Sadly enough for Italian football, Napoli’s success has been purely due to foreign players. From being a club heavily reliant on local players—the side had more than 65% Italian players in the squad in 2009–10—it has completely revamped its team dynamics. Last season’s team had as few as nine Italians in a total squad of 32. Foreign imports like Gonzalo Higuain, José Callejón, Dries Mertens—unlike in so many other peer clubs—have increased the quality of football in Napoli, and the results are there for everyone to see.
Juventus can be seen as a model club for those who value every penny they are spending on the transfer market and still doing an astute business at that. Carlos Tevez was a bargain buy, and Andrea Pirlo and Paul Pogba were snapped up on free transfers. Come to think of it, if one compares what a club like Manchester United has spent in the summer window with the Bianconeri, one would still find the Italian champion to have come out as a better team. Actually, Juventus had planned for five years in 2011 after a couple of disappointing campaigns. They spent big (as compared to their normal level of investment) to get some big names and, then, have looked to build on that since. The results have been imminent, with the side bagging three league titles in a row. Juventus, however, like most of the Serie A clubs, depends heavily on local players. Though they have a strong team in Italy, they fall quite short of the mark in Europe. Before this season, the only time they managed to go past the group stages in the Champions League was in 2012–13.
Serie A has long lost its shine, and the dearth of local talent is one major reason behind this. There are very few who can attract eyeballs or lucrative sponsor deals. The clubs are struggling to make ends meet, and want to encash if any of their players show a glimpse of spark. To go with that, match fixing scandals have also alienated big names coming in the Azzurriland. Both Roma and Juventus have demonstrated good form in recent times, but that is more of an exception than a rule.
Italy being in the middle of a deep recession for the last half a decade or so, has not made life easy for the Serie A clubs at all. With no money to spend, clubs had to depend on the Bosman ruling, i.e., sign players out of contract for free. Now, quality players will most definitely never be out of contract. You get what you pay for, after all!
These players are reaching the fag end of their (illustrious, sometimes) career and want to earn whatever they can out of their remaining time on the pitch. Naturally, these big team discards are not that influential in changing the fortunes of the clubs they join. In fact, in certain cases they disturb the team dynamics—e.g., when coaches are lured to field the ageing superstars owing to their past reputations (Nemanja Vidic in Inter Milan this season)—which are met by catastrophic results. A high negative correlation for Udinese in the following table indicates just that.
|Clubs||Correlation between % of Foreign Player and League Standing|
Foreign Players’ quality is an area of concern
After the summer window this season, Serie A clubs cumulatively had more footballers under their tent than the other big four European leagues combined! This was mainly due to the lack of liquidity in the Italian market, which forced clubs to go for quantity over quality. Even then, most of these players were on loan.
All these ageing superstars might awe star-starved fans, which is, actually, the model followed successfully in Major League Soccer (MLS) in the United States. This has given a boost to MLS, but is definitely a downgrade for Serie A. Once famous for putting up star-studded line ups, today the Italian clubs are forced to buy players who are close to, if not over, their shelf life.
That was it for the shambles that is the current Serie A. Watch this space for more in our next instalment.