Italy vs England: The Meeting of Two Fallen Giants

It would be something of a cautionary tale for England, if there weren’t already a few growing parallels with some of the discussion going on in Italy.

Over the past few weeks, there has been intense debate in both countries about the quality of player they’re producing.

Football Association chairman Greg Dyke outlined plans for reducing the number of foreign players in the English game in order to open up space for young players, while the likes of Roberto Mancini criticised Italy for the selection of naturalised foreign players such as Eder.

For all the debate, both situations reflect a troubling reality beyond those specifics: two of the great football nations are not currently producing squads that put them up with the greatest international teams right now.

It also comes at a time when the domestic leagues have fallen from prominent positions, and there is considerable concern over European results.

Italy haven’t had a Champions League semi-finalist in five years, and this is the first time since 1993 that the Premier League hasn’t had a single continental quarter-finalists.


Of course, the parallels aren’t total. As tough as England has had it in Europe over the past few years, they still aren’t going to lose that fourth Champions League place any time soon, and the sheer wealth of the Premier League and way in which clubs’ finances are structured means we’re unlikely to see a fall akin to Italy’s.

It’s remarkable just how extreme Serie A’s decline has been, when you properly lay it out.

Much has been made in the past few weeks of how the Premier League has declined from a point where they had 12 Champions League semi-finalists between 2004 and 2009 - taking 60% of the last-four places over a five-year period - but that is still nothing compared to the relentlessness of Italian clubs for a decade between 1988-98.

Whatever way you crunch it, it’s hard not to conclude that period was the greatest league era in the history of European football.

It was not just about the continental results, but the competitiveness and the incredible concentration of quality.

The nature of the way the league was covered in the UK on Channel 4 has always encouraged a lot of nostalgia for the period, but it possibly means the hugely impressive numbers are actually undervalued.

Consider this: in 10 seasons, there was only one campaign where the European Cup or Champions League final didn’t feature an Italian team. That was 1991, when Red Star Belgrade defeated Olympique Marseille, but was someway offset by the fact that the Uefa Cup final - which was then arguably an equal competition given how all the second- and third-placed sides entered that - was an all-Italian affair between Internazionale and Roma. It was the first of three exclusively Serie A Uefa Cup finals in that period.

Manchester United v Chelsea - UEFA Champions League Final : News Photo

That set a tone. Out of 45 final places Italian clubs could reach across the three European competitions over that time - given that there were occasional seasons when the Cup Winners Cup or Champions League would feature two rather than just one - Serie A sides filled 25, and won 13 of them - four Champions Leagues, two Cup Winners Cups, and an incredible seven Uefa Cups.

Between 1988 and 1993 alone, eight different Italian clubs reached European finals, ranging from the obvious of Milan and Juventus through to the likes of Torino.

That variety only reflects the vitality of the squads, and such a supreme spread of quality. That notionally modest Torino side that reached the 1992 Uefa Cup final featured one of the continent’s greats, in Belgian playmaker Enzo Scifo, as well as a young Christian Vieri.

This was the other conspicuous part to the period, the make-up of those squads. It was not just a golden age for Italian clubs, but Italian players. The three-foreigner rules and TV money meant that the division had the pick of all the world’s absolutely elite stars, but the rest of the squads were then filled by an abnormally high level of homegrown player.

You only have to look at the number of caps that some genuine top-class players got. The mercurial Roberto Mancini only managed 36 despite driving Sampdoria to a title and Champions League final, Moreno Torricelli only 10 even though most nations would have craved a defender of such durability.

Bulgaria v Italy - EURO 2016 Qualifier : News Photo

It is actually amazing that the Italian national team didn’t win a trophy in that period, and truly shocking they couldn’t even qualify for Euro 92, although that went down to many idiosyncrasies beyond way quality. They did reach a World Cup final, but Italy still couldn’t stay at the same level.

The money made from Silvio Berlusconi’s late 80s broadcasting revolution wasn’t invested in the way it might have been, although the fact clubs didn’t actually own their own stadiums hardly helped.

That is not the case with England, meaning the Premier League is unlikely to suffer a fall of such a scale. The make-up of the modern game almost disallows it, too.

This is no longer the era of domestic leagues dominating Europe, but a handful of super-clubs occupying places of prominence no-one else can hope to reach.

England has at least three - if not four - of those clubs, while Italy only really has Juventus, who aren’t at that level yet.

The way those clubs are currently driven, looking to bring in the biggest international stars is just one factor why England’s friendly with Italy doesn’t feature that many international stars either.

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