29 August ~ It has been in the air for some time but now it's official. Italy's Serie A will not start until the weekend of September 10 at the earliest as a result of an impasse involving the League, the clubs and the players' union. (The other divisions will not be affected as yet, and Serie B has already started.) The issue revolves around a collective contract without which, according to the union, the season cannot start. There are two sticking points. One involves the recent austerity measures proposed by the government. They include additional taxes to be imposed on those earning more than €90,000 and €150,000 (£80k and £133k). The clubs say that the players should pay the tax.
The players say that the proposals are not yet law, and that in any case it depends on what kind of contract they have. If they are paid gross, then all taxes are their responsibility. But if, as is often the case, the club only pays them their net earnings, all taxes are the responsibility of the club, including any imposed after the contract was signed
In the media, the players are being portrayed as a rich and privileged elite who are refusing to pay a tax which many less well off than them will have to pay. They are even being accused of tax evasion by multi-millionaire club owners, which is a bit rich considering the source. The players themselves say that they will pay the tax if they are contractually obliged to if or when it becomes law. Until that happens the attacks on them are just populist rhetoric designed to turn public opinion against them.
The second, and far more crucial, problem involves the treatment of players deemed surplus to requirements in squads that can contain 40-50 members. The union is insisting that they have the right to train with the first-team squad, while the clubs say that the coach should be allowed to organise separate training sessions for them. They say that it is impossible for the coach to be responsible for so many players at the same time. (So why sign them all, one might ask.)
According to the union there have been cases where the treatment of non-squad players has amounted to bullying. “Victims” have included Goran Pandev (now Napoli, then Lazio) and Italy's goalkeeper in the 2010 World Cup Federico Marchetti (now Lazio, then Cagliari).
The day before the season was due to start, players' union boss Damiano Tommasi proposed a temporary contract valid until June 30, 2012, to give time for the whole affair to be sorted out. League president Maurizio Beretta, who also works full-time for banking giant Unicredit, rejected this olive branch. So I think we can see who bears the greatest responsibility for this, the umpteenth own goal scored by Italian football as it falls inexorably from the pedestal on which it once stood. The confirmation of the postponement of the start of the season even came near the end of TV news broadcasts.
Even so, on TV the next morning politicians of all colours were wheeled out to lay all the blame for the impasse on the players. This from a privileged caste, many of whose members continue with their “day jobs” while still drawing their big parliamentary salaries.
On the whole I'm with Tommasi if only because, as one of the few players with openly left-wing views, he showed on numerous occasions during his playing career that he lived in the real world, unlike many of his Serie A colleagues. But he is in a difficult position as the image of the players is currently very low owing to the ongoing match-fixing scandal. However, if there had to be a stoppage, it is probably better that it happens now, before a two-week break.
Whether the break will lead to a settlement depends in part on how much you think that behind all this is not just a couple of clauses in a contract, but also a power struggle between the Italian FA (FIGC) and the top clubs, with the players just pawns in the middle. If this is the case, Tommasi is probably right when he says "Someone doesn't want Serie A to start", and FIGC president Giancarlo Abete may also be right when he says he fears that the season may not start on September 10 either.
And of course in the middle of all this the poor old fan is, as usual, ignored. But there are signs that the hand that feeds football has been bitten once too often. I suspect that when Serie A finally resumes it will not be business as usual. This weekend's games will probably be rescheduled for December 21, the first available midweek date (and there aren’t many more in the rest of the season). A fan boycott that evening is not out of the question. Richard Mason