Constant restructuring won't help
13 August ~ In 1990-91 Italy had 146 full-time professional clubs: 18 in Serie A, 20 in Serie B, 36 in Serie C1 and 72 in Serie C2. The following season Serie C2 lost 18 clubs, and since then the number of professional clubs has continued to decline. The start of 2012-2013 season is less than a month away but the composition of the divisions is now known and the ongoing "Betgate" scandal could see some clubs changing places. Serie A and Serie B remain the same but the third and fourth level, collectively known as Lega Pro is down to 69 clubs, from 77 last season.
Prima Divisione, the third level, will have one group of 17 and one of 16. The fourth, Seconda Divisione, will be two groups of 18. In approximately 20 years the number of professional clubs has declined by almost 25 per cent.
The current plan, hoped to be in place by the start of 2014-15, is to have one division of Lega Pro with three groups of 20. Some would like it to start as early as next year, which would mean that no team would be relegated from Prima Divisione in the coming season but that will probably happen even if it is postponed for a year.
There is also a plan to reduce Serie B to 20 clubs. This would leave Italy with exactly 100 professional clubs, assuming Serie A stays at the same level. This is still too many – 80 would be about right – but it is an improvement on the unsustainable number 20 years ago.
This has led to the disappearance of many clubs. Some have died altogether, while others have re-formed in the amateur or semi-professional leagues. Every summer a number are refused professional licences either because they cannot pay the bond, or because their facilities are not up to scratch. Others simply give up and opt out. Among these clubs are some who have helped to write the history of Italian football. This summer was no exception, with 11 clubs being refused licences.
Perhaps the biggest casualty is Triestina, a club that spent 26 seasons in Serie A up to 1959 but has never been back. Then there is the almost equally proud SPAL (Società Polisportiva Ars et Labor) from Ferrara. Founded in 1907, they spent only one season out of Serie A between 1951 and 1968, and include Fabio Capello among their ex-players.
Piacenza’s Serie A years were the 1990s and up to 2003, followed by eight seasons in Serie B. Heavily involved in "Betgate", they are now gone. They are joined by two from Puglia: Foggia and Taranto. Foggia were coached by Zdenek Zeman as late as 2010-11, and Taranto were the subject of a piece on this site last autumn.
Their players went unpaid for most of last season despite always being near the top of their group, so their fate was not surprising. Another team that came close to promotion, Siracusa, also folded during the summer. Only Foggia, Taranto and SPAL have been allowed to start again in Serie D.
It is not all gloom. Serie B will see the return to the "big time" of one of the pioneer clubs of Italian football, Pro Vercelli. From the north-west region of Piemonte, they are now overshadowed by Juventus and Torino. But they can boast seven Italian titles, the last in 1922. They declined and dropped out of Serie B in 1948 and are back after a 64-year absence. The derbies with neighbours Novara will be tense.
English football has its critics but the overall structure rarely alters. There were 92 clubs in the English league in 1990, and there still are. The Italian game is in a state of continual flux and desperately needs to find an optimum number of professional clubs. Constant tinkering is in nobody’s long-term interest. Richard Mason