Italy begin cutting professional clubs
Restructuring from Serie B down
23 August ~ While nearly all attention will be focused on the first round of Serie A games this weekend, changes are afoot on the next rungs of the Italian pyramid. Serie B, which will begin tonight with Reggina v Bari, has an unfamiliar look. With Verona, Sassuolo and Livorno having gone upstairs and hardy perennials Vicenza and Ascoli leaving in the other direction, it is now full of medium-sized clubs. There is only one that could be called big, relegated Palermo. On paper they should walk what looks a weak division.
There are a number of very small clubs, including three who are making their debut at this level: Carpi, Latina and Trapani. Carpi come from near Modena, as do Sassuolo, but they are not backed by the same riches. Latina represent a city that was only founded in 1932 by the fascist regime. It is built on the swampy Pontine marshes near Rome and is considered by many to be one of Italy's ugliest and most featureless conurbations, with no football tradition to speak of.
Trapani, from the wild north-west coast of Sicily, has a much longer history going back thousands of years but has rarely featured on the football map. If you add to these three a new entry from last season, Virtus Lanciano, you get the picture of a Serie B that would have been unthinkable only a few years ago. However, now that it is separated from Serie A, it is trying to prove that it is different. More consideration is being shown towards fans – evening games will kick off 15 minutes earlier to give supporters more time to get home, for example. From personal experience I know that those 15 minutes can make all the difference but I do not expect to be shown such consideration by Serie A.
The current composition of Serie B is unlikely to improve the appalling attendances. Recent figures show the Championship averaging 17,000, Bundesliga 2 16,000, then Segunda Liga and Ligue 2, 8,000 and 7,000, before we get to Serie B's miserable 5,000. It is particularly galling for Serie B to be overtaken by Ligue 2, underlining yet again that Italy may be a football-mad country but a lot of that passion is exhibited in front of a TV screen and not inside a stadium. Palermo are the only club likely to attract five-figure gates on a regular basis.
Meanwhile in Lega Pro, which begins on September 1, the 69 clubs of this season will become 60 next season in a single division of three groups. There will be no relegation from Prima Divisione and so, to keep the season interesting, the play-offs for the second promotion place in each of its two groups (of 16 and 17 teams) will be contested between the teams that finish from second to ninth. This should keep the season meaningful for a lot of clubs for most of its duration, though it is to be hoped that a ninth place finish does not get rewarded with promotion.
If there will be no relegation from Prima Divisione, equally there will be no promotion from Seconda Divisione. Instead the top nine teams from each of the 18-team groups, along with the champions of the nine groups from Serie D, will take their place in the new unified Lega Pro. Meanwhile the bottom nine from each group will drop into Serie D. There may be some odd results towards the end of the season as teams battling to get into the top 9 play those already guaranteed to finish there.
At the end of all this Italy, which once had 146 professional clubs (in theory at least) will be down to 102. That is still too many but at least it is moving in the right direction. Considering how alarmingly support falls off below Serie A, I think 80 professional clubs is more than enough, though some would argue that professionalism should be confined to Serie A and Serie B and they might be right. I believe that is the situation in Spain, so why not Italy? Richard Mason