Decline can be seen across the leagues

icon italy201116 December ~ It is 11 o’clock on a grey December Sunday morning in Bergamo. Lega Pro (third level) strugglers AlbinoLeffe and Lumezzane (where Mario Balotelli made his debut in professional football) are about to kick off. I no longer have an AlbinoLeffe season ticket, but I still occasionally watch the team. In 27 years I have never before attended a game that kicked off at this hour. It is part of a revolution that sees the 30 Lega Pro games kick off in 13 different time slots, from 7.30 on Friday evening to 8.45 on Monday evening. This enables all games to be shown live on the Lega Pro dedicated channel.

But there may not be as many viewers as the approximately 400 fans who turn up, less than two per cent of the stadium’s capacity. I have a whole row of seats to myself. There would be more atmosphere in a half empty cinema. Ten Lumezzane fans, guarded by two stewards, occupy the away end. Professional football was never meant to be like this.

The game is predictably poor. AlbinoLeffe are an awful side, and Lumezzane deserve their 1-0 win for being less awful. Before their visit to Bergamo they had taken one point and scored two goals in eight away games, but a low 20-yard shot into the corner after 51 minutes always looks as if it will be enough. The football on show is well below the standard of that played in the Conference National.

As I watch, my thoughts go back seven years, when a thrilling AlbinoLeffe side came within a goal of making it to Serie A, attracting crowds that occasionally reached 8,000. However, with hindsight the seeds of AlbinoLeffe’s current plight, with relegation to Serie D a real possibility, were sown in those heady days. For that team also contained players who were to sell matches, and may even have started doing so at the end of 2007-2008, when an automatic promotion place was thrown away in the last few games of the regular season. (The match-fixing scandal blew up in June 2011, and by the time AlbinoLeffe’s guilt was established we were well into 2012.) Since Lecce pipped them for a place in Serie A, AlbinoLeffe have been in a decline that is now turning into a headlong slide into oblivion. The revelation that so many players had sold matches knocked the heart and soul out of the club.

The deterioration of AlbinoLeffe mirrors that of Italian football as a whole. It is difficult to have faith in a sport that has a national coach, Antonio Conte, who has served a suspension for his part in the scandal when his then club Siena were accused of match fixing. It has a president in Carlo Tavecchio who opened his campaign last July with a racist comment. Meanwhile vice-president Mario Macalli, who is also the president of Lega Pro, had a conflict of interests when he was involved in the affairs of one of the clubs he was responsible for, Pergocrema, from his home town of Crema, near Cremona.

Then there is the age of these two men. Tavecchio is 73 and Macalli is 77. They are examples of an Italian trait of hanging on to power at all costs. It is also exemplified by the 78-year-old Silvio Berlusconi and his 70-year-old right-hand man Adriano Galliani, who have been in place at Milan since 1986. When I came here Italian football was often beautiful, like AlbinoLeffe’s seven years ago, but above all it mattered. Now, like AlbinoLeffe, it is moribund and needs the kiss of life desperately. It is not going to get it as long as it continues to be in the hands of septuagenarians. Richard Mason

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