Saturday 1 November ~
Italian defender Andrea Barzagli moved to the Bundesliga this past summer after playing 171 games in Serie A. He'd only been playing for Wolfsburg a few weeks when he observed that the Bundesliga is a far more exciting league than the one he'd just left. Though it's obviously dangerous to make generalisations about the nature of an entire league, it's hard to argue with the stats so far. Going into this weekend, the Bundesliga averages 3.04 goals per game with the season almost one third over, compared with 2.24 goals per game in the Italian top flight. For comparison's sake, the Premier League's average is 2.69, Spain's 2.58.
But it's not just goals that make for entertaining football. Italian football has traditionally placed an emphasis on defence at both club and international level, but for many years it was revered as the best in Europe, with a foreign player's ability to establish himself in Italy (Trevor Francis, Rudi Völler, or Diego Maradona) representing an apex of achievement that could never quite be matched by success elsewhere. Those who went but failed to conquer, such as Jimmy Greaves, Ian Rush or Paul Gascoigne, could never quite shake off that asterisk by their names which led to the footnote: Failed In Italy. Yet in the past few years that asterisk has become irrelevant as Spain and England have overtaken Italy as the international star's destination of choice, either for the cash or the better standard of play, or both. Now Serie A has even been eclipsed by the comparatively low-paying Bundesliga.
So what's making the difference? The German league has been helped this season by the presence of five attack-minded teams in the shape of newly promoted Hoffenheim (27 goals in ten games), Bayer Leverkusen (24), Barzagli's Wolfsburg (23), Werder Bremen (23) and Bayern Munich (22). The first two teams occupy the top two spots, but Bremen and Bayern have suffered at both ends (conceding 22 and 16 goals respectively), causing the safety of their respective coaches Thomas Schaaf and Jürgen Klinsmann, and the wisdom of their tactics, to have been already discussed at length. But it's not just the generally more positive approach that's making for good games. With ticket prices still low, crowds have made the league the best supported in Europe, and it would be wrong to underestimate the effect that the atmosphere in full stadiums containing standing fans can have on the players running across the grass stage.
Contrast this with dreary Italy, where fear of losing still dominates the coaching mentality, typified by the José Mourinho-led Inter - the reigning champion no less - who have drawn their last two games 0-0. After nine games, no team has scored more than 17 goals (leaders Udinese and sixth-placed Lazio), while more than half have yet to reach double figures. That includes Juventus, who have managed a miserly goal per game. In midweek, second-placed Napoli were the only team that managed to score more than two goals. Meanwhile, perpetual fan violence and the lingering after-taste of corruption shape the background to spectator apathy and empty seats.
It's little wonder that AC Milan was so keen to add David Beckham to their roster of fading glam boys come January, if only for a month or two. It's a nice nostalgic throwback to the days when English stars were queuing up to be courted by the Italians, and it promises Serie A what it increasingly lacks - excitement and attention. Given that Beckham's now a bit-part player in one of the world's less-regarded leagues, that excitement will take place mostly off the field. Right now, the real action's up north in the Bundesliga renaissance. Ian Plenderleith