The fantastic sums of money spread around by Serie A clubs in recent years are finally taking their toll. Roberto Gotta reports on a rude awakening for Italy

So, poor Alvaro Recoba, Ronaldo and Christian Vieri will have to cut back on croissants and cappuccinos. A few weeks have passed since Internazionale’s golden trio exercised a trait of surprising common sense (or possibly opportunism) and asked that their salaries be reduced for the coming season. In total, it mean they will earn between €675,000 and €1.35 mil­lion (£425,000-£850,000) a year less than stated in their contract. Which makes for a lot of croissants, although they will hardly be suffering too badly – Vieri will still earn £2.84 million a year and his colleagues won’t be far behind.

Most Italian football supporters were stunned that someone at least had the sense to understand that sal­aries were disproportionate, but most were cynical enough to recognise a cosmetic gesture. It was none­theless a huge sign that the tide has been turning and Italian football is rapidly going down the drain. A re­cent survey by Il Sole-24 Ore (Italy’s equivalent of the Financial Times) showed that professional clubs (Serie A down to C2) had a total operating loss of £654,570 million for the year ending June 2001, with clubs like Ternana (now in Serie C1) paying out as much as 183 per cent of their turnover in salaries.

By mid-July, Covisoc, the Italian football authority charged with checking the clubs’ books, had tem­po­rarily suspended Lazio and Roma’s participation in the coming season’s Serie A. Both had debts totalling more than a third of each club’s annual turnover, which is the threshold for being allowed to compete. Both club presidents feigned indignation and outrage at the ver­dict, and the new League president Adriano Gal­liani added his customary element of melodrama by com­menting: “I can’t even think of Serie A without the Rome clubs.” However, while they will undoubtedly be reinstated, everyone with a speck of common sense has known for a long time that a financial crisis is looming.

Serie A attendances have fallen in each of the past five seasons, from an average of 31,160 in 1997-98 to 26,019 in 2001-02, with an alarming drop of more than 3,500 last season alone. It seems that satellite channels will pay considerably less for the next con­tract for live rights (last year Inter netted approximately £36 million from one of the top two satellite broadcasters, Tele+, in a deal that runs until 2005). Tele+ and their rivals Stream, who have been negotiating a com­plicated merger for some time, offered a laughable £3 million for the 2002-03 rights to the matches of the eight Serie A and B teams without a contract, half what had been asked for.

One reason for their reluctance to pay is that, thanks to piracy through encryption-beating cards, there are twice as many satellite dishes as there are subscribers (now I understand why the TV listings magazine gets stolen from my mailbox each month even though I am the only official subscriber to Tele+ in my building). As bad as some cable and satellite channels are for foot­ball, it has to have an unsettling effect if you invest mil­lions, then see half your projected income going to il­­legal card sellers.

It is obvious that the remedy for the current crisis will not just be in players voluntarily reducing their sa­laries, though that would certainly help. Italian football has long suffered from overexposure on TV, high ticket prices and inflated squads, with players earning mil­lions while kicking their heels – Milan’s Fernando Re­dondo, who injured himself doing just that, became the first player to ask that his salary be sus­pended while recovering. New restrictions on non-EU players (each club is allowed to sign only one before August 31, none after that) will have an impact on re­ducing expenses, and will hopefully lead to fewer gen­eral managers being led a merry dance by agents work­ing on a double commission, representing both players and clubs.

Some clubs have already released veterans in order to cut wage bills, but this has not been well received by fans who were appalled at the apparently heartless way Milan, for example, let Demetrio Albertini go. How­ever, these are the same fans who were excited when Milan bought the likes of Javi Moreno and José Marí for inflated prices and gave them fat contracts before belatedly informing them they were overpaid.

Basically, the recovery of Italian football has to start with the fans, who have been too passive and too con­sumed by their attachment to football for too long, usually choosing the wrong way to show their concern – witness the never-ending disturbances at Lazio’s training ground. Too many fans still want clubs to do what they themselves would never do with their own money (spend what they have not got, or mortgage the future on an unproven item). Too many are also praising Vieri, Ronaldo and Recoba for their salary gesture, instead of asking club presidents, agents and the play­ers themselves what they were thinking when those contracts were signed in the first place.

From WSC 187 September 2002. What was happening this month

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