League restructuring in Italy has been discussed for several years but it is now coming to fruition. Paul Virgo reports

After a long fight to save their marriage, Serie B finally accepted it had irreconcilably broken down in August and agreed to an amicable divorce from the Italian top flight. Serie A chairmen had been threatening to walk out for years, as they looked on at the Premier League’s success with envy, only to end up half-heartedly agreeing to give it another try. But they showed they meant business this time when they appointed Maurizio Beretta, an executive from outside football, to run the top flight as an independent entity from next year.

When the hurt of being dumped had worn off, the Serie B clubs resigned themselves to the inevitable. Some even managed to console themselves that it was all for the best. “Being alone may become an opportunity to cut out space for ourselves, have more visibility locally and develop new marketing strategies among clubs with common interests,” claimed Vicenza president Giorgio Squinzi.

The two divisions will stay together this season with Beretta, the former director general of Confindustria, Italy’s employers’ confederation, in charge of both before they go their separate ways on July 1, 2010. The big clubs hailed the move as historic. “It’s an important act, one that had been in the [Serie A club] presidents’ minds for about 20 years,” said Juventus president Giovanni Cobolli Gigli. “I think the two leagues will be able to concentrate on their own business while continuing to co-operate. Italian football will become more professional.”

The consequences are unlikely to be as revolutionary as those brought about by the Premier League’s establishment in 1992. For one thing, the concentration of money and titles in the hands of a few giants, which the Premier League cemented in England, has already happened in Italy anyway without a breakaway. What’s more, the separation of Serie A is only from the second division, as Italy’s third and fourth tiers are already run independently.

And, in contrast with the English case, the split will not have a major impact on the distribution of TV revenues. From the 2010-11 season these will be shared out on the basis of a 2007 law. This ends the system in which clubs negotiate their own deals with TV companies and restores collective bargaining – Serie B will get about seven per cent of the top-flight’s TV money. So while the split is not going help the second division teams that have encountered financial trouble recently, it is not going to make things drastically worse for them either.

Serie A will get to keep all the cash from other sources of income, such as sponsorships, and decision-making will be easier now the second division no longer has a say. But greater autonomy alone will probably not enable it to close the gap in results on and off the field that has opened up with respect to Spain and England over the last decade.

One of Italian football’s biggest problems, for example, is stadium ownership. Serie A clubs cannot use their grounds to generate revenue as most are rented from local councils, part of the reason they are struggling to match the spending power of their European rivals. This also means the clubs have no incentive to invest in the stadiums and many are in a shabby state as a result. But it is a complicated question to solve as the councils are not going to gift the grounds to the clubs.

One of Beretta’s top tasks will be to make sure the government comes good on pledges to pass a law that will help clubs buy the stadium they play in or develop new ones, like Juventus are doing at the site of their old Stadio delle Alpi home.

Another issue is that Serie A sides are handicapped in the transfer market because Italy has high taxes, especially compared to Spain. But here again, all Beretta can do is lobby for change. It is also interesting that the Italians are seeking to follow the English model precisely at a time when Spain’s Primera División, which is still wed to the divison below, seems to be overtaking the Premier League in the prestige stakes.

So while the hope is that the split will be the turning point that sets Italian club football back on the path to the top-dog status it enjoyed in the 1980s, it might end up being a case of Tutto fumo, niente arrosto - All smoke, no roast.

From WSC 272 October 2009

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