Friday, 20 July 2007

SPECIAL: Italian Exodus

On the pitch it seems Italy have never had it so good. The Azzurri are world champions and at club level AC Milan are still celebrating their side's seventh European Cup triumph. You would think players would be clamouring to get a piece of the action. Quite the opposite. Since the final whistle blew on the Rossoneri's victory in Athens, Italian players at the peak of their careers have been packing their bags and leaving the Belpaese in unprecedented numbers.

Already this summer World Cup heroes Luca Toni and Fabio Grosso have signed for Bayern Munich and Lyon respectively; Cristian Abbiati and Morgan de Sanctis, two of the country’s best goalkeepers, have moved to Spain, while striker Cristiano Lucarelli, the symbol of Livorno, will look to keep up his phenomenal scoring record at Shakhtar Donetsk. Rolando Bianchi will score his next goals for Manchester City after the promising 24-year-old striker hit 18 for Reggina last season while midfielder Massimo Donati will play in Scotland for Celtic.

It seems the once golden world of Serie A is losing its lustre. Of course this is not the first wave of Italians to try their luck abroad. Ten years ago more Italians were playing outside Italy, but most of them were considered to be at the end of their careers. Gianfranco Zola and Amedeo Carboni were obvious exceptions to the rule but many of the foreign legion were happy to wind down their careers in the comfort of the likes of Major League Soccer. When World Cup winners Fabio Cannavaro and Gianluca Zambrotta moved to Spain last year it was as a consequence of Juventus's involvement in the sporting fraud scandal rather than any desire to leave Italy.

To a large extent Italy is still feeling the effects of that scandal. Juve's demotion last year and the points deduction for other teams turned the league into a predictable one-horse race with Inter cantering to victory. With crowd violence still a problem, Serie A games averaged just 19,511 spectators, the ninth consecutive campaign that crowds have fallen. "Money is important but you play football because it’s fascinating - in England, Germany or Spain stadiums are always full of fans and players love it,” said Zola who spent seven seasons at Chelsea.

There is no disputing that, but money remains a crucial factor. Milan vice-president Adriano Galliani was first to raise the problem after failing to sign Thierry Henry. "The problem is the difference in the financial regime in Spain," he said. "We were very close to signing Henry and we would not have had any problems matching Arsenal’s requested fee, but the €10m per season net wages are not sustainable for us. To be clear, Barcelona’s contract with Henry costs them less than €15m gross, but for us the same wages would cost €20m."

Galliani's claim was supported by recent research from Ernst & Young published in the Italian financial newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore. According to their research a team with 24.7 players - 11.1 of them foreigners - everyone earning €500,000 per year would cost €24.8m in Italy, €23.09m in England, €22.5m in Germany and only €19.8m in Spain. The big difference with Spain is down to tax breaks for foreigners, making Spain a lucrative haven for today’s footballers.

Tax, though, is not the only issue. Some clubs are still dealing with the consequences of the financial crisis which left them on the verge of bankruptcy a few years ago. Lazio, for example, reached an agreement with the Italian Government to pay back the €170m they owe in outstanding taxes in instalments over 23 years. The Rome club have introduced a salary cap to meet their new financial reality and now adhere to a strict maximum wage limit of €500,000 per player per season plus bonuses which cannot exceed 50 per cent of the player's salary. Not surprisingly, players who can earn more on the other side of the Alps are happy to make the move. For that reason Lazio transfer target Marco Amelia – another member of the Italy's World Cup squad – is more likely to be playing his football abroad next season than at the Stadio Olimpico, forcing the Biancocelesti to turn their attentions elsewhere to find a successor for the retired Angelo Peruzzi.

That is not to say the short-term future of Italian football is bleak. The return to Serie A of traditional, wealthy and well-supported teams such as Juventus, Napoli and Genoa will generate new income and interest. Serie A will also be represented by the ten biggest cities in the country – with the exception of Bologna. Some of the nation’s biggest derbies are back on the fixture list and according to Deloitte, income from television rights, attendance and merchandising will increase by €360m next season. It may take some for Serie A to reestablish itself as THE destination for the world’s best footballers, but it is not a bad start.

Courtesy of: Magazine correspondents Paolo Menicucci & Roberta Radaelli

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