Germany Overtakes Italy In European Rankings

Asking which league is the best in the world is one of the most interminable and dull questions possible. It’s up there with Arsenal needing to buy a new goalkeeper and suggesting that foreigners don’t quite have the guts to play in the English league. Inevitably the discussion heads in circles as Leo Messi is accused of bottling it against Stoke on a rainy Wednesday, presumably because they believe him to be the footballing equivalent of a Gremlin who must be kept dry for fear that he will develop claws and scales and start attacking his fellow Barcelona midgets. Meanwhile people who’ve never seen Levante or Almeria proudly proclaim that they are the technical (and probably moral) superiors to the clod-hoppers of West Ham or Wigan. 

However, despite the futile nature of the debate, something rather interesting has just happened regarding the standing of two big leagues. The UEFA ranking system grades the leagues and then allocates European places for the Champions League and Europa League. With Germany overtaking Italy and thus stealing its fourth spot Champions League spot the likes of Juventus, Roma and Napoli will be scrapping for the one place not filled by the two Milan clubs while Bayern Munich will most likely be spared going through qualification rounds if they finish third. The descendents of the Visigoths will once again profit from the fall of the Roman Empire.

 The redistribution seems like a small change, given that the big names like Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Wesley Sneijder and Robinho will all still be in the competition next year but the wider significance is about the rise of the well-run and enjoyable Bundesliga compared to the systemic problems in Italian football. Since its heyday of the 80’s and early 90’s Italy has been falling behind other nations. The current European champions are Italian and AC Milan won the tournament only four years ago. But such triumphs cannot obscure the fact that Italian football is nowhere near the force it was during the time of Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan or Marcello Lippi’s Juventus. Stadia are crumbling, the country is still scarred from Calciopoli and this is reflected in the demotion of Serie A by UEFA.

 It would be ridiculous to suggest that England attained position as the biggest in Europe by being financially sensible. The biggest commercial asset of the Premier League, Manchester United, is crippled by debt while Chelsea announced losses of around £75m on the day they signed Fernando Torres and David Luiz for a further £70m. Apart from Arsenal, pretty much every club in the top flight has financial worries. The warning example of Portsmouth is just the tip of the problematic iceberg threatening English clubs. But football has gone through a process of gentrification. The prawn sandwich brigade has claimed the sport for its own. A visit to the Emirates is an experience that no Italian club could rival for luxury. The rise of Germany shows the value of renovation and inclusion. The ability to get a cheap ticket, drink a beer and stand at matches results in the Bundesliga getting an average attendance of 41,947, one of the highest in Europe, a fact that stands in stark contrast with Juventus being unable to fill their temporary capacity of 28,000.

 As Raphael Honigstein has pointed out, there are other reasons for the comparative decline of the Italian game in Europe. The Italian clubs have never held the Europa League in any serious regard, preferring to only concentrate on the Champions League which they argue should give more points than the Europa League, a view which has impacted on their standing. Honigstein refutes the claim, arguing that the idea is discover the relative strengths of the competing leagues and therefore taking from a broad sample is the best determinant.

 Although Honigstein raises valid points about the priorities of Italian sides not being conducive to European advancement, he doesn’t address the systemic problems facing the country. Few enough teams are managing to sell out their stadiums due to out-dated facilities, the hangover from Calciopoli and an exodus of stars. Roma were unable to fill their ground for their last 16 tie against Shakhtar Donetsk despite it being an eminently winnable fixture for them. 

 The loss of one Champions League spot seems insignificant at the moment but Honigstein notes the damaging long term effects it may have on Italian football. English clubs have been able to cement their status as European big-shots by receiving Champions League money every season. The problem for Italy is that this decline doesn’t look like it can be described as a blip. The lack of serious funding into infrastructure is chronic and will certainly need addressing before Italian clubs can dream of regaining the fourth spot they see as rightfully theirs. The road ahead may get worse for the Old Lady and her friends before it gets better.

´╗┐David Adelman

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