Quick: which are the top three leagues in Europe?

I think we can take it as read that you’ll have said the English Premier League and Spain’s La Liga, and if you keep up with Uefa coefficients, there’s a very good chance you’ve said the German Bundesliga as well.

This is quite a turnaround from several years ago, when Italy’s Serie A would have been the first league to trip off the tongue. What has happened to this great institution, that Inter, Juventus and Milan should be held in lower regard than Schalke, Dortmund and Bayern Munich? Is Serie A the fallen giant of European football?

Britain’s love affair with Italian domestic football goes back to 1992, when James Richardson and his gleaming pate introduced us to Channel 4’s Football Italia for the first time.

The timing was perfect for Channel 4. Italia 90, a resounding cultural success despite the dreadful football on show, was still fresh in the collective memory. The Premier League era had dawned, heralding the end of live English top flight football on terrestrial TV as British Sky Broadcasting moved coverage onto pay channels. Lazio had just signed Paul Gascoigne, whose combustible personality and undoubted talent made for must-see viewing.

Above all else, though, was the football. This was the age of the great AC Milan side, featuring some of the biggest stars of the time: Franco Baresi, Ruud Gullit, a youthful Paolo Maldini, and star striker Marco van Basten. Built by Arrigo Sacchi and as compelling as today’s Barcelona, Milan’s reputation as one of the greatest club sides of all time was assured in 1994, with Fabio Capello leading the side in trouncing Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona 4-0 in the European Cup final.

The stereotype of Italians sides playing nothing but defensive, catenaccio-inspired formations also proved massively outdated, with such players as Gianluca Vialli, Gianfranco Zola, and Roberto Baggio providing Serie A with plenty of attacking flair and British viewers with a more glamorous alternative to Alan Shearer, Andy Cole and Robbie Fowler. In later years, imports such as Ronaldo, Gabriel Batistuta and Andriy Shevchenko took up their mantle with aplomb. Even Italy’s top referee, Pierluigi Collina, became a household name.

So why has Serie A lost that special quality that once made it so appealing to viewers on these shores, to the point that even Channel Five dropped its coverage?

There are many reasons for the league’s perceived decline. One cannot ignore the effect of the match-fixing scandal that came to be known as Calciopoli and led to sanctions for a number of big name clubs, particularly Juventus, who were unceremoniously dumped into Serie B for the first time in their history for their part in the scandal. Regrettable incidents of crowd trouble have also left a terrible stink.

Furthermore, the star power that once attracted so many admirers has become less unique. Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Edinson Cavani simply do not have the wow factor they might have commanded even ten years ago with English fans treated to the likes of Luis Suarez, Rafael van der Vaart and David Silva on a weekly basis.

The rise and rise of Spanish football has not helped either, with Barcelona playing football to a standard not seen since Cruyff was a player at Ajax in the early 1970s and Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid constantly in the headlines, even if it is often for the wrong reasons; while German sides have benefitted from a likeable ‘plucky underdog’ perception (Bayern Munich aside) and won plaudits for their enforced community-led financial model.

Appearances can be deceptive, however. After all, Italian sides have still found success recently. Two of the last five Champions League trophies have gone to Milanese sides – Milan in 2007, Inter in 2010 – the same number as have gone to Spain and one more than English clubs have won. Lest we forget, too, that the national team were World Cup winners in 2006, just as Calciopoli reached its ugly nadir.

There are those that say that the lack of competition has hurt Serie A, with Milan’s scudetto last year breaking Inter’s five-year monopoly, but I don’t buy it: England and particularly Spain have practically been two horse races for years, and enjoy nothing but burgeoning popularity.

Udinese will not be in the group stages of the Champions League this year, much to the delight of Arsenal fans, but Inter, Milan and Napoli will all feature, and few would bet heavily against at least one of that trio reaching the semi finals.

The emphasis on media coverage of Italian football may not be as strong as it was 10 or 20 years ago, but it remains formidable: not so much a fallen giant as a sleeping giant.

Steven Chicken

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