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TEN YEARS ago, give or take a month, an elated Alex Ferguson stood outside the press room at Turin’s Stadio Delle Alpi where his Manchester United side had just played their way into their first Champions League final, beating Juventus 4-3 on aggregate. It was an historic night and Ferguson told the hacks who gathered around him: “This is just fantastic. The fact is if you’re going to get to a Champions League final, you’ve got to beat these big Italian teams.”
Ten years on, one is tempted to suggest the value system of European football has been totally reversed. If you want to get to a Champions League final, you have to beat the “big Premiership teams”. The fact last year’s final between United and Chelsea was an all-Premiership affair only underlines the point.
When Ferguson spoke that night, he was speaking after a decade marked by a remarkable Italian domination of European soccer’s most prestigious club trophy. In the previous 10 years, AC Milan had won the tournament three times (’89, ’90, ’94), whilst Juventus had won it once (’96).
More significantly, Italy had provided the losing finalist on five other occasions (Sampdoria beaten by Barcelona in ’92, Milan by Olympique Marseilles in ’93, and by Ajax in ’95, and Juventus by Borussia Dortmund in ’97 and by Real Madrid in ’98).
Put it another way, just about the only Italian to greet the 1999 Champions League final line-up of United v Bayern Munich with any enthusiasm was Italy’s peerless referee, “bald-pate” Pierluigi Collina. As he prepared to handle that memorable final at the Camp Nou, Collina pointed out he had been precluded from refereeing all but one of the previous 10 finals (Red Star Belgrade v Olympique Marseilles in ’91) because the final had always featured an Italian team.
English football historians like to dwell on a supposed “inferiority” complex experienced by the Italian football movement when it comes to England, the “home” of football. Given the above statistics, such a complex may seem unlikely. Yet, the point is justified by the extent to which in its early days Italian football (like many other countries) owed so much to English enthusiasts.
After all, Italy’s oldest club, current side Serie A side Genoa, was originally founded by a group of English merchants and shipping men in 1893 with the very non-Italian name of “Genoa Cricket and Athletic Club”.
AC Milan first saw the light of day in 1899 as the “Milan Cricket and Football Club”. How many Italian cricketers were there in the turn of century Milan? Milan’s first president was called Edwards, whilst amongst his founding partners, there were names like Alison, Barnett, Davies and Nathan. There was, too, a certain Herbert Kilpin from Nottingham, who went on to become the first “star” of Italian football, inspiring Milan to three title wins in the 1900s.
Legend has it Kilpin liked to keep a bottle of Scotch whisky behind a goalpost. If things were not going well, he would resort to a “wee dram” to revive himself and the team. Legend has it, too, he was so enthusiastic about football he left his wedding reception to turn out for Milan in a game in which he broke his nose.
The point is early Italian football clearly owed much to English football. There was, too, a huge gulf in quality between the two countries. Reading FC, by no means the leading English club of the day (they had just finished eighth in the Southern League Division One), underlined the point when touring Italy in 1913. Despite travel problems, in the space of one week, Reading beat not only three leading clubs, Genoa, Milan and Pro-Vercelli, but also the national team, winning 2-0 in Turin.
In many senses, it was not until the 1960s, marked by both AC Milan and Inter Milan twice winning the old Champions Cup, that the ghost of that inferiority complex began to be laid. Two friendly international wins against England – the first ever – in 1973 completed the job.
By the 1990s, thanks in part to the five-year ban of English clubs from European competition, that English superiority was something Italian granddads had to recount to unbelieving grandchildren. When the English clubs returned, post-Hysel, to Europe, they had seemed to Italian eyes like grizzly, arthritic and slightly primitive dinosaurs.
For the best part of a decade, Italian club sides took it for granted they would beat English clubs. They felt, for all the admirable athleticism of the English game, they were simply a different class – tactically and technically far ahead of the English game. That was, of course, until Ferguson, United, and above all the huge wealth of the new Premiership, came along.
As that humiliating 7-1 drubbing experienced by AS Roma at the hands of United two seasons ago clearly highlighted, the wheel has yet again turned full circle. For that reason, the three Italian clubs – Inter Milan (v United), Juventus (v Chelsea) and AS Roma (v Arsenal) – go into next week’s second-round Champions League clashes with no small amount of trepidation.
The other day, Italy coach Marcello Lippi sounded a not entirely convincing “up and at ’em” call for the Serie A clubs when saying: “Last year, the Premiership clubs were clearly superior to us but this year it’s a 50-50 call.” However, Lippi did suggest Barcelona would win this season’s Champions League – hardly a resounding vote of confidence in Italian football.
What is for sure is nobody pretends these games do not matter. When Inter put tickets on sale for the United tie earlier this month, everything on offer was sold out within two hours. Next week’s game may well beat the club box office record of ?3.4 million, registered when Inter met AC Milan in a 2005 Champions League quarter-final/city derby.
In football terms, too, Inter represent arguably the most intriguing element in this three-fold Anglo-Italian clash. Thanks to their 2-1 derby win over AC Milan last weekend, Inter go into this weekend nine points clear of Juventus, 11 points clear of Milan and 16 points clear of sixth-placed AS Roma. Even if we are still in February, you can hardly blame the “Special One”, Inter coach Jose Mourinho, for saying last Sunday night “at this point it is only us who can lose the championship title”.
In other words, the Serie A pressure is off and Inter have one thing and one alone on which to concentrate – the Champions League. Given Mourinho has been hired for just that one thing, then he is facing the tallest of tall orders against United over the next fortnight. Under Roberto Mancini, Inter picked up the last three Italian league titles. For Mourinho to pick up a fourth title will mean nothing. As far as Inter owner petrol millionaire Massimo Moratti is concerned, Mourinho has been hired to win the Champions League. His OK Corral will come at Old Trafford in a fortnight’s time.
Mourinho, at least, goes into his tie with a squad which can stand comparison with that of his rivals – Swede Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Argentine Cambiasso, Serb Dejan Stankovic and Brazilians Adriano and Maicon are all worthy opponents for United’s various Ronaldos, Rooneys, Tevezs and Ferdinands. The same can hardly be said of either the Juventus or Roma squads both of which look distinctly less glamorous than their London rivals.
Roma will again rely on their ageing and ever-more fragile talisman, Francesco Totti, whilst Juventus too still look to Golden Oldies such as Alessandro Del Piero and Pavel Nedved. Pride, however, may work for both teams, given Roma would dearly love to make the final this year in their home stadium, whilst Juventus coach Claudio Ranieri might just want to prove a point or two against the side that so controversially sacked him five seasons ago.
For Italian football, the thought of a total wipeout is too ghastly to contemplate. Italy may be the reigning World Champions but the domestic Italian game, from the calciopoli match-fixing scandal through to losing the 2012 European Championships, and including various fan and police deaths, has experienced too many setbacks in recent times.
For some, a Premiership hat-trick would call up visions of an Italian future in which the best talents (Capello, Trapattoni, Zola, Giuseppe Rossi, Luca Toni, etc) continue to emigrate whilst the domestic game continues to make headlines for the wrong reasons, such as the incident which saw a Genoa fan almost killed by the Fiorentina team bus during a mini-riot after last Sunday’s 3-3 Genoa-Fiorentina draw.
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