Aging Serie A stuck in time warp
Italian season, which kicks off this weekend, is skewing more toward older players
Exit of Kaká, Zlatan Ibrahimovic signal end of Serie A's 'sexy football' style of old
Italian national team still relying on veterans, was exposed at Confederations Cup
What do the following have in common: keeper Vincenzo Fiorillo (Sampdoria), fullback Francesco Renzetti (Genoa), center-half Giuseppe Bellusci (Catania), midfielders Fabio Sciacca (Catania) and Andrea Poli (Sampdoria), and strikers Abel Hernández (Palermo), Guido Marilungo (Sampdoria) and Alberto Paloschi (Parma)?
Well, apart from being under-20 national-teamers, these multinational young talents will all struggle to hold down a permanent Serie A starting place this season.
The examples of players such as striker Mario Balotelli and defender Davide Santon (both of Inter Milan), Brazilian star Alexandre Pato (AC Milan) and Montenegrin midfielder Stevan Jovetic (Fiorentina) are the exceptions that prove the rule. They, too, are younger than 20, but they are such prodigious talents that they have -- albeit intermittently -- already played their way into their first teams. For the rest, it may well be a long, difficult season.
Italy's Under-21 coach, Pierluigi Casiraghi, says Italian youngsters should follow the example of Manchester United's Federico Macheda and move abroad, adding: "In theory, with the money crisis, there is more space for young players now compared to four or five years ago. Yet, in Serie A, results are everything. If you are not winning, then [the coach] can't pick an under-21 player."
As we prepare for the curtain to lift on another Serie A season -- it starts on Aug. 22 and ends on May 16, 2010 -- it is tempting to conclude that the Italian soccer world is still facing many familiar problems, including not just lack of time and space for youngsters, but also issues such as financial insolvency and potential fan violence. As we go into a season that will end just before the reigning world champions defend their title in South Africa, Italian soccer sometimes seems ever more fossilized.
It seems emblematic that two of the greatest talents in Italian football, Zlatan Ibrahimovic of Inter and Kaká of AC Milan, have packed their bags and left for Spain. The days when Italy was the "Hollywood" of world soccer would seem to be long gone.
While Kaká and Ibrahimovic head off, Italian soccer risks becoming stuck in a time warp, renewing the contracts of golden oldies like Alessandro Del Piero, who will be 35 in November, and Francesco Totti, 33 in September, but almost certainly not devoting enough time and energy to under-age players.
Nor do the results of last season paint a rosy picture. It was bad enough that not a single Italian club made the quarterfinals of the Champions League, but in some ways it was even more disappointing that Casiraghi's useful Under-21 side went out to Germany at the semifinal stages of the European Championship in Sweden in June. After all, Italian teams have won five of the last 10 Under-21 titles.
Arguably worst of all, however, was Italy's disappointing Confederations Cup showing in South Africa, where Marcello Lippi's men struggled to beat the U.S. 3-1 before losing 1-0 to Egypt and 3-0 to Brazil. Did that showing suggest that a number of Lippi's World Cup winners are at the end of the line?
Certainly, in the immediate aftermath of an embarrassingly poor showing, Lippi seemed to suggest that he would ring the changes by way of preparation for next year's World Cup. Conceding that Italy's showing in the Confederations Cup represented just about the "lowest moment" in his three years as national-team coach, he said: "We've taken a right [punch] on the ears and now we're on the plane home. But the rebuilding of the national team is ongoing. I never said that it was finished or that we would go to the World Cup finals with these players. We'll start the changes shortly, beginning with those Under-21 players who have already proved themselves."
In the all-important third game against Brazil, Italy started with eight players who were featured in the Germany '06 World Cup-winning squad. Yet Gianluca Zambrotta, Fabio Cannavaro, Gennaro Gattuso, Fabio Grosso, Andrea Pirlo, Mauro Camoranesi, Luca Toni and Vincenzo Iaquinta all performed some way short of their '06 best in a game in which the Brazilians seemed stronger, faster, fresher and fitter, not to mention more skilful.
Perhaps, after all, youth will get a chance in the end. Will there be space this winter in the national team for players such as Santon and Balotelli? Will other younger players such as Sampdoria striker Giampaolo Pazzini, Udinese midfielder Gaetano D'Agostino, Roma midfielder Matteo Brighi, Roma defender Marco Motta, Juventus midfielder Paolo De Ceglie, Atalanta striker Robert Acquafresca and Juventus front man Sebastian Giovinco get an international run-out?
Stand by for experiments in September World Cup qualifiers against Georgia and Bulgaria.
Five players to watch
Marco Borriello (AC Milan): Scorer of 19 goals for Genoa two seasons ago, he had a miserable, injury-interrupted season last term in which he scored just once in seven Serie A appearances for Milan. Likely to push "old man" Pippo Inzaghi hard for a spot up front alongside the Brazilians, Ronaldinho and Pato.
Diego (Juventus): At $35 million from Werder Bremen, the Brazilian playmaker was the most expensive signing of the offseason in Italy. His creativity and spectacular goals will liven up a workmanlike Juve.
Robert Acquafresca (Atalanta): Scorer of 14 goals for Cagliari last season and yet another of the "new wave" who can be expected to rattle cages in Serie A -- all the more so since he will get plenty of action at Atalanta.
Andrea Consigli (Atalanta): Capped at every level for Italy from Under-16 to Under-21 and including Italy's Beijing Olympics team, he just might make the South Africa World Cup squad, if only for the experience.
Mario Balotelli (Inter Milan): He might be only 19, but Balotelli is already heading into his third season as a regular first-team member at Inter. Yet another of those who will be under close surveillance from national boss Lippi as South Africa approaches.
This article originally appeared in the September 2009 issue of World Soccer magazine. To subscribe, click here.