DAVID SHONFIELD: Crusade to restore Serie A’s glory days

Italian football has its share of unusual characters, none more so than Renzo Ulivieri.

Even in a country that prizes managerial experience he’s a veteran, 74 next month, a year older than Alex Ferguson.

Like Fergie he’s seen it all — although in Renzo’s case at 15 clubs rather than one or two — and like Ferguson he’s never been shy of voicing his opinions about the game.

“Naming Messi player of the tournament was an obscenity,” he wrote after the World Cup final. “It’s an inhuman injustice, specially compared to Schweinsteiger. Maybe those responsible for the award slept through the match.”

Also like Ferguson, he has strong political views, the difference being that Ulivieri has never mellowed. He joined the Communist Party around the time he became a coach, at the age of 24, and is as committed as ever to both politics and football, even if these days he’s helping out the women’s team of his home town of San Miniato, rather than managing Parma or Bologna in Serie A.

At Parma he fell out spectacularly with Italy’s star player Roberto Baggio. But he also took them into the Champions League and Baggio was Italy’s top scorer that season.

At Bologna he’s remembered for two consecutive promotions, and also for the time he invited Gianfanco Fini, leader of Italy’s far-right National Alliance, home for dinner — having thoughtfully placed a bust of Lenin on the sideboard.

A character.

But Ulivieri is more than a curiosity because along with his job as women’s coach he’s also President of Assoallenatori, the equivalent of the League Managers’ Association in England. And in that role Ulivieri is right at the centre of the heated arguments about how Italian football can overcome its never-ending crisis.

Ulivieri and his counterpart Damiano Tommasi at the players’ union the AIC, two elected officials, are both against some of the reforms proposed by the new boss of the Italian football federation Carlo Tavecchio, in particular an increase in the non-EU player quota from 2 to 3 per club.

“All my principles and political commitment are against raising barriers and protectionism” says Ulivieri, “but we need a balanced approach, and this proposal goes in the opposite direction to the need to relaunch the Italian school of football.”

“The real problem here in Italy is the short-sighted way football has been run, thinking only of immediate profit.”

“The product — by which I mean the league — has been served up to television like a meal. It’s been turned into televised pap, from Friday to Monday, all in the name of ‘grab what we can now’.

“And showing matches at mid-day is an abomination: a real attack on the family. Sunday lunchtime is for sitting down at table together, for talking, not for watching a football match.”

Television calls the tune almost everywhere, but Italy is an extreme case. Juventus make well over half their money from TV — three times as much as they make from the fans. For Milan and Inter the figures are even more skewed.

Juventus have at least increased the amount they take ‘on the gate’. However, the two Milan clubs now take less in real terms than they did 10 years ago. In Inter’s case, gate revenue has even fallen: from €29 million in 2004 to an estimated €19m last season.

Moreover the Big Three in Italy, if we can still call them that, are falling further and further behind the leading European clubs. The extreme case is Inter. Ten years ago, turnover was €166m, the same as Bayern Munich and Barcelona. The next sets of accounts are likely to show that Inter’s revenues have remained static, while Bayern and Barcelona are now making almost €500m a year.

The downward spiral dates back to the Calciopoli scandal of 2006. It showed the need for a massive purge, but the litigation and obfuscation dragged on for two, three, four years.

The Italian public are a cynical lot, especially when it comes to sport, but that mega-scandal left a permanent taint. Fans turned away in droves.

Despite the best efforts of men like Ulivieri and Tommasi it will take more than a few reforms to overcome the damage of the past.


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