Is Serie A ‘Back’ After Earning Fifth Champions League Spot?

Is Serie A ‘Back’ After Earning Fifth Champions League Spot?

Head coach Gian Piero Gasperini of Atalanta BC is clapping his hands to the Atalanta BC supporters … [+] during the UEFA Europa League quarter-finals second leg football match between Atalanta BC and Liverpool FC in Bergamo, Italy, on April 18, 2024. (Photo by Luca Rossini/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

NurPhoto via Getty Images

We all remember the somewhat hasty PR campaign Serie A produced in the wake of six Italian teams making it to the quarter finals of the three European competitions a year ago. There was Luca Toni, Fabio Capello and Fabio Cannavaro sitting in a theatre looking up in amazement at the league’s stars of today, while the familiar tones of Nessun Dorma played softly in the background.

Serie A maintained that after years of struggling to assert itself in Europe it was finally back. The good times were just around the corner. Come season’s end, Serie A had finished with three finalists, and all three were defeated. Most argued that while the Italian game had improved on the European stage after years of embarrassment, calcio wasn’t really back, and that the luck of the draw had worked in the league’s favour, especially in the Champions League.

Last night, Serie A officially earned an extra spot in the new-and-improved Champions League for next season after Atalanta, Roma and Fiorentina all booked semi final places in the Europa League and Europa Conference League. Moreover, should Atalanta go on to win the Europa League — an idea no longer improbable after their Liverpool performances — and finish sixth in Serie A (as they currently are) then the league would have six teams in the Champions League for next season.

So, this time around, is calcio really back?

The answer, like a year ago, is no. Italy had no representatives in the last eight of the Champions League this season after having three a year ago. Inter, by far the best team in Italy and champions-elect, were predicted by many to be the team to make the greatest dent in the tournament from Serie A clubs, but threw away a 2-0 lead to Atletico Madrid in the round of 16 and went out on penalties. Napoli, Lazio and Milan all went out with a whimper in various stages.

Italy’s successful coefficient ranking this season is off the back of runs from teams in the Europa League and Fiorentina in the Conference League, where the likes of Roma, Atalanta — and briefly Milan — swept teams aside. The measuring stick has and always will be the Champions League, and only two Italian sides have made the semi final in the past five years: Milan and Inter last season.

However, there’s little doubt that calcio is on the slow mend after years of being on life support. If anything, Italian teams have outperformed themselves in the last two seasons. Considering we now live in a world where Brentford and Bournemouth can outbid seven-time European champions Milan for players, Serie A hasn’t disgraced itself on the European stage. Italian coaching is still the best in the world, no country produces coaches like Coverciano, and this is principally the reason why the league is punching above its weight relative to league revenue.

Atalanta’s success against Liverpool is a prime example of this. Gian Piero Gasperini tactically outsmarted Jürgen Klopp over the two games, despite the German having superior players and a wage bill nearly four times larger. Atalanta nullified Liverpool over the two legs and fully deserved to advance. Atalanta’s club revenue in 2022/23 was $207 million, Liverpool’s for the same period was $739 million.

Atalanta produced two stellar performances, but those kinds of displays aren’t sustainable in the long run. In the end, quality always shines through in football and Atalanta can only go so far on a modest budget. La Dea are one of the most progressive clubs in the country: they own their stadium, have no debt and are in the middle of putting the finishing touches on modernising the Gewiss Stadium, but Serie A’s TV deals continue to decline in value and this will evidently hold them, and every other side in the league, back.

The new domestic TV deal, which stretches from this summer to 2029 and won by DAZN and Sky Italia, is around $32m-per-season less than the current deal despite the resurgence of Italian teams in Europe. Of the biggest sides, only Milan, Atalanta and Napoli are turning a profit, with Juventus, Inter and Roma drowning in debt. The biggest obstacle of course is the league’s continual fight with the government in building new stadiums, with Serie A posting record average match day attendances this century and Euro 2032 not too far off in the distance, the Italian state is now under pressure to build new arenas.

The argument could be made that Serie A is now Europe’s second best league, but until modern stadiums are built and domestic and foreign TV deals swing upwards and not down, second is the best Italy can hope for. Until then, it’ll continue to punch above its weight in spite of itself.

Calcio isn’t back, but the signs are promising.

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