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The predicament of Italian soccer

A Champions League win against Chelsea and World Cup glory won't reverse Italian soccer's flagging fortunes.

AC Milan's David Beckham bleeds from his cheek as he looks on during the Italian serie A soccer match against Chievo in Milan March 14, 2010, which AC Milan won 1-0. (Alessandro Garofalo/Reuters)

BOSTON — Inter Milan was suppose to go to London this week and fall down at the feet of the English powerhouse Chelsea, a last, futile gasp for Italian soccer amid a season of ignominy. A defeat for the perennial champ of Italy’s elite Serie A would have meant that — for the second year in a row — no Italian team would reach the quarterfinals of Champions League, Europe’s premier club competition.

National humiliation appeared to be the stakes after AC Milan was filleted 4-0 by another English giant, Manchester United while Fiorentina, playing at home, failed to hold off Bayern Munich. And Juventus, once a European scourge, didn’t even reach this knockout stage of the competition. But Inter’s indomitable defense frustrated and discombobulated Chelsea all evening, until it finally succumbed to a stunning counterattack that secured the Italians a 1-0 victory.

Still, there was something of the prestidigitator’s trick at play, a sleight of foot that may salvage Italian pride, but can’t mask the larger predicament. One Champions League result doesn’t change what is readily apparent to fans who watch Serie A games with any regularity. Italian soccer is in decline. It is visibly slower than that played in England’s Premier League or Spain’s La Liga. And it is the very antithesis of the beautiful game — characterized by grinding defense, relentless fouling and incessant histrionics.

Offense seems little more than an afterthought; Inter eked through Champions’ group play earlier, scoring just seven goals in six games. Indeed Serie A is in danger of becoming exactly what Italians have long said dismissively about France’s Ligue 1: inferior and irrelevant. France can actually boast two teams, Lyon and Bordeaux, among the final eight when the Champions quarterfinal match-ups are drawn tomorrow.

It wasn’t long ago — we’re not talking “Ides of March” history here — that Italy was the flower of international soccer. Throughout the '80s and '90s and into the new millennium, it was where the world’s most illustrious players — Platini, Maradona, van Basten, Gullit, Matthaeus, Batistuta, Ronaldo, Zidane — came to test themselves against a starry array of Italian stalwarts.

But now player movement flows the other way. After last season, Italy’s two most dynamic imports, Brazilian superstar Kaka and Swedish striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic, departed for more lucrative opportunities in Spain. Beyond any salary disparities, Spain — hip, progressive and relaxed — is, for the young and rich, an alluring counterpoint to the entrenched mores and other constraints of Italian life.

There is no single explanation for Italian soccer’s reversal of fortune.