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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.

Multiple forces are at work, none of them easily reversed. And that suggests this is not a temporary dip in life’s natural ebb and flow, but rather an indication that Italian soccer will likely continue to course downward.

At root the problem is financial. Italian teams don’t own their stadiums and — hampered by unfavorable tax laws — struggle to generate the revenues to compete with salaries that lure international stars to England and Spain. The economic structure of Italian soccer coupled with the insularity of the country has made it uninviting territory for ambitious American, Arab and Russian investors who have flocked to the Premier League. Serie A has had far less success than its rivals in structuring global TV deals and marketing merchandise internationally, at least in part a language problem when up against English and Spanish.

Beyond any financial constraints, Italy is uninviting territory for many players too. A major, match-fixing scandal that ensnared the most storied Italian teams furthered the notion that corruption is endemic in Italian society. While the currency of xenophobia and racism is hardly confined to Italy, African and black European players there continue to be targets for derisive chants and crude verbal abuse. Moreover, many of the city stadiums have deteriorated and are now uninviting places and — with volatile crowds — many would say dangerous places as well.

Italy’s 2006 World Cup triumph was viewed by many Italians as something of a balm, coming as it did on the heels of the match-fix scandal. But for non-Italians, the defining moment remains the moment in the final when an Italian defender baited — with a salacious taunt — the great French star Zinedine Zidane into a reckless head butt. Whether the insult was, as the Italian later insisted, aimed at Zidane’s sister (rather than the more sacred mother), whether or not there was a racist subtext (Zidane is of Algerian descent), the lasting impression was that Italy is a side that can no longer rely on skill alone to win the big game.

Finally, there is the widespread indictment of the Italian game itself. Italy has long embraced the approach known as catenaccio (from the Italian word for “chain"), which emphasizes an impenetrable defense at the expense of offensive thrust, let alone creativity. It can be numbing to play against as well as to watch. While the national team continues to utilize it with considerable success, it is proving far less effective in European club play, with even the best Italian teams limited by aging and less formidable back lines.

Soon World Cup 2010 will provide Italy with another opportunity to stoke its soccer passion. And it may still boast sufficient talent, fortitude and guile to muster another strong showing. Still, Italian success in South Africa come June — no more than Inter’s triumph this week — will not be a reflection on the caliber of soccer played back home in the once-vaunted Serie A — and certainly no portent of the future for the country’s treasured game.