The predicament of Italian soccer

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.

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.