Inter Milan boss Jose Mourinho has staved off Italy’s latest footballing embarrassment (All photos Getty Images)

(WFI) Taken in isolation, Inter Milan’s Champions League victory over Chelsea last night – a triumph of tactical ingenuity, discipline and persistence, made memorable by a virtuoso performance from Inter’s Dutch midfielder Wesley Sneijder – may have no lasting significance.

Inter’s brilliant and idiosyncratic manager Jose Mourinho always makes good copy and Tuesday night was no different.

“My people will always be my people,” he said, referring to Chelsea’s fans, who idolized him when he was in charge at Stamford Bridge in the middle of the last decade. “But today I was the enemy. And the enemy won. That’s life.”

Italy’s sportswriters were similarly eulogistic.

“Just as the Portuguese deserves to be criticised when he exaggerates with his complaints and his behaviour on the sideline, so he deserves our applause for knowing how to manage, with great instinct, his team,” wrote Fabrizio Bocca in La Repubblica.

Tony Damascelli, in Il Giornale, argued that Mourinho has “passed from being a great storyteller to a great manager”.

But with all eyes on the self-styled “Special One” few focused on the deeper significance of Inter’s win. For the first time since 2006 Inter have a team in the Champions League quarter-finals.

In progressing so far Mourinho may just have saved the country’s skin and staved off Italy’s latest footballing embarrassment.

Given the Italian clubs’ underachievement in European competition, UEFA’s ranking system currently threatens to strip Italy of its fourth qualifying place for next season, instead awarding it to Germany.

Just three countries – currently England, Spain and Italy – are afforded this privilege, with UEFA deciding which according to its coefficients system based on European results over five years.

The system is both opaque and relatively straightforward. Each of a country’s qualifiers are given a score based on their progress through European qualification. UEFA then works out a country average based on all of its entrants’ scores, which counts as its national score. These are then added up over five years to provide an overall ranking.
As it stands England top the table with a ranking of 78.570; San Marino are bottom with 0.75.

Italy lie third with 62.910, but the margin of their advantage is being eroded by fourth-placed Germany, whose clubs have outperformed them in Europe over the last two years and look set to do so again this year. Five of Germany’s six European qualifiers are still in the Champions and Europa Leagues; by contrast just two of Italy’s seven remain.

Inter’s win last night was a shot in the arm for a league that is falling further and further behind its European rivals. It’s not clear whether it will be enough to save the fourth Champions League spot, but in beating his former club Mourinho may have just held Italian football’s head above water.

Italy’s “Year Zero”

Despite Inter’s win, Italian football remains a chronic mess.

In August, Gazzetta dello Sport previewed the new season as “The Year Zero Championship” and little that has passed since then defies the stark atmosphere last summer. Italy used to be by some distance the richest league in the world, but when Deloitte published its football money league earlier this month just six Italian clubs made the top 30.

Collectively, Serie A clubs are indebted to the tune of €2 billion, but unlike their English counterparts have few tangible assets beyond their playing squads. The best footballers now go to England, Spain and even Germany, not Italy, which was once the first destination for the world football’s greatest players.

Crowds are down 40 per cent on a decade ago and in the current campaign more than 3 per cent on last season.

Attendances look set to drop even more alarmingly next year when a long-awaited fan ID scheme – ‘Tessera del tifoso’ – is brought in nationwide at the start of the 2010/11 season. Under this scheme, which resembles an initiative which Margaret Thatcher tried to implement in England in the 1980s, fans will have to show identification when buying tickets and again

Samuel Eto’o scores the decisive goal to book Inter’s place in the Champions League quarter-finals

when entering the grounds.

The aim is to eradicate hooliganism – long a blight on the Italian game – but it threatens to stigmatise legitimate fans and makes supporting a club an increasingly bureaucratic nightmare. For example, if you have a season ticket and can’t make a game, that ticket is no longer transferable so your seat remains empty.

AC Milan adopted the scheme this year, but the results have been disastrous. Despite Milan’s first strong Serie A challenge in several years, average attendances are down one third on last season.

Stunted progress

There are, nevertheless, smatterings of progress.

There are plans to rebrand the league and efforts have been made to schedule the games with an international television audience in mind. Friday night games are becoming a staple, although this idea may be misplaced as for the lucrative Asian market they are screened in the middle of the night.

In Europe interest remains marginal. When ESPN bought UK rights last summer to three weekly live games and a highlights show, it paid €2.5million for the entire season – or around half what it pays to screen a single English Premier League match.

Domestically, it is Juventus who are the most progressive force for change.

Under the general-managership of Jean-Claude Blanc, a French marketing executive with a CV that includes the Tour

Juventus president Jean-Claude Blanc is spearheading a range of innovative initiatives at the club

de France and Grand Slam tennis, the Bianconeri have looked at how English football rehabilitated itself from its 1980s nadir.

Recognising the imperative of making football a more fan-friendly experience, in the short term they have tried to make the Olympic Stadium, where they currently play, a more pleasant environment, by lowering barrier fences and even providing flowers at the entrance for female spectators.

Next year they move to a new-purpose built stadium on the site of the old Stadio Delle Alpi. With 41,000 seats and no athletics track, it is more compact, closer to the action and likely to be far more atmospheric than its soulless predecessor.

Its aim, said Blanc last year, is “to show off Italy’s best side – its creativity, design and fantastic football.”

But despite the efforts of Juve the rest of the league is playing catch-up to make the fan experience commensurate with rival leagues.

The average stadium age in Italy is 63-years-old, and most stadia have not had an upgrade since the 1990 World Cup.

Nearly all stadiums are municipal owned and thus designed to accommodate other sports as well – meaning the dreaded running tracks and too much space between supporter and pitch. Given that they don’t own the grounds, clubs are less likely to invest in fan facilities – decent toilets, food stalls, merchandising – and stadium branding. The result is ugly, austere grounds, short on atmosphere and with poor sightlines.

Much seems to rest on Italy’s bid for the 2016 European Championships, which would see new stadiums in Cagliari and Florence and significant upgrades in six other cities.

But even then questions remain over funding and planning issues.

Plans to bring the San Siro into the 21st century have been mothballed for nearly a decade after its tenants, AC and Inter Milan, failed to reach agreement. And having failed to overcome the Poland-Ukraine bid for the 2012 finals, Italy faces an even tougher challenge in overcoming France or Turkey to win the 2016 bid race.

Italy’s TV curse

Jose Mourinho – outspoken and contrary as ever – invariably has his own take on Italy’s crisis. According to him the fault lies not in the boardrooms, on the pitch or even on the terraces – but in the TV studios that increasingly dominate Italian football discourse.

“I thought that in Italy there was more passion for played football,” was his take on Italy’s crisis shortly after taking over as Inter manager in 2008.

“I thought the objective was to improve the quality of football. Instead I have been disappointed to see that the focus is more on irrelevant details, post-match quarrels between coaches or on TV shows.

“In Spain and England there’s less focus on those things, that’s why Serie A is behind compared to the Premier League and La Liga.”

Given that every Italian game is broadcast live on pay-TV and most living rooms are surely preferable to the country’s dilapidated stadia, the “Special One” may just have a point once more.

reporting from James Corbett

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