Serie A 2016-17 Season Review - Five Talking Points
The days of boring Italian Catenaccio football are long gone.
Football's biggest earners now play in England, but Calcio is resurgent even if some of its fans and governers remain in the dark ages.
There’s life in the ‘old lady’ yet
The Bianconeri made history by becoming the first club to win six successive Serie A titles.
The achievements of this season represent a dramatic recovery in Juve's fortunes.
The 2006 ‘Calciopoli’ scandal represented the club’s lowest point as they were stripped of their recent title and relegated to Serie B as a reult of match-fixing.
Juventus didn’t lift a title again until 2011 when former Bianconeri midfielder, and now Chelsea hero, Antonio Conte took charge. Conte restored Juventus pride with two further titles, but nobody could have imagined subsequent manager Massimiliano Allegri would repeat the feat.
Two years ago, Allegri’s Juve were beaten by Real Madrid in UEFA Champions League final, but this weekend they have a chance for revenge in Cardiff which would see them complete a historic treble following success in the Coppa Italia.
Allegri has taken the club to new heights despite having to perform major surgery on the side’s first eleven. How many teams could stomach the loss of midfield trio Andrea Pirlo, Arturo Vidal, and Paul Pogba while winning a Scudetto and reaching the Champions League final?
The King of Rome retires
Making his debut in 1993 at 16 years of age, a young Francesco Totti declared it was his life ambition to emulate his hero, Giuseppe Giannini. Dubbed "Il Principe", The Prince, Giannini starred for Italy in both Euro ’88 and World Cup Italia ’90, a classy attacking midfielder with a robust side to his game, an elegant style and an eye for goal.
It’s hard to contemplate nearly 25 years later Totti, now known appropriately as “Il Re di Roma”, The King of Rome, would play out his entire career at I Giallorossi and in the process double his hero’s appearances and score five times as many goals.
There were no dry eyes inside the Stadio Olimpico during Totti’s final appearance with the usually stoic Roma talisman brought to tears himself. His departure brings down the curtain on an epic career synonymous with controversy, loyalty and breathtaking goals.
Totti spoke from the heart following his emotional farewell saying:
“Being the captain of this team has been an honour. I will no longer entertain you with my feet, but my heart will always be there with you.
"Now, I will go down the stairs and enter the dressing room that welcomed me as a child and that I now leave as a man."
Record breaking success for the Queen of the provincial clubs
Atalanta Bergamasca Calcio are more associated with relegation than European qualification.
Here is a side relegated three times since 2003 only managing to finish in the top half of Serie A once in the past ten seasons.
After finishing 13th last season, the 2016/17 campaign started in awful fashion as they lost four of their opening five games, a run of results that left Gian Piero Gasperini the clear favourite to be the first coach to lose his job. And yet, in part due to the same manager, Atalanta managed to reverse their fortunes earning their highest ever finish in fourth and with it European qualification.
Emulating youth footballing factory Ajax, the Bergamo-based club chooses their youth coaches carefully, and as such enjoy great success developing players.
Youth products include the legendary Antonio Cabrini, International winger Roberto Donadoni and goal poaching sensation Filippo Inzaghi.
Success at youth level continues today, with the likes of Simone Zaza and Manolo Gabbiadini launching their careers in the black and blue of the Nerazzurri.
Atalanta prides their success on domestic foundations, exclusively recruiting Italian managers since the mid-1970’s. Equally only 43 of the 303 youngsters currently in all levels of their academy are foreign-born.
The Miracle of Crotone
Located on the sole of Italy’s boot, Crotone is a desperately poor town, even by Mezzogiorno standards. Its football team Crotone FC known as 'Squali' or the Sharks, has been plagued by corruption for decades.
The region of Calabria has the country’s highest rate of unemployment at approximately at 31%, and this season Crotone FC gave hope to local people by making its inaugural appearance in Italy’s top flight.
Their odds of making it to Serie A were slim, and bookies gave the plucky southerners no chance of survival this season.
As late as April 1st Crotone found themselves eight points adrift from 17th placed Empoli with survival looking an extremely tall order. However, heading into the final game of the season, the Squali had lost only once in their previous eight games, and that defeat was away to the mighty Juventus.
In the run up to the final day, Crotone recorded thrilling victories against Inter Milan and Sampdoria and claimed crucial draws away at AC Milan and Torino.
On Sunday 28th May Crotone knew they needed to defeat Lazio, who were fighting for fourth, such was the disparity in class. They also needed relegation rivals Empoli to lose or draw at Palermo – a seemingly easy feat given the Sicilian club’s wretched campaign blighted by a meagre six wins and a calamitous -44 goal difference.
Crotone’s eventual 3-1 victory over Lazio has seen them dubbed the Italian Leicester in an ode to the Foxes dramatic survival in 2014/15. Comparing their survival campaigns, Crotone took 20 points from a potential 27 in their final nine games, having taken only 14 of 87 points from the opening 29 matches! Although Leicester escaped with 22 of 27 points in their last nine games, they finished closer to mid-table six points clear of relegation.
The cloud of racism still lingers over Italian football
Italian football is riding the crest of a wave with Juventus back as a true European powerhouse, both Rome sides re-establishing European qualification and both Milan sides now buoyed by lavish Chinese takeovers. However, the stain of racism on Italian football appears as indelible as ever.
In one season alone there were three high-profile instances of racism.
Lazio fans racially abused German defender Antonio Rüdiger during a Coppa Italia fixture.
To add insult to injury, Rüdiger also had to suffer further racist remarks from Lazio midfielder Senad Lulić who said of the German:
“Two years ago he was selling socks and belts in Stuttgart; now he acts like he’s a phenomenon.”
In response, Rüdiger was rattled and appears ready to quit Roma and Italian football if appropriate measures are not taken.
“If the Italian Federation doesn't do anything then FIFA must act,” said the German.
“It is easy to come up with the ‘No to racism’ campaign, but when you don’t do anything concrete, then that doesn’t help.
“With all due respect, it’s easy for people from the outside, who do not have the same skin colour as we do, to say ‘stay calm, don’t listen’. But the thing is, that way things won’t change.”
In a separate incident, former Portsmouth, AC Milan and now Pescara midfielder, Sulley Muntari was subjected to vile abuse by Cagliari fans.
Upon hearing the chants at the Stadio Sant'Elia, the 32-year-old asked referee Daniele Minelli to stop the game.
The referee instead showed the Ghanaian a yellow card prompting Muntari to leave the field furiously.
Muntari spoke with passion about Minelli’s handling of events and cited English football as the role model from which Serie A must learn.
"I insistently told him he should have had the courage to stop the game,” said Muntari.
“The referee's not just there to stand on the pitch and blow his whistle - he has to manage everything. He should also listen out for that kind of thing and set an example."
"I never heard anything like that in England because I think they don't tolerate it.
"The people who are racist are actually scared to do it in a stadium because they will get prosecuted or banned. But in Italy, they go free.
"England is the example for the world. If a country doesn't tolerate it, then it means you get rid of it."
Only one week after the Muntari incident, Juventus defender Mehdi Benatia was subjected to racism during a live interview.
When speaking to broadcasters in the studio the Moroccan suddenly stopped mid-sentence.
The defender accused someone of saying in his earpiece: “What are you saying, s****y Moroccan?”
Understandably, Benatia reacted angrily, but like all other events this season, the culprit was not identified or brought to justice.
It is hard to be optimistic about Italian football’s reputation given it is governed by Carlo Tavecchio.
President of the Italian FA, it is unfathomably Tavecchio remains in power given his track record of racist behaviour.
He was sanctioned in 2014 by FIFA and UEFA for referring to black footballers as “eating bananas”, and in 2015 he denied being anti-Semitic or homophobic despite leaked audio of him saying:
“I don’t have anything against gays, but it’s better to keep them away from me.”