Lower leagues across the globe #6: Italy
We’ve been to Portugal, Denmark, Japan, the Netherlands and France so far in our voyage around the globe looking at lower leagues in other countries. Next stop? Italy. And there is no better candidate than the excellent Rocco Cammisola of The Football Express to offer an in-depth insight into life beneath the crema of the espresso.
The poetry of the Italian football system
Football in Italy is completely intertwined with everyday life, occasionally to such extremes that it has become a matter of life and death. It has been able to play an influential role in both the politics and culture of the relatively new nation.
It seems fitting, then, that the league should look to Dante’s Divine Comedy when structuring the football pyramid. The epic poem describes Dante’s journey aided by Virgil through Hell and Purgatory before arriving in Paradise, in an attempt to show Dante the error of his ways.
The pyramid’s current format has been in place since 1978, give or take the odd name change here or there. Serie A sits atop the pyramid, and for many is the stuff of dreams. Its rise in the 80s and 90s was not matched by any peak in interest for the lower tiers, and sadly many of the problems experienced by these clubs tell a story familiar worldwide. It consists of 10 levels and can be divided into 3 sections: top flight Paradise, professional Purgatory and amateur Hell.
“Abandon all hope, all ye who enter”
Those are the words inscribed above the gates of Hell, where our journey begins in earnest. The first 2 levels are considered professional – Lega Pro Prima (first) divisione consists of two divisions of 18 teams, and the second division comprises 3 divisions of 16/17 clubs. Both tiers’ divisions operate a 2 up and 3 down promotion policy.
Some of the notable clubs in these divisions are Foggia, Pro Vercelli (7 times champions of Italy between 1908 and 1922) and Hellas Verona (Champions of Italy in 1985).
Further down the ladder you will find Serie D, a division which is made up of 9 regional groups. This is the vanguard of semi-professional and amateur football in Italy. However, look closely and you’ll see Perugia, Venezia and Messina — sides that have played top flight football in the last decade, but then had professional status revoked because of their poor accounting.
Deeper still, we are in amateur football territory. Few sides have escaped from these divisions and they are essentially serious Sunday leagues. In total, there are a whopping 699 regional divisions spread across the 5 levels at the bottom of the pyramid.
“To course across more kindly waters now my talent’s little vessel lifts her sails, leaving behind herself a sea so cruel”
Serie B is Italy’s 2nd tier, often referred to as Il Purgatorio. It is a division with an inclement climate, where fear of the drop is the bottom line for clubs when they do battle. The division initially started life as a youth league in 1904 but became Serie B in 1929 when it was re-organised, together with a brand new Serie A, as national divisions, with relegation and promotion too.
With the exception of a few seasons, during which some of the big clubs such as Juventus, Milan and Napoli have had the pleasure of entertaining the crowds in the second level, the division remains the domain of provincial sides.
Currently, Serie B contains sides such as Ascoli, Empoli, Livorno, Modena, Piacenza, Reggina, Siena, Vicenza and the no longer great Torino, who have all tasted Serie A recently. These clubs are unlikely to establish themselves in the top flight, providing a great deal of yo-yo sides fighting for 3 places.
This situation leads to a very competitive and closely fought league. In the last two seasons, the top 6 have been divided by less than 12 points and the gap between 6th and the relegation places has been 14 points.
The competitive nature of Serie B often simply leads to very cagey defensive football due to teams being happier to draw games instead of losing points, particularly away from home. However, a relatively poor standard of defending throws up the odd goal-fest. Four sides are relegated, 3 directly and 1 through a playout, and 3 sides are promoted to Paradise.
Promotions, relegations and one more chance
The playoff and playout system used is mirrored across all of the lower leagues – playoffs for promotion places and playouts being a chance at survival afforded to teams at the bottom end of the table. Both follow a similar two-legged format that is familiar to most football fans, with teams winning by aggregate scores. Playoffs consist of a semi-final and final round but playouts are just one round.
If both teams are tied at the end of 180 minutes of football, no away goals are called upon. Instead, the team boasting the higher league position advances. Perhaps this lacks the excitement for neutrals provided by extra time and a dreaded penalty shootout, but it respects what teams have achieved over the course of a season.
Serie B provides an even greater emphasis on league performance. If the gap between third and fourth place is 10 points or more, there will be no playoff and the top 3 sides are promoted outright.
Then there is the wonderful Ripescaggio (repechage or re-fishing). As the last rites are to Catholicism, so the Ripescaggio is to Italian football. Even if you have a horrendous season and your club has been relegated, according to the final league table, there is always hope.
Despite relegation, financial irregularities elsewhere often leads to other clubs being thrown out of the league and relegated sides being saved from falling further into the abyss. The most recent top flight example was Messina benefiting from Juventus’ demise at the end of the 2005-06 season due to Calciopoli.
Coverage in the media
Media exposure received by clubs is extremely poor in relation to their top flight counterparts, though television does provide a very good level of coverage. The rights for Serie B are held by Rupert Murdoch’s Italian branch of Sky, as well as Dahlia TV — a pay-per-view network better known for their adult entertainment.
Typically, there is a Friday night (Anticipo) and a Monday night (Posticipo) game and all of Saturday afternoon’s games are available to fans willing to part with a little more money. Lega Pro and Serie D games are usually available only through local TV stations. Each week, however, Rai Sport (Italian state TV) will televise a game from Lega Pro (Monday night) and a Serie D game.
Despite the abundance of games available on TV for fans of sides in these leagues, the national newspapers don’t provide much coverage at all. Most produce a classified results article together with a league table and perhaps the odd paragraph or two outlining any shock results or particularly controversial episodes, and a few articles detail managerial changes.
More in depth analysis is provided by the local press. In fact, the return to Foggia of Czech coach Zdenek Zeman in July prompted a small peak in attention, in the hope that Zeman takes Foggia to similar heights as he had done in the early 1990s.
The story in the stadiums reflects the opinion of the national media and also, perhaps, of the population in general. In Serie B, the average attendances this season range from 16,943 at Atalanta, a regular yo-yo club, to a measly 1,197 for Portosummaga. Worse still, Lega Pro clubs attendances range from 12,472 to 142 across both tiers, the top spot on this scale being held by Hellas Verona.
Hellas are still considered Verona’s number one club by many in the city, despite city rivals Chievo holding a place two levels above them.
The issue of empty stadiums rose to boiling point earlier this season when Serie B club Triestina decided to cover one of their stands with a tarpaulin. The tarpaulin depicted thousands of 2D fans as though a football console game was unfolding on the pitch. The fans (real ones) who had attended – all 3,810 of them – were outraged that the club had done this. Triestina are from a region with a rich football history. Nevertheless, if the chairman’s claims that they want to double the coverage of these virtual fans is true then it is quite clear that interest in attending games is certainly on the wane.
Clubs in the lower leagues receive support as second teams, fans often preferring to follow one of the ‘grande squadre’ (big clubs). Added to this, there is the availability of pay-per-view TV in the comfort of your home, violence — although reduced recently — in the stadiums and the dreaded Fan ID required to purchase a season ticket or a seat at an away game.
Clubs are unable to depend on gate money to fund their teams and have become increasingly dependent on the revenue they receive from various TV deals. In the past, Serie B used to receive a cut of the TV money from the top flight.
This money had been important to clubs, but when the top flight decided to split away from the rest of the league – aiming to emulate the financial model exhibited by the English Premier League – the revenue more than halved.
With cash often hard to come by, chairmen have occasionally resorted to some creative accounting in order to find a path to Paradise (or more often just as a means of survival). The constant stream of stories detailing the various clubs who have fallen on hard times each season is a depressing sight.
Clubs are constantly pulled up for failing to pay players, taxes and transfer fees among other things. The punishments meted out range between docking points and relegation. Last season in Serie B, three sides were relegated to the depths of the pyramid following bankruptcy and two sides were docked points for match-fixing and financial irregularities. This season, Ascoli have been docked a point for failing to provide proof that their taxes have been paid on six separate occasions already.
Magic of the cup
Sadly, the Coppa Italia is a competition that few care about. The competition’s esoteric format includes a cocktail of sides from the Lega Pro and Serie D divisions, but not all of them. However, the seeded draw for the whole tournament, which takes place in July, rather than producing rich flavour instead leaves a sour taste in the mouth. Attendances are shocking for ties between top flight teams and sides lower down the pyramid, while these clubs have to navigate three or four rounds before even thinking of facing a Serie A side.
The picture painted of the lower leagues is one of doom, gloom and not much else besides. While it is regarded as a far from glamorous, nor a particularly nice, place to be playing, there are sides who have been able to successfully chase the dream of Serie A football.
Chievo, a club from a small suburb of Verona rose from Serie C2 (now Lega Pro 2) to Serie A in 15 years and even managed a few seasons of European football. They achieved all that without breaking the bank. Chievo’s owners have run the club in a very frugal, somewhat derided, manner depending heavily on TV revenue.
Even more emphatically, Nevio Scala took Parma into the top flight for the first time in 1990. Playing a vibrant 5-3-2, the club were able to cement their place in Italy’s football royalty by winning the Coppa Italia three times and the UEFA Cup and Cup Winners Cup twice apiece.
While there are sides who have escaped the depths of the lower leagues — Chievo, Parma, Fiorentina and Napoli are just a few — they will tell you that it was a journey to hell and back.
Read the other posts in this series: