How Juventus Became Too Big To Be Small In Italy, But Too Small To Be Big In Europe


Here we go. Again.

Italian football’s credibility finds itself front and centre of the football world, once again, with Juventus in the eye of the storm, once again. Nearly 17 years on from the events of Calciopoli that tarnished Serie A in a way the league likely won’t ever recover from, this latest scandal has the potential to finish the job off once and for all.

If you are reading this article then you’ll no doubt already know what this one is all about, so there’s little need to go into detail about why Italy’s grandest club were docked points for the second time in their recent history. The question is, why would the country’s biggest team, who earn far more club revenue than any side in Serie A, choose to go down that route? Why cut corners? How did it get to this?

There is no definitive answer, but a multitude of them, all combining into one.

Let’s start with things Juve could control. The point at which the pendulum began to swing in a perilous direction was in the summer of 2016. Until that point, Juve’s overall debt was negligible. Then sporting director Beppe Marotta had built a competitive side over the past five years without spending obscene levels of money. It was due to Marotta’s canniness in the transfer market that Juve were, for a time, dubbed ‘kings of the free transfer’. The likes of Andrea Pirlo, Paul Pogba, Kingsley Coman, Fernando Llorente and Sami Khedira all arrived for nothing, and were complimented with smart buys like Carlos Tevez, Arturo Vidal, Stephan Lichtsteiner, Kwadwo Asamoah, Paulo Dybala and Mario Mandzukic in those early years.

Marotta could do no wrong on the market, but with the benefit of hindsight, the downfall began in the aftermath of Pogba’s return to Manchester United. The Pogba money was spent on Miralem Pjanic, which was a smart deal, and Gonzalo Higuain, which wasn’t. $97m (€90m) was spent on the latter, a player infamous for mental fragility at the very highest level and one verging on his 29th birthday. Signing Higuain wasn’t going to take Juve any closer to that illusive Champions League triumph, and their run to the 2017 Champions League final had very little to do with Higuain, bar a pair of goals in the first leg semi final against Monaco. Within two years, Juve were trying desperately to offload him once Cristiano Ronaldo arrived, and recouped next to little of that initial $97m outlay.

After Higuain, Marotta’s previous Midas touch deserted him: Federico Bernardeschi, Douglas Costa, Emre Can and a returning Leonardo Bonucci flattered to deceive more often than not, to the tune of $125m (€115m).

The pendulum was then shattered completely when Fabio Paratici replaced Marotta in late 2018, with the current Tottenham sporting director wasting ludicrous levels of money on a succession of terrible decisions, most notably handing out $8m-per-season contracts to free agents Aaron Ramsey and Adrien Rabiot.

As per finance expert Swiss Ramble, Juve’s gross transfer spend was a monstrous $870m (€801m) from 2018 to 2020, second only to Barcelona. Their wage bill had soared from $162m (€150m) in 2012 to $350m (€323m) nine years later.

Club revenue had increased to a record high of $498m (€459m) in the first Ronaldo season, but the club were still spending more than their income, and relying on Champions League money and ‘capital gains’. The pandemic exacerbated Juve’s cash flow problems, and no doubt hastened their downfall and to the point where Andrea Agnelli and Pavel Nedved were urged to resign from the board in late 2022.

Yet while Juve are (rightly) shouldering much of the blame, the rest of the league isn’t blameless. The primary reason Agnelli has been such a great proponent for the European Super League is because he sees the unequivocal might of the Premier
League, but also because he knew Juve were dragging Serie A along, and the league in turn was dragging Juve down.

Juve’s domination was mostly due to owning their own arena, their upward curve starting in 2011 with the opening of the new stadium. More money meant buying better players, while the rest of the league was scrambling for left overs or young talents not fully developed. From 2013 to 2020, with the exception of 2017-18 when it seemed Maurizio Sarri’s Napoli would break the hegemony, Juve won Serie A rarely getting out of second gear, shifting up to third when needed on occasion. Juve just weren’t the best; they were streets ahead of the competition.

Fans of other European leagues bemoan the financial might of the Premier League, yet no league in the history of the game had more of a head start to modernise than Serie A. There can be little doubt that Serie A of the 1980s and 1990s was the high watermark in club football history. From 1975 to 2000 Serie A broke the world transfer record 11 times, the league featured every Ballon d’Or winner from 1980 to 2000 at some point in their careers, the league was also awash with world class talent up and down the division. Italian football had the teams, the players, the culture, the fans, the colour, the atmosphere, and the history. Everything was there, the total package.

But club owners rested on their laurels and lacked foresight, something that was happening on a larger scale at societal level within Italy. Clubs were ran like vanity projects and not businesses. The likes of Parma, Fiorentina, Lazio and Roma were ran into the ground by the mid-2000s, with the vast majority of the money going towards players and agents and not building new infrastructure or training grounds.

While the Premier League had a collective vision to improve the league as a whole in the 90s and into the 2000s – with the understanding that they would all win with boats rowing in the same direction – Serie A and its owners were entrenched in the campanilismo mentality, an issue that still affects the league today. Yet even still, up to the end of the 2005-06 season, Serie A still had the second most lucrative broadcasting deal from the top five European leagues. Calciopoli of course ended that. By the end of the decade it had fallen to fourth, behind La Liga and the Bundesliga.

Serie A’s current TV rights deal, running from 2021 to 2024, is down from the previous three-year cycle, and it’s almost certain that the 2024 to 2027 cycle will see another decrease. Lega Serie A chief Luigi De Siervo is attempting to override the Melandri law, which only allows the league to sell TV rights in three-year cycles to prevent broadcasting monopolies, and get it upgraded to five-year cycles, with the hope being that it would allow potential broadcasters more time to invest in the product and thus make Serie A more appealing.

Yet the problem isn’t solely with the diminishing value of TV deals, the problem lies in the league’s inability to build new stadia. This is an issue as old as time for Serie A clubs, and the need for new, modern stadiums grows ever more urgent with each passing year. In Serie A, Juventus, Udinese and Atalanta stand alone as clubs who own their ground.

Pick any year from the last 15 and you’ll find Italian clubs unveiling plans for a ‘new’ stadium, and how many have been seen to fruition? Each club gets bogged down in byzantine Italian laws that stifles development from the start. Even in Milan, the most ‘un-Italian’ of cities in terms of governance, the Milanese pair are finding it virtually impossible to get a new stadium built, with one obstacle after another being put in place to deny them a new arena that would bring in roughly over $108m (€100m) per club, per season.

Even with average attendances rising (28,600 this season), games entertaining and filled with drama, old and brutalist concrete stadiums make for an ugly spectacle on TV. This in turn brings in less money for clubs. Moreover, the need to reduce Serie A back to 18 teams is another issue that needs to be finally addressed, with many teams failing to understand that given the current state of the league, less is indeed more.

What you are left with is a league running on fumes, choking in debt and still dining out on the credit banked during the glory years of the ‘80s and ‘90s. The gap has become so insurmountable with the Premier League that it isn’t slanderous to say Serie A will never again be the pinnacle of the club game; second place is as good as it will ever get.

Agnelli no doubt recognised that, and Serie A’s complete failure to modernise to any meaningful degree meant that – and to paraphrase pro wrestling guru Paul Heyman here – Juventus are too big to be small, but too small to be big, at least in comparison to club revenue among the European elite.

Attempting to bring home the one trophy that’s evaded the club for 27 years, while trying to compete with Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain, plus the English contingent, in the process and being handicapped by an inadequate Italian football system, is why Juve ultimately broke Italian stock exchange laws and went down the path they did.

La Liga president Javier Tebas has urged Serie A to introduce rules similar to the ones he has ushered into the Spanish game to reduce overall club debt. De Siervo would be wise to listen to his counterpart.

Calcio needs a major reset, and this may be the one silver lining that comes out of the latest mess. Yet it needs help from the government which, if history is anything to show, isn’t likely to happen.

But the one thing that is clear is that the Italian game is broken beyond repair, and Juve symbolise that.

Forbes Business
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