Saturday 30 September 2017

On UEFA Coefficients and Serie A's Progress

Papu Gomez celebrates Atalanta's equalizer vs Lyon in the Europa League
In the late summer of 2002, the question of whether Serie A could still be considered the best league in the world seemed more pressing than ever.  No Italian club had reached the quarter-final of the Champions League in the season that had just ended, the national team had disintegrated at the World Cup, and the league's star Ronaldo had left Inter for Real Madrid.

In truth, the question had been asked for years, quietly or stridently, and at the start of the 2002-03 season the answer seemed obvious: no. 

Eight months later, however, Inter, Juventus and Milan were in the semi-finals of the Champions League, and journalists had to revise obituaries.  On May 28, 2003, Old Trafford hosted the first all-Italian Final between Milan and Juventus.  Serie A was vindicated, robed in the glitter of UEFA's premier event, but the game was played in the cagey spirit for which Italian football is stereotyped and maligned, as if the two clubs were determined to torture their detractors, slowly, with flints and chisels.  The Final was rarely carved open.  Milan won on penalties, and Italian football's critics paid them--for being too quick to close the door, to forget the qualities that make Italian football competitive and relevant.

Today, fourteen years later, the question of whether Serie A is the best league in the world has a clear answer yet again: no.  The criteria that many use to arrive at this conclusion varies--entertainment, star power, financial health et al.--but more and more are now using what only a small core of fans did several years ago, the UEFA coefficient system (for a quick explanation of the system check out Bert Kassies's valuable site).

Every Champions League and Europa League matchday, I become a better person and cheer for all Italian clubs.  The reason is sentimental but can also be expressed as a formula.  This season, for every win Italy gets 2 (for a draw 1, for a loss 0) divided by 6 (total number of teams allotted) points, or 0.333 points.  So, this past matchday, Italy managed 5 wins (Milan, Napoli, Juventus, Lazio, and Roma) and 1 draw (Atalanta), totaling 1.833 points.  As a result, Italy climbed up to third spot in the UEFA coefficient rankings, ahead of Germany, and now sits tantalizingly close to England (Spain are far, far ahead).

The meaning of that success has few practical consequences in the immediate term.  Late last year, UEFA announced that the top 4 leagues (Spain, England, Italy, and Germany) would enjoy four representatives in the Champions League from the 2018-19 anyway.  But the coefficient ranking nonetheless quantifies a league's success, setting aside the gnashing of teeth and making numeric the vexed and emotional 'which league is best' debate. 

UEFA Coefficient rankings (image taken from Bert Kassies's site located here)
The UEFA coefficient system does have its flaws.  For example, it weighs victories in the Europa League the same as those in the Champions League, with only bonus points awarded upon progression in the latter to compensate partially for the calculation.  But the system remains the closest thing we have to a deterministic criteria for judging the health and strength of various leagues across Europe.

It also matters for the league's vanity, for its self-esteem.  After every matchday, it is now common for Italian journalists on social media to remind us where Serie A is in the rankings.  And this season, no one expected Serie A to be more than 3.5 points ahead of Germany.  There have been some performances of distinction as well, like Atalanta flattening Everton 3-0 in the Europa League a few weeks ago, and earning a point against Lyon in France just this past week, or like Napoli totally dominating Nice over two legs in the Champions League play-offs. 

This season may be Serie A's best chance to solidify its position in third, and even replace England in second when you consider both the quality of their representation, and that they will have one more representative next season (meaning a higher number to divide the points by, and thus a lower return for a win, for those keeping track).  Milan and Lazio should go deep into the tournament (Milan's ludicrous 3-2 win over Rijeka on Thursday notwithstanding), and Atalanta have started convincingly with four points from their two toughest games.  And then there are Juventus, who have played two losing Champions League Finals in the last two years, but who have nonetheless earned Italy valuable points, and should earn more this year.

Serie A may not be able to repeat what it did in 2002-03 in the Champions League, but the feats of 2014-15 are achievable, and, hopefully, surpassable.  That season, Italy earned 19 points.  Lazio and Napoli played the semi-finals of the Europa League, and Juventus the Final of the Champions League.  The early signs are promising. 

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