Tuesday 7 August 2018

Cristiano Ronaldo, Balconies, and Parma: Why Everyone Should Watch Serie A

The name was almost whispered at first.  Cristiano Ronaldo.  One source reported it, and then slowly others started falling in line.  It was possible.  Ronaldo could play for Juventus.  Somehow, the directors would shuffle salaries and players around to bring from Madrid the most recognizable and marketable athlete in any sport to Turin.

When Ronaldo finally did arrive at the Allianz Stadium, bronze from the Greek sun, a model of sartorial perfection, to face the media, you knew this was big.  You always did, but he made absolutely sure.

"I am not like other players my age," the 33-year-old Ronaldo said, and the body fat level test later confirmed.  "Many in my stage of their career go to China or somewhere else to play."

Ronaldo chose Italy after unparalleled success in Spain.  This isn't a player on the wane, a superstar who wants to ease himself into a life of poolside indolence.  No, Ronaldo wants to win in Italy, Juventus, and Serie A.

It is a coup for the league.  That's how non-Juventus fans consoled themselves, but it's true.  Ronaldo's arrival raises the bar. For everyone.  For his teammate Paulo Dybala.  For the league's top defenders like Roma's Kostas Manolas and Milan's Alessio Romagnoli.  Even for Frosinone defender Emanuele Terranova, against whom Ronaldo will be facing off 80 kms outside of Rome at least once this upcoming season.

I have enjoyed experts on EPL-centric panels trying to figure out how it all happened.  Why Juventus? Why Italy? How can it be that Ronaldo spurned the chance to go back to Manchester United?

I love it. I love hate-watching the parochialism, the toe-curling comments from so-called experts who still think Roma fluked a semifinal appearance in the Champions League. It warms my heart. 

If they had been paying attention the signs of Italy's ascent have been there.  During the 2014-15 season, the more thoughtful English journalists took note of Juventus's run to the Champions League Final, of the huge success of Italian clubs in the Europa League.  In the past few years, Napoli's fluent play has made an impact to the extent that Maurizio Sarri is now coach of Chelsea.

It's a paradox that while EPL partisans dismiss if not bash Italian football, the top English clubs yearn for Italian coaches.  Ranieri, Ancelotti, Conte, Allegri are all coaches that EPL teams have either employed or have come very close to employing. 

Still not convinced?

Fine, you must be a numbers person.  Look at the UEFA coefficient ranking for countries--Serie A has surpassed the Bundesliga and is closing in on England, who sit uncomfortably in second place.

Ronaldo's arrival is a culmination of the "good things" that Serie A has been doing, a living,breathing, grinning exclamation point, a player that could finally help Juventus take that one final step and win the Champions League.

Juventus fans claim the signing as their own, and so they should.  It is a testament to Juventus's superb business acumen and vision that Ronaldo was ever possible.  To outsiders, the Portuguese star's signing is the only thing worth talking about this summer in Serie A.  But Milan, Inter and Napoli have all been at work as well.

Napoli brought in Carlo Ancelotti as coach after Sarri left to Chelsea.  A Champions League winning coach, Ancelotti is a star signing; Napoli owner Aurelio De Laurentiis will be even more smug next year. 

Then there is Inter, who pounced on Roma's Radja Nainggolan
Carlo Anceotti (left) and Aurelio De Laurentiis
among others to bolster their midfield, and who are rumoured to be after Real Madrid's Luka Modric.  Yes, you read that right--Modric.

Milan have woken up from the nightmare of their Chinese ownership and now have former player Leonardo and former legend Paolo Maldini in the management.  Oh, and the best striker in the league, Gonzalo Higuain, will lead the attack.  He came in alongside Mattia Caldara in a swap deal that saw Leonardo Bonucci return to Juventus.

To ratchet up the nostalgia, Higuain and Caldara waved to the fans from a balcony in the Piazza Duomo in Milan.  To me, it recalled Milan's signing of Alessandro Nesta in 2002, or Ronaldo's presentation at Inter in 1997.

Other clubs have been making the headlines as well.  Parma have returned to Serie A after fighting off their second bankruptcy.  Not romantic enough to have one of the sette sorelle (the seven sisters of Italian football, Milan, Juventus, Inter, Roma, Lazio, Fiorentina, Napoli, and Parma) back in Serie A? Consider that defender Alessandro Lucarelli, 41, stuck with the club through the trials of Serie D and administration, retiring just this past season.  

A little further south, newly promoted Frosinone will play in their newly built stadium, Stadio Benito Stirpe, and, at the time of writing, Lazio and Fiorentina have managed to keep hold of their star players like Ciro Immobile and Federico Chiesa.

It has been a glorious summer in Italy.  It is almost as if the league decided to compensate for the national team's failure to qualify for the World Cup.  A lot is happening apart from Ronaldo.  This will be the most exciting Serie A season in a long, long time. 

If you're tired of the familiar villainy of Manchester United coach Jose Mourinho, the same old faces that he pulls in press conferences, the painfully false modesty of Manchester city coach Pep Guardiola, the duopoly of Real Madrid and Barcelona in Spain, the predictability of a Bayern Munich triumph in Germany, give Serie A a try.  Sure, Juventus have won the last seven Scudetti, but Serie A was the only top league that still had more than one team fighting for the championship two rounds from the end last year (Napoli and Juventus).  This year, it feels maybe, despite Ronaldo, Juventus's hegemony just may be at risk.

You can whisper it for now, and let's see if it becomes reality.

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