Friday 23 August 2019

Serie A Season Preview: More To It Than Juventus

Before a ball is kicked to start a season, the league table reads like a perfect democracy.  Everyone equal, facing discrimination only on the basis of alphabetical order. Sere A kicks off this weekend, but Atalanta are already champions of Italy after 0 games played.

Put aside your partisanship and enjoy the pristine table while you can.  Teams and fans, delude yourselves with visions of triumph now because the illusion will begin to lift after a dozen matchdays.

By then, the table will start to tell familiar stories of the haves and have-nots and the tundra that yawns between them.

Maybe it will be different this time. Maybe Juventus will not have sown up the title by Christmas; maybe the teams that look like relegation candidates right now (Verona, Lecce) will be flirting with mid-table bliss.

After the last eight seasons, I have learned to enjoy Serie A's subplots more than the hackneyed main one. The fight for European spots or salvation.  The surprise players or teams. A near-decade of black-and-white Juventus dominance has bestowed upon me nuance, a shade of gray through which I can appreciate the undeniable progress Serie A has made as a whole and teams like Atalanta and Torino have made in particular.

Ready for battle: Antonio Conte
This season, the prevailing opinion is that Inter are the new anti-Juve. Both teams have new coaches, but there is a palpable belief that while Juventus coach Maurizio Sarri fiddles and fine-tunes, Antonio Conte's knuckle-down approach at Inter will yield results quicker.  And maybe that will be enough for Inter to steal a start on Juve that will prove unassailable in the end.

You go through the well-rehearsed arguments all the time. How Romelo Lukaku will be the missing piece for Inter on the field, how Cristiano Ronaldo will "SIUUUU" himself and his team to glory, how Napoli coach Carlo Ancelotti will finally steer Napoli to the Scudetto because of continuity.  All of  this matters, of course, and I am invested in the league's denouement, but so much like the following compels me even more.

Decreto Crescita Law: Italy's Rientro dei Cervelli

Former Milan CEO Adriano Galliani never missed the opportunity to lower everyone's  expectations near the end of his tenure. When pressed upon Milan's relatively low-key mercato or Italy's inability to attract the top talent, he would list off a variety of reasons, and one of them was the country's unfavourable tax law.

Those laws will change in 2020. Italy has passed a new law, Decreto Crescita (or Growth Decree), in a bid to attract talent from overseas into various sectors of the economy--and football will also benefit. I won't go through the finer points, but in a nutshell Italian teams will have to pay significantly lower taxes on the salaries of players who have not lived in Italy for the last 2 years (Italian or foreign).  It is a bid to bring back to Italy the brains (Rientro dei Cervelli literally translates to return of the brains) it has been missing and losing for years. 

Purple Ribery

The benefits of the law are already being seen. Fiorentina signed Franck Ribery from Bayern Munich on a free transfer and are going to pay him 4 million euros net, capitalizing on the new legislation to land a high-profile signing like the Frenchman.

Ribery laps up the adulation in Florence

While the media speculated all summer about Federico Chiesa's departure to Juventus, Fiorentina's new Calabrian-born American billionaire owner Rocco Commisso had other ideas. Ribery, even at 36, is a statement signing for Fiorentina, a type of signing their fans had craved for years but never saw under the previous owners, the Della Valle family.

The Thinking Man's Coach: Marco Giampaolo

New Milan coach Marco Giampaolo is nothing if not cerebral.  Arrigo Sacchi gushes over him. Journalists have so far given him a deferential respect. Unkempt and disarmingly calm in most pre-season press conferences, Giampaolo has given the impression of a man who prefers to toil within as he finds the formula that can make Milan tick. He is the first coach since Massimiliano Allegri, who left in 2014, who is not an ex-Milan player. Already that represents a bright point for a club that has seen little or no success with experiments like Filippo Inzaghi, Clarence Seedorf, and Gennaro Gattuso on the bench. 

Giampaolo is a man driven by his methods, always ready to point out to journalists that he will throw in new signings like Ismael Bennacer and Rafael Leao when they have learned the movements of the new team.  Milan finally have a bonafide coach.  And the Champions League is a must after having missed out on it by one point last season.

Balotelli returns to Brescia

Mario Balotelli is back. This time to represent Brescia, the city where he also grew up from the age of 2. It is remarkable that while Balotelli negotiated life in France's Ligue 1, he was still a vexed topic in Italy, finding himself as part of discussions around the national team and still referred to as a cautionary tale. 

Balotelli will always be the locus of all Italian football's desires and anxieties it seems. He is variously saviour and scapegoat, but never forgotten.  Balo's partnership with Alfredo Donnarumma up front at Brescia will make for an intriguing season.

In short, there is more to it than what's at the top.  Serie A, after a long time, looks competitive, compelling top to bottom. The Scudetto struggle is merely a sideshow.

Whatever happens at the end of the season, enjoy the ride.  Even if you feel Juventus winning the title is a foregone conclusion.

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