This summers referee-fixing scandal centred around Turin giants Juventus threw Italian football into disarray and reinforced unpleasant stereotypes about Italy and corruption. But the furore also seemed to help the Azzurri win the World Cup and, perhaps just as importantly, it has given the game a chance to make a fresh start in several areas. One of these is the sports finances.
For years book-cooking was such a widespread phenomenon in Italian football that it even got its own special nickname administrative doping. This term referred to the way clubs would engage in underhand dealings, neglect to pay their taxes and pile up debts to buy expensive, quality players. This, in turn, was to their advantage on the field, as it enabled them to register results that would not have been possible otherwise. The honest clubs, which only bought players they could afford, paid the price. For example, Bologna, the only club outside the big three (Juventus, AC Milan and Inter) to regularly pay players and the inland revenue on time, was relegated to Serie B in 2005.
The regulatory body, Federazione Italiana Giuoco Calcio (FIGC), started to get serious about administrative doping a few years ago. In 2002 it demoted Fiorentina to the fourth division, when the club was unable to prove it had enough cash to meet its financial obligations for the season. Two years later Napoli was dumped from the second to the third division for the same reason. By relegating two well-supported former champions in this way, the FIGC gave a signal that the financial hanky-panky would no longer be tolerated. Italian football has probably not completely rid itself of this problem. Fiorentina and Napoli fans must still wonder how their teams came to be relegated while debt-laden Roman club Lazio managed to stay in the top flight.
What the FIGC was powerless to do anything about were the inequalities that exist between Italys soccer clubs. At the moment, the big teams have almost all the money going in the game. Some degree of disparity is normal because they are the best supported clubs and can generate more money from ticket sales and merchandising. Whats more, the Milanese clubs have billionaire sugar daddies oil magnate Massimo Moratti for Inter, former premier Silvio Berlusconi for Milan while Juventus is backed by the Agnelli family and the Fiat group. But they also have the lions share of the revenues from the sale of television rights, while the small clubs complain they are left with the crumbs. The minnows say this is unfair because, even though the big teams have more fans, there would be no championship without them.
The trouble with the television rights system is that, at the moment, each club negotiates its own deal with broadcasters for the transmission of games from its home stadium. This puts the big teams with higher numbers of potential subscribers in a stronger bargaining position with broadcasters.
Some pundits argue that this inequality contributed to the phenomenon of administrative doping. Inters, Milans and Juves big spending has inflated prices on the transfer market and forced the rest to find creative ways of keeping up, they say. Indeed, Lazio and AS Roma had to take themselves to the verge of bankruptcy to muscle in on the big threes act.
Experts say that this set-up is not only unfair, it makes for dull football too. In recent seasons, the difference between the top teams and the rest has become so marked that the upsets of small teams surprise victories over stronger teams which used to spice up the championship have been increasingly rare. Serie A attendance figures are suffering as a result.
Fortunately, the support for change stemming from the referee-fixing scandal is being used to bring in greater fairness. In July the government approved a bill reintroducing collective negotiation of Serie A television rights the same system used in England, France and Germany which ensures that smaller clubs get a fairer share. The bill obliges the Italian football league to split half of television revenues equally between all the teams. The other 50 per cent will be split on the basis of the number of subscribers the teams attract to the various television platforms.
We are going back to collective negotiation with the aim of striking a new balance and providing greater competition [between teams] to the football system, said sports minister Giovanna Melandri, who prepared the bill with communications minister Paolo Gentiloni.
It is expected to take three to four more months for the bill to pass through parliament and become law. But even then, the new system will not come into effect immediately. Gentiloni explained that the reform will be phased in gradually, so that existing broadcasting contracts are not broken. The new system will probably not be fully established until the 2007-08 season, unless clubs with deals agreed under the present system renegotiate.
Antonio Matarrese, the new president of the Italian football league (which organises the Serie A and B matches), has said he is going to push for reform as part of his campaign for greater equality. Matarrese was backed primarily by the Serie B clubs and the smaller top-flight outfits when he was elected in August. He took over from AC Milan deputy chairman Adriano Galliani, who was given a nine-month ban from working in the football world for a minor role in the scandal. During Gallianis time in charge, the minnows frequently complained that the league worked primarily in the interests of top teams, especially when it came to money and television rights. As from today things are changing, Matarrese said after being elected. The big clubs will no longer eat the little ones.