Football, as 1960s England star Jimmy Greaves is fond of saying, is a funny old game. And here in Italy perhaps its funnier than in most places.
On 20 August the Italian football league asked the government to declare football in a state of crisis and take action to help the debt-laden industry with its financial problems. Eleven days later, 125 million changed hands in four transfer deals involving Serie A clubs.
Quite a conundrum, isnt it?
In August it seemed we were facing the end of the football world as we knew it.
To start with, we had the demise of one of the games biggest names, AC Fiorentina, which lost its long battle against the laws of economics at the beginning of last month. After years of blundering mismanagement under movie producer Vittorio Cecchi Gori, the club missed a deadline set by the league to put its financial house in order, was excluded from the championship and consequently went to wall. A new club, Florentia 1926 Fiorentina, will try to take Florences famous viola colours back to their former greatness, starting from Serie C2 fourth category football this season.
Next came the leagues historic decision to postpone the start of the championship which should have kicked off on 1 September because of a row over television broadcasting rights. The delay, which had never happened before in peacetime, was prompted by eight Serie A (Atalanta, Perugia, Piacenza, Empoli, Modena, Brescia, Chievo Verona, Como) and three Serie B (Verona, Venezia, Vicenza) clubs failure to agree contracts with Italys two pay-TV companies for live coverage of their home matches. The clubs each wanted 10 million but Stream and Tele+ were only willing to pay 4.5 million a figure the clubs say is insultingly low when big outfits like Juventus and AC Milan rake in around ten times that amount. However, the TV companies, which are both making heavy losses, refused to up their offers. With no takers for their TV rights, the clubs without contracts are trying to set up their own digital broadcasting platform instead.
In late August the league had also failed to find a deal with state broadcaster Rai for its post-match highlights package. Rai has screened football highlights on its 90 minutes programme for over 40 years. This year, however, Rai, with financial problems of its own, decided the 88.8 million it paid for the package last year was too steep and offered around half that amount. Eventually the broadcasters hard ball tactics paid off and it won a 20 per cent reduction for the next three years.
Then tangled up in all this trouble, we have prime minister Silvio Berlusconis ever-present conflicts of interest. Berlusconi, as owner of AC Milan and Rais main rival Mediaset, has a direct interest in the outcome of all negotiations taking place. To add to the intrigue, Adriano Galliani, the man who runs AC Milan for Berlusconi, is also the president of the Italian football league.
A fine mess by any standards, and one which prompted the league to ask the government to declare a state of crisis in the industry a request which, however, now looks a tad ridiculous after four big-money moves on the last day of the transfer market (Ronaldo, Inter Milan to Real Madrid; Hernan Crespo, Lazio to Inter Milan; Alessandro Nesta, Lazio to AC Milan; Marco di Vaio, Parma to Juventus).
So what does it all mean? Were footballs powers-that-be pulling ours and the governments legs all along?
The trouble is that the crisis is real but is spread unevenly. The small clubs are all feeling the pinch and even the big clubs here in the capital are in difficulty. Lazio, which Fdration International de Football Association (FIFA) has barred from the international transfer market for not paying its bills, has been forced to sell players, including heartbreakingly for the fans club captain Nesta, to avoid following Fiorentinas fate. While AS Roma hasnt had to sell the family jewels yet, it hasnt been able to bring in new talent either.
A recent survey reported that last season the 18 clubs in Serie A ran up a collective debt of 700 million, as players salaries soared while revenues fell. Naturally those sorts of losses cant be sustained for long and the belt tightening was overdue.
Unless, of course, you have a mega-rich sugar daddy like Massimo Moratti (Inter Milan) or Berlusconi, who despite everything can continue to lavish truck loads of cash on the likes of Crespo, Nesta and Brazilian superstar Rivaldo.
All of which sadly means that money, power and success are increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few top clubs: Juventus, AC Milan, Inter Milan and if were lucky AS Roma. Ultimately in football the fattest wallets win.