The Decline of Serie A teams in Europe

In the ten years from 1988-89, when AC Milan defeated Steaua Bucharest 4-0, through to the 1997-1998 final when Real Madrid defeated Juventus 1-0, Serie A had at least one representative in the Champions League final on nine out of the ten finals played.  (Source)

The only omission being Red Star Belgrade’s penalty victory over Marseille in 1990-91.

It was a glorious period of dominance for teams from Serie A where the likes of Milan, Sampdoria and Juventus reached the final of Europe’s most important club competition with unerring regularity, culminating in the first all-Italian final in 2002-03, when Milan beat Juventus on penalties.

Since then only two Italian teams have lifted the trophy, Milan in 2006-2007 and Inter in 2009-2010.

More worryingly, in the ten finals since that Milan v Juventus clash at Old Trafford in May 2003, Italian teams have reached the final only three times, the two finals listed above and the 2005 final in Istanbul where Liverpool defeated Milan on penalties after a 3-3 draw.

In the last six finals, Inter Milan have been Serie A’s lone participant. In the same period, German teams have reached the final four times (Bayern Munich three times, Dortmund once), English sides five times (Manchester United three times, Chelsea twice) and Spanish sides twice (Barcelona winning both times in 2009 and 2011).

It can be argued (as history shows) that there is a cyclical nature to a certain league’s dominance of European’s finest competition. Ever since it’s inception, when Real Madrid dominated, there have been periods when certain teams (such as Real Madrid (1956 to 1960), Ajax (1971 to 1973), Bayern Munich (1974 – 1976)) or countries (such as English teams winning every final from 1977 to 1984) have dominated.

Yet performance in the Champions League needs to be measured by more than simply finals appearances and when you look a little deeper at performance in the Champions League, especially in recent seasons, there is clear evidence of a decline in performance of Serie A teams compared to their rivals in Spain, Germany and England.

Other than Inter’s victory in 2010, the last time an Italian club appeared in a Champions League semi final was Milan back in 2007. Even Serie A’s runaway Champions of the past couple of years, Juventus, have not reached a Champions League semi final since 2003.

Since 2003, Italian teams have filled seven semi final spots. That seems a relatively impressive total, especially when you consider German sides have filled five spots over the same time. However, in that same period, Spanish sides have reached the semi finals on 13 occasions and English teams have filled 15 semi final spots. (Source)

Yet adjust those figures for the past five seasons and it is a far starker picture. Since 2008, only Inter Milan have reached the Semi Final stages from Serie A and that was once in 2010. Four English teams (Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool) have reached the semi final stage eight times between them in the same period.  Barcelona have reached the semi finals every year since 2008, Real Madrid every year since 2011.

Last season saw the two German sides, Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund light up the semi final stage, defeating the two Spanish giants Barcelona and Real Madrid in stunning fashion to set up the first all-Bundesliga Champions League final.

Indeed, since 2008, only Juventus in 2013, Milan in 2012, Roma in 2008 and Inter in 2010 and 2011 have reached the quarterfinals stage from Serie A.

Compare that with the likes of teams from La Liga, where Barcelona have reached the quarter final stage or better every year since 2008, Real Madrid in 2011, 2012 and 2013, Villarreal in 2009, Malaga in 2013.

Premier League teams have also fared well, with Manchester United reaching the quarter final stage or better in 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011, Chelsea in 2008, 2009, 2011, 2012, Liverpool in 2008 and 2009, Arsenal in 2008, 2009 and 2010 and Tottenham Hotspur in 2011.

Even the Bundesliga, who’s dominance of Europe only really started last season, has seen Bayern Munich (2009, 2010, 2012, 2013), Dortmund (2013) and Schalke (2008, 2011) provide more Champions League quarter final teams than Serie A (Source)

The weight of evidence shown above clearly suggests that from its European heyday in the 1990s, Serie A’s influence on European Football’s biggest competition has diminished and diminished greatly.

From providing at least one finalist in nine of ten finals over a ten year period from 1988 to 1998, Serie A has had one finalist in the past five years and only five quarter finalists in that same period. In contrast teams from the Bundesliga (7 quarter finalists),  La Liga (11 quarter finalists) and the Premier League (14 quarter finalists) have provided far more.

Indeed, Premier League teams are almost three times as likely to reach the quarter finals as Serie A teams over the past five years.

That is a remarkable level of decline, but there are two ways of looking at this; first is this decline down to the emergence of much stronger teams from La Liga, the Bundesliga and the Premier League, or is it down to the decline of quality in teams playing in Serie A?

There is certainly a grain of truth in both those. As we have seen in earlier articles, the cash generated by the Premier League teams, in terms of total turnover, far exceeds that of teams in Italy. In Spain, the might of Barcelona and Real Madrid as world forces in football ensures they are financial powerhouses and in the Bundesliga, their football model of lower wages, higher attendances and far greater profitability for clubs is driving teams like Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich to new heights.

In Serie A though, it is clear that attendances are falling and while TV revenue remains high, the amount of money the clubs generate from global rights is tiny compared to other teams. We’ve also looked at how the player exodus to the Bundesliga, La Liga and the Premier League in the main (plus players heading to France, Russia and beyond) means that the quality of Serie A is not as strong as it was in its heyday.

Do things look like improving for Serie A teams? Well no, three teams qualified for the Champions League in 2013-2014, Juventus (Champions), Milan and Napoli. However Juventus and Napoli both failed to make it past the group stage, finishing in third place in their group.

Juventus only won one of their six games, in a group containing Galatasaray, Real Madrid and Copenhagen and were eliminated when Galatasaray beat them 1-0 in their rain delayed final group game.

Napoli lost out on goal difference in a tougher group where Arsenal and Borussia Dortmund went through. Milan crept into the knockout phase coming second in their group but in the first leg of the Round of 16, they lost 1-0 at home to Atletico Madrid and their chances of progressing into the quarter finals look slim. (Source)

In contrast, it looks likely that three Spanish clubs, two German sides, at least one English team (perhaps two) will reach the quarterfinal stage.

What is clearly evident is that Serie A clubs fortunes in Europe are clearly in decline and have been for some time. It seems the relative fragility and weakness of the domestic league in Italy, the imbalance in finance and the lack of top players, has created a system where the best teams in Serie A are now no longer good enough to call themselves the best teams in Europe.

Yet it is a sword that cuts both ways; a lack of success in Europe has already meant Serie A losing one of its four Champions League places to the Bundesliga and with no Serie A team likely to reach the quarter finals in 2013-2014, together with the emergence of teams in leagues such as the French, Russian, Greek and Turkish league, there could even be pressure on Serie A’s third Champions League place.

That means drastically reduced chances of additional revenue for teams that cannot afford to lose more money if they are to try and close the gap on European football’s rich elite.

Next up, we’ll have a look at the cumulative effect of lower performance levels, less cash and the inability to sign the top players and in particular, how this has affected attendance levels in Serie A.