There is no doubt that one of the biggest reasons for the decline of Serie A in recent years is tied to the economic climate in Italy. With unemployment rife after the Italian economy shrank from 2007 to 2011 by eight percent, it is fair to say that a significant proportion of the population now no longer have the disposable income to attend regular Serie A soccer games writes Ben Holmes.
In the heady days of the early 1990s, as the graph on this website shows, Italian football was the best supported league in European football by a considerable margin. Average attendances of almost 35,000 people per game in 1991 and 1992, dwarfed the Bundesliga and Premier League by 10,000.
Since then however attendances have fallen considerably, while in other European leagues, there has been a marked upward trend. In 2007, at is Nadir after the Calciopoly scandal, average attendances in Serie A fell below the 20,000 mark. There has been a slight recovery since, but they still hover around the 22,000 mark, even with Juventus now firmly reinstated in the top flight.
In contrast, the Bundesliga average attendance has risen to well over 40,000 since around 2008. The Premier League has average attendances of around 35,000, La Liga is close to 30,000.
It is clear that the global economic crisis has hit Italy particularly hard and it seems that it has hit the typical Italian soccer fan harder than most.
Almost every club in Serie A is experiencing a worrying decline in attendances. Only Juventus, who haved invested heavily in their brand new 41,254 capacity Juventus Stadium (much smaller but more modern than their old ground at the Stadio Delle Alpi) have bucked that trend.
Last season 17 of the 20 clubs in Serie A had grounds less than 70% full on average and for the first Champions League game of their campaign last season, Milan’s San Siro, one of the most imposing sights in football, saw 53,000 seats unsold. (Source)
One key problem could be the state of the grounds. Italian football writer Adam Digby stated “Serie A still plays host to a number of ancient, decrepit grounds.
“Many are still those built for Italia ’90 with places such as Verona’s Bentegodi and the San Paolo in Naples particularly poor on both counts.”
So what is keeping the fans away at most clubs? Certainly the economic factor needs to be considered, but there are also more worrying problems with Italian football that would certainly keep many right-minded fans from attending.
Understanding the Impact of Hooliganism and Racism
Although the Italian authorities may claim that they are making every effort to eradicate hooliganism and racism from the game, there is no doubt that both remain rife within Serie A and both remain a huge impediment towards expanding the game beyond the typical demographic of the average Italian soccer fan.
Unlike Germany, Spain and the UK where families can and do attend games on a regular basis in their droves, Serie A struggles to attract a more family atmosphere due to the dual threat of hooliganism and racism.
In a wonderful piece by Wright Thompson entitled “When the Beautiful Game Turns Ugly” ESPN writer Wright Thompson details his time spent travelling around many of the grounds in Serie A, recounting the awful behaviour he witnessed at many grounds across the country. Racist behaviour is the norm for many hardline fans, or “ultras” and violence outside the stadium prior and following games, is all too common an occurrence.
It is not an isolated incident. Lazio fans, well known for their right wing views and controversial actions, hounded Dutchman Aron Winter out of the club in the 1990s due to the fact that the talented international midfielder was black.
Their violence continues to this day, in 2012 a group of fans from Tottenham Hotspur, who have strong Jewish connections, were ambushed in a Rome bar before a Europa League clash with Lazio. Lazio’s fans used tear gas and baseball bats to cause carnage in the bar, including hospitalising two Spurs fans with serious injuries.
Yet, within Italy, this single-minded parochialism exists between Italian sides. Clashes between fans at the Rome derby are increasingly common. So much so that police had to build a plastic wall between the fans to stop them throwing Molotov Cocktails and flares at each other before, during and after the game.
It is undeniable that hooliganism and racism are inextricably linked. Racism often providing the fuel for the fire of hooliganism.
There have been several high profile recent incidents of racism involving players. Kevin Prince Boateng (now of Schalke 04, but formerly of Milan) famously walked off a pitch, followed by his team mates, when he was abused by 50 or so fans during a friendly against Pro Patria. Samuel Eto’o, now of Chelsea but formerly of Inter Milan, has threatened to do the same.
Mario Balotelli, one of the rising stars of Italian football and a global superstar, still receives consistent racist abuse whenever he plays away from home for AC Milan. In May 2013, a game between Roma and Milan was temporarily halted after Balotelli was on the receiving end of racist abuse from Roma fans.
What is worrying is that it is not just isolated incidents, even smaller Serie A clubs, have their hardcore of fans whose primary role it seems is to cause mayhem and to cause trouble.
Yet is the blame always with the fans or with the structure of Italian Football that permits fans to get away with such hateful behaviour?
How can any football league claim to be one of the best and most forward-thinking in the world when just a day after signing Mario Balotelli from Manchester City, Paulo Berlusconi, brother of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, referred to Balotelli as “the family’s little black boy”.
The Italian Football Federation claim that racist abuse incidents have “diminished from 209 to 60 and the majority of them happened outside the football venues” according to FIGC spokesman Diego Antenozio.
Yet in contrast, Mauro Valeri, who heads Italy’s Observatory on Racism and Anti-racism in Football sais that there have been 660 racist incidents since 2000.
Valeri perhaps neatly summed up the problem when speaking to CNN he stated “In Italy, no club has a real anti-racist strategy, because it believes the fight against racism is not a priority”.
Therein lies the problem for clubs seeking to counter racism, unfortunately for a significant proportion of football fans in Italy, violence and racist behaviour is part of the norm. It is their raison d’etre.
Given such a hostile climate, far less money, expensive tickets and a lower quality product in poor quality stadiums, is it any wonder that attendances in Italian football have been in decline?
So there are several possible reasons why Serie A attendances have fallen drastically, but one effect remains undiscussed, join me next week when we’ll look at the fallout from the Calciopoly scandal and the effect this has had on Serie A both in domestic terms and as a global product.