Last week the world seemingly shrugged their collective shoulders over a press release in the Italian media. The news, which perhaps should have been greeted with a far greater fanfare, is that the Italian Football Federation (FIGC) is to put forward the idea of entering the Italian National Under-21 team into Serie B.
The plans, which were revealed by Italian football federation vice president Demetrio Albertini, alongside current Azzurri coach Cesare Prandelli, remain in their infancy – announced solely with the line “We will take the idea to the relevant body which would be the federation board”. Thanks for that. While the specifics of how this proposal would actually work consist now of little more than speculation and no small amount of hearsay, this certainly seems to have legs.
It has to be noted that although this idea has been tested successfully in the far east, with India and Malaysia pioneering the model through Indian Arrows FC and Harimau Muda A & B, for a nation so rich in football history and heritage (and, of course, as accustomed to success) as Italy to be entertaining this idea, is it a sign of things to come? Furthermore, it brings forward the more pertinent question – how can countries encourage the potential future successes of their national teams? And, if this is not the way to breed future generations of superstars, then what is? Italian FIFA Agent Silvio Pagliari supports Spanish style ‘B’ teams, with weight added to this idea from Claudio Gentile, the well-respected ex under-21 coach. After all, playing for a club’s B team doesn’t appear to have done any harm to Victor Valdés, Xavi, Carlos Puyol, Pep Guardiola, Andrés Iniesta, Guillermo Amor, Leo Messi, Bojan Krkić and Pedro. That’s 5 world-cup winners, a manager who won 6 cups in one season, and the world’s best player included in one little list, among others. Nice.
The idea for the Under-21s in Serie B, however, seems to be a hit at first glance. A plan which offers competitive match practice for young Italian players who would otherwise be sitting on a bench. A plan which sees rising stars given the best coaching and facilities that calcio has to offer. A plan which allows a group of 25 to 30 particularly gifted individuals to learn their trade together, allowing them the opportunity to develop the kind of understanding that famously exists between pairings such as Xavi and Iniesta at Barcelona, existed between Gary Neville and David Beckham for England and Manchester United, and perhaps most relevantly, is currently growing between Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci, who are transferring their Juventus partnership to the Azzurri. The opinion that this needs to be addressed is shared by former national team coach Arrigo Sacchi, who stated that Italian football as it stands is “an individual sport”.
Likewise, this has been well received by those that count. Fans up and down the peninsular are delighted that the partnership of Roberto Baggio and Sacchi – a pairing hired by FIGC to oversee an improvement in academy level Italian football – are being seen to be proactive in their attempts to drag calcio from it’s slump. Certainly, with the dismal showing in South Africa last summer, with the first round exit compounded by the fact that only four of their 23 man squad were under the age of 25, and the youngest just 23, it seems that something’s got to give. The beautiful quote from one fan: “Qualsiasi decisione va comunque presa en fretta, il nostro calcio ha perso già troppi treni e la concorrenza corre veloce” sums up the feelings of a nation fittingly – this translates as “A decision has to be taken quickly, as Italian football already missed too many trains, and the competition is passing us by very quickly”. Quite. Such modesty, and indeed honesty, from the Italian public nearly made me choke on my vuvuzela. Things must be bad.
As they say though, talk is cheap. And if this idea is to work, then how? A few moments spent chewing over this idea suggests some glaring problems. What would the team be called? Which city would they call their home? Which stadium would they use? Where will the funding come from? Could the team be promoted or relegated? And most strikingly, who would give up supporting their own club on a Saturday afternoon to go and support this new team? When fans do come through the door, where does their money go?
Oh yeah, and where on earth will they get their players from?
The likely solution to this would be that players are ‘loaned’ from their parent clubs, most likely Serie A clubs. Not really a big deal, as it happens, especially as half of those who featured in Italy U21’s recent victory over England U21s are out on loan at Serie B clubs anyway. Surely it would be better for all parties if prospects such as Robert Soriano and Marco D’Alessandro were playing together, instead of making up the numbers at Empoli and Livorno respectively? However, this means that this club – and it should be stated that I am using the term ‘club’ as a very loose term – would need dispensation from the league rules which govern the maximum amount of loan players allowed at a club at any one time. Would this be well-received with Serie B clubs? Unlikely. Many of them rely on loan signings to strengthen their own promotion challenges, and surely couldn’t compete with the draw of a national elite club. Short term loans may be the answer, as this would also stop the team being a ‘closed shop’ to an elite group of 25-30 players. Perhaps even players being ‘called up’ on a month-by-month basis could sidestep this potential landmine.
So how about alternatives? One very popular idea is to lower the age of the Primavera championships, Italy’s prestigious under-21 club tournament. With attitudes in the country finally changing it is beginning to be acknowledged that at the age of 21, players of genuine quality should be earning their living playing in Serie A instead of in the junior ranks. By lowering the maximum age in Primavera, the young players are finally given their opportunity to shine. This idea, which has found favour with Sacchi – “If they are mature enough to pass esame di stato (Italian high-school exams) then they are adult enough to play football” – while Silvio Pagliari says “(It is a) good issue to raise as not a lot of teams believe in young players. I agree with lowering the age of Primavera. In Italy the term ‘young players’ generally refers to those age 23 or 24 years old whereas in Europe at that time they have already got three or four years of experience”.
So what has caused this lack of belief in young players? Marco Boriello is a classic example of this. He came through the ranks at Milan and was then loaned out to Empoli, Treviso, Sampdoria, Reggina and Triestina before they sold him to Genoa in a co-ownership deal. Only at the age of 26 was he deemed impressive enough for Milan to buy him back. Oh, and even then he was pushed out in favour for Ibrahimovic. Reward. Same thing with Luca Antonini, too. Even household names like Enrico Chiesa, Beppe Signori and Fabrizio Miccoli were flailing around in the lower leagues at the age of 20 or 21, their potential going unrecognised. Would an under-21 team playing regularly have changed this? Could they have achieved more in the long term had this idea been in place all those years ago? Most recently, would Giuseppe Rossi’s talent have been discovered, or indeed appreciated earlier? At age 19 he scored 9 in 19 in Serie A – a nearly identical strike-rate to an identically aged Brazilian that you may be familiar with, namely Alex Pato. Nowadays one cannot be praised enough while playing alongside the aforementioned Ibrahimovic at league leaders AC Milan. The other was shipped off to Villarreal in Spain where he is allegedly now courting the attentions of FC Barcelona. Why are Serie A clubs so unwilling to trust their own youth?
With so many questions it seems an answer is not close, but with the FIGC waiting for the June presentation of this idea, hopefully un bastone in mezzo all ruota – the stick in the wheel – will be removed by then. Whatever the response, it certainly could prove to be exciting times for the Azzurri. What price the Italians returning to glory in Russia in 2018?
By Paul Piggot – Lech Poznan/Northampton Town fan