Italian Football Still Afloat Despite Lingering Crisis

Rome, Aug 27 (DPA): The curious thing about Italian football is that it still works. In the age of all-important marketing, working means selling, and "il calcio" does it reasonably well despite a series of incongruities it seems unable to shake off.

The Serie A season that begins on the weekend follows one of Italy's worst World Cup showings and none of the plagues afflicting the game seem to have been seriously addressed.

But national champions Inter Milan hold the European title, players' pay remains outlandishly high and none of the television channels dedicated to football is at risk of folding.

The Azzurri's failure to advance to the World Cup knock-out stages in South Africa was a clear sign of decline after the triumph in 2006, but it was quickly forgotten amidst a flurry of pre-season friendlies and transfer-market coups.

One of the biggest moves left the Serie A without Mario Balotelli, a locally produced talent who moved to Manchester City, leaving Inter to defend its historic treble with a lineup commonly dubbed "the foreign legion" due to the low number of local players.

Il calcio continues to sell well despite its inability to get rid of violence. Paradoxically, TV audiences appear to grow if games coverage includes some rioting scenes.

After the ugly clashes that accompanied some of last season's league games, something often resembling urban guerrilla, violence continued unabated during the summer break, with fans even clashing after games where nothing could be won or lost.

An Interior Ministry-enforced fan card for the upcoming season should help curb hooliganism, but many doubt it will have any deterring effect.

Pitches themselves have long been a source of embarrassment, with most clubs unable to provide a decent surface to play on.

Fans watching games from foreign leagues on television keep wondering what mysterious illness has hit Italian grass.

This week, Werder Bremen players could not believe their eyes when they stepped onto the Sampdoria Genua pitch for a Champions League playoff.

The sorry state of the turf infuriated them, but they were lucky not have to meet Samp in the rainy months.

The stadiums surrounding the pitches are not much better. Most of them are old and many are surrounded by an athletics tracks that keeps the fans far away from the action and therefore they seldom fill to capacity.

Star defender Fabio Cannavaro, 36, the 2006 World Cup-winning captain, had enough of all this in June and left Juventus for Dubai club Al-Ahli.

Cannavaro was disappointed because Napoli refused him a chance to close his career in his native Naples, but he also said that there were many episodes from the past season that convinced him to leave Italy.

He spoke of "the firecrackers of Juve-Parma, the insults received against Catania, when they told me all kind of things.

"I have been saying it for a while: our dynamics must change. It is enough to look at the stadiums where we play, at the sports culture we breath during games.

"(In Dubai) I will miss the (Spanish) Liga (where he played three seasons with Real Madrid), but not the Serie A."

Roberto Mancini, a former Inter coach who in 2009 left Italy to manage Manchester City, is enthusiastic about the Premier League - his words echoing those of Carlo Ancelotti, at Chelsea since the same year.

"Here you have the maximum," Mancini said. "Full stadiums, fast game, true tension. A footballer here can have some real fun."

The show may not be as flashy in the Serie A, but it cannot stop, and Italian fans will get their share of fun, anger, sorrows and joy from games, interviews, slow-motion close ups and TV pundits.

The situation in stadiums is likely to improve, mostly because it is hard to imagine it will get worse.

And for fans staying at home, pay-TV will for the first time bring their cameras inside the teams' changing rooms before games and provide interviews at half time.

The show can begin.


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