Once upon a time, Serie A used to be the dream destination for almost every top professional footballer. Way back in the 1980s, AC Milan had Ruud Gullit, Marco van Basten and Frank Rijkaard along with Italian legends like Franco Baresi, Paolo Maldini and Roberto Donadoni. Juventus could throw up Michel Platini. Diego Maradona was the jewel in the crown for Napoli. Even Paul Gascoigne, the wayward genius of English football, joined Lazio in 1992, leaving Tottenham Hotspur. The year 1992 was one of upheaval in world football when Rupert Murdoch and English football joined hands and created the Premier League. Sky’s global coverage changed the face of the game.
Dennis Bergkamp arrived at Highbury—Arsenal’s home ground then—from Inter Milan. Gullit left Milan and checked in at Stamford Bridge via a short stint at Sampdoria. Even Italian stars like Gianluca Vialli, Fabrizio Ravanelli and Gianfranco Zola fell for the Premier League’s popularity and big money. In the 1980s, Italian clubs won the European Cup—now the Champions League—thrice. Juventus won it in 1984-85 and Milan annexed it twice on the spin in 1988-89 and 1989-90. In the 1990s also, Serie A used to have a strong presence in the world’s most prestigious club competition. Both Milan and Juventus lifted the Cup once each in that decade. The downturn began at the turn of the century. Juventus couldn’t hold on to their most prized asset and sold Zinedine Zidane to Real Madrid in 2001 for then a world record fee of £46.7 million.
Eight years later, Real Madrid once again smashed the world record to land Kaka from Milan for around £59 million. It was widely reported then that Milan agreed to the deal to aid the club’s financial crisis. Kaka won the Ballon d’Or with Milan in 2007—the last time anyone besides Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo bagged the honour. In 2006, Italy won the World Cup for the fourth time. Ironically, that was also the year of the ‘Calciopoli’—the football scandal that implicated Juventus and some other major teams for allegedly rigging games by selecting favourable referees. Juventus had been stripped of two Serie A titles and were relegated to the second division.
A number of top players decided to leave. The Old Lady recovered, but it took them six years to regain the lost honour. The Premier League had already established itself as the richest football tournament on the planet. Top Italian coaches like Carlo Ancelotti and Roberto Mancini started to arrive in England. Fabio Capello took charge of the England national team. It’s not that the La Liga in Spain was thriving in the mega millions, but it always had the two giants—Real Madrid and Barcelona—and El Clasico to fall back on and to woo the global audience. Italian football was slipping deeper into the mire. Serie A clubs played in the dilapidated stadiums that were last renovated before the 1990 World Cup. Only Juventus managed to build its own stadium. All other Italian clubs still play at the grounds that are owned by the local councils.
Juventus played the Champions League final twice in the last four seasons, but they were a case in isolation. Serie A had long fallen by the wayside. It reflected in the national team’s performance. Italy’s failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup finals represented a nadir. From that perspective, Cristiano Ronaldo’s move from Madrid to Juventus for a reported fee of £105 million could be a game-changer. Ronaldo might be 33 years of age, but he is still the biggest thing that football can offer along with Lionel Messi. Ronaldo’s arrival in Turin will shore up Juventus, its commercial partners and popularity. Already, it has been reported that Juventus have sold £45 million worth of Ronaldo shirts in just 24 hours following his arrival. Ronaldo spoke about the new challenge with regard to his transfer.
“… I believe that the time has come to open a new stage in my life and that is why I have asked the club (Real Madrid) to accept transferring me. I feel that way and I ask everyone, and especially our followers, to please understand me,” he had said, expressing his feelings of “enormous gratitude” to his old club. But there could be more to this than meets the eye. He had reportedly lost the Real dressing room. At Kiev, as Real Madrid celebrated another Champions League triumph following their win over Liverpool, Ronaldo was speaking in the past tense. “It was very nice to be at Madrid,” he had said, dropping a big hint about leaving the club. And according to reports in Spain, it didn’t go down well with his teammates.
The dressing room, led by Sergio Ramos, turned on the Portuguese galactico for what they felt was a serious dampener. Also, money could be a reason why he fell out with the Real top brass. After the 2016-17 Champions League victory, Ronaldo was promised a big pay rise by Real Madrid president Florentino Perez, which never came. The player reportedly resented the fact that his weekly wage, £400,000 (approx) was considerably lower than Lionel Messi’s £568,000-a-week at Barcelona and Neymar’s £520,000-a-week at PSG. It was interesting that Manchester United didn’t show any interest to bring Ronaldo back to Old Trafford.
Jose Mourinho, the United manager, rather had this to say: “The Premier League is the most competitive league right now, but a lot of people are going to be watching Serie A for Cristiano Ronaldo and Spain for Messi.” He added: “Serie A has now become one of the best leagues in the world”, while urging the other top Italian clubs to react positively and aggressively to Juventus’ acquisition of the superstar. United usually don’t buy players on the wrong side of 30, with virtually no re-sale value. Also, with Alexis Sanchez now occupying the left side of a front three, and the No. 7 shirt, United didn’t need Ronaldo. Mourinho might launch a bid for Gareth Bale, but that’s a different story.