Among the many items noted in the Professional Football Players’ Observatory’s demographic study last week was the fact that Inter, champions of Europe, were also the continent’s oldest side. Inter’s average age of 29.6-years-old was higher than that of any other top-division side across Europe’s 36 biggest footballing nations, and the Nerazzurri were indicative of a national trend. For the second year running, Serie A had emerged as the continent’s second-oldest top-flight, behind only the Cypriot first division.
As ever, the statistics were spun in a thousand different ways. Mediaset poked fun, calling Inter the “grandma of Europe”, while Carlo Ancelotti used Inter’s success to deflect suggestions that his own Chelsea squad was too old. Arrigo Sacchi, though, cut to the heart of the matter. “This is no country for young men,” said the former Italy manager. “Young players are of little interest to teams and supporters, or to directors who are always in too much of a rush. But if there is no generational change, calcio will die.”
Appointed last August as technical co-ordinator of the national team’s youth set-up, it is Sacchi’s business to worry about such things, but his is a thesis that few would dispute. Indeed, the shortage of emerging Italian talent in Serie A has been one of the most consistent discussion points for talkshows and newspaper columns for years. From TV pundits and former pros right through to current players and coaches, there is seemingly unanimous agreement across the peninsula that young Italian players need to be given more of a chance.
And yet, as Cristiano Gatti put it in Il Giornale a few months back: “Just like pension reform: everyone wants it, nobody does it”. When push comes to shove, most managers in Serie A seem reluctant to gamble on a young player when there is an older, safer alternative available. “In this country there is a grandfatherly, rule-of-the-elders mentality,” continued Gatti. “One which considers an 18-year-old to be immature, untrustworthy, lunatic, unpredictable.”
It is a mindset reflected by the regularity with which top sides find themselves signing players that either they or a direct rival had once discarded. Inter were happy enough to let a 22-year-old Leonardo Bonucci leave in the summer of 2009, yet after one impressive year at Bari the centre-back is now a €15.5m mainstay of the Juventus defence. Marco Borriello, similarly, came through Milan’s youth system, but after wasting half a career out on various loans he was finally sold to Genoa on co-ownership for just €2m in 2007. A year and 19 goals later Milan had to pay €7.5m, plus give up another player, just to get him back.
Indeed, further scrutiny of the PFPO document has thrown up a statistic that was perhaps even more troubling for the long-term health of the Italian game. Of the more than 13,000 players surveyed across Europe, the study found that 23.3% had been brought through the youth academy of the team where they were presently under contract. In Italy that figure fell to less than 9%. Only in Portugal (6.4%) was the figure lower.
A number of Serie A clubs seem to have effectively given up on the notion of developing players through their own academies altogether, relying instead on impressive scouting networks to turn up exciting prospects abroad (and especially in South America). Some of them, indeed, have been very successful, a fact highlighted by the impact this season of Alexis Sánchez at Udinese, Josip Ilicic at Palermo, and Edinson Cavani at Napoli (originally spotted, again, by Palermo) – to name but a few. Another noteworthy nugget revealed by the PFPO was the fact that there are more Argentinian expatriates (46) playing in Serie A than any other European top-flight.
Such a backdrop helps to explain the Italian Football Federation’s (FIGC) decision to ban teams from signing more than one player from outside the EU in the wake of the national side’s World Cup humiliation. The policy may be misguided – it seems more likely to lead clubs into aggressive scouting of smaller European nations (Ilicic, for instance is just one of three Slovenian players brought in by Palermo during the last two transfer windows) than investment in their youth programmes – but the problem is real.
The FIGC has also sought to address the issue through other means – Sacchi’s appointment was accompanied by those of Roberto Baggio as the new head of the technical sector and Gianni Rivera as head of the teaching sector, and all have spoken of their goal to increase the number of young Italian players being developed by clubs. Cesare Prandelli, too, has attempted to set an example since taking over the national team – emphasising the role of players like Mario Balotelli as the future of the Azzurri.
But the reality is that managers have their own jobs to worry about in a league where presidents are rarely patient. Gatti’s article for Il Giornale praised Rafael Benítez for throwing the 18-year-old Coutinho straight into his starting line-ups, saying: “at last Italy has found a foreign manager who has actually brought with him a foreign sporting culture”, but two months later the Spaniard was out of a job.
That his successor, Leonardo, has so far started the 22-year-old Andrea Ranocchia just once in five games, despite Inter having paid €12.5m to acquire him (given that they already co-owned his rights with Genoa, the implication would be that his full value is higher still) provides a neat contrast. The centre-back will surely get more opportunities in the coming weeks, but as long as Inter are winning games few fans, journalists or directors would ever dare challenge the manager over such a detail.
In a way it seems churlish to raise the point now, at a time when Serie A is enjoying one of the most unpredictable title races it has had in many years, and with teams such as Udinese, Palermo and Napoli offering up football with a high entertainment value. But just as with Gatti’s pension reform, the shortage of young Italians coming through at the top level is a structural one. It cannot be ignored forever.