A German Education

Milan were doomed, all Manchester United had neglected to do in Milano was throw earth on the coffin and bless the old masters of the European scene (RIP). Fiorentina had more to play for, and did so both bravely and foolishly at the same time. They too were banished from Europe by old money, old glory; Italy's hopes for European success rests solely with Inter, at least for another few days. As impressive results as the two former clubs collected in the group stage, neither outcome can be seen as surprising. This is what happens usually--every spring--as Italian teams go home early, and the Germans...well, they're closing in. Thanks to their exploits in the old Uefa Cup, now the Europa League, they have all but closed the gap on serie A's Uefa co-efficients and the not so venerable, but all the same important fourth Champions League spot. They can eliminate the gap this year, hinging on the success of their remaining teams in both Uefa tournaments, but the distance will be devoured next year at the latest in any case.

What it means? Serie A will lose its fourth CL spot (also known as lo scudetto in Firenze) to Germany by 2011 at the soonest, probably the year after that at the latest. So when next serie A season kicks off in the fall, there's a chance they're playing for three CL spots instead of four. This statistical curiosity has been treated with little interest in Italy for a relatively long time--until now, when the writing's on the wall and whatever Germany's equivalent to Viola are have already started stocking champagne in preparation. Too little, too late and there's little to do about it now in the short term. What's interesting is the nonchalance the Italian clubs have shown in the face of this reality. The Europa League hasn't been treated with any more seriousness than the old, sad creature that was the Uefa Cup. The latter format has, since the re-structuring of the European cups a decade or so ago, not had enough of a financial (and, I would argue, publicity) incentive to make it worthwhile for a lot of clubs. This season is the first as the Europa League, and is a test drive to see if it will be taken with more importance in the future. But even if there's still far too wide a gap between the main and the secondary tournament hosted by Uefa, they're moving in the right direction by offering a better promoted competition in which the winner will see a lot more financial bonuses than previously. Perhaps this is the development that will inspire Italian clubs to learn from their German counterparts and treat it with more importance. The above side discourse on the state of European cups aside, serie A has seen a complete lack of effort or care going into the collective good, and every team have been out to get theirs. It's not that I blame them, I've actively rooted against most of the Italian teams in Europe this season just as every other, and taken glee from their elimination. Not that I'm an Anglophile or particularly enjoy Manchester United, it's that Milan are on my nerves a whole lot more, just to give an example.

The German sociologist Beck coined the phrase risk society, by which he (in the world's most abridged version of his work:) claimed that the things created by modernity also brought with it inherent risks. While Beck had more of the systematic destruction of the environment than football in mind when writing his book, I nonetheless feel silly enough to re-appropriate it and apply his theory on something as trivial as football (in hindsight I will probably look back on this exact paragraph as the proverbial fork in the road where I wish I could have gone the other way and just posted Totti's latest Vodafone ad).

In this context--which would surely drive Beck, as any self respecting author, mad from frustration--the Italian clubs have created a system with a individualistic paradigm, where clubs learn to look after themselves first, second and third. Then comes the presidents and owners themselves, then their relatives, and somewhere around the bottom of the list we find other clubs. Not even the satellite club system which prevailed up until the middle of the past decade is around anymore, and no club would willingly help each other out of misguided reverence/psychological slavery. This system is continued in large parts due to the creation of wealth, courtesy of the TV rights to games which are of course negotiated individually. But the risks comes back to haunt everyone in Beck's risk society, as you can't forever escape environmental damage (or the German fury). Beck called this the boomerang effect:
"Risks of modernization sooner or later also strike those who produce or profit from them."
As of 2010, it's hard to imagine Inter having to worry about not making the top 3 any time in the foreseeable future, but it's also naive to make proclamations to that effect, knowing full well the cycle of all eras. But Inter aside, the rest--I believe--will all be affected by this. After Inter there's a shift of three or four teams with little between them, all things considered (infrastructure, current personnel, fan base, etc), none of whom can today lay an indefinite claim to the second or third spot. We can speculate about the reason for action not being taken sooner, but I would dare venture a guess that most of these clubs just didn't foresee the risks as anything having to do with them. Should one of four CL spots ever be taken away, there was faith that that particular club would safely be in the top 3 consistently by then.
"[R]isks are an incidental problem of modernization in undesirable abundance. These must either be eliminated or denied and reinterpreted.  The positive logic of acquisition contrasts with a negative logic of disposition, avoidance, denial and reinterpretation."
To me it seems abundantly clear that the strategy chosen has been that of, in Beck's words, "a negative of logic of disposition": the problem has been avoided, denied and reinterpreted since it first surfaced. Avoided, because clubs were looking after themselves only and at most not celebrating the failures of rivals; denied, because the possibility that serie A would lose a CL spot hasn't entered the public discourse until this season, and mostly of late; reinterpreted, because instead of looking at the actual numbers which have shown Germany and their Bundesliga steadily closing in for years, has been offered the fact that Italy are World Champions (no doubt, big up), that Milan won it in 2007 (that success acting as little more than as stalling Germany's advancements says more about the width of the problem than about what's great about Italian league football).

But, as always, not all is bleak. The league has been revamped after the model of the Premiership, and now stands alone, instead of being a joint operation with serie B as previously. The TV-contracts will, starting next season, be negotiated collectively rather than individually, which will further eradicate some of the discrepancies that exists within the league. And the failures of Italian teams to advance, and the realization that a place will be lost at some point has at least sparked some debate and problematise some of the relevant discourses to be had concerning the state of football, and what can be done.

But I don't know if I am in a position to preach, I am after all a temporary Fulham supporter and thoroughly enjoy that German word (oh, snap) schadenfreude in connection to Roma's rivals floundering on the European stage.