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A decade after Italy's match-fixing scandal, Serie A is worse than it was before

The current struggling state of Italian football can be traced back to calciopoli.

Juventus FC v Carpi FC - Serie A Photo by Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images

Ten years ago, Juventus were relegated from Serie A and stripped of two scudetto championships because of their role in the calciopoli scandal, the biggest match-fixing scandal in recent footballing history. The effects of that scandal are still being felt today in Italy, with hearings and trials and investigations still periodically taking place in the wake of that mess, but at the time no one felt the sting more keenly than Juventus fans. Now, though, you could easily argue that Serie A as a whole is still much worse off for what happened because of calciopoli.

Make no mistake, the match-fixing that sparked the investigations and punishments handed out in 2006 was illegal and unethical on a multitude of fronts, and the punishments meted out to Juventus and the other four clubs found to be involved were more than earned. But instead of healing the wounds caused by the scandal, Serie A and Italian football as a whole still bears the scars of calciopoli for all to see, and it still has yet to return to the status that it held before the revelation of that match-fixing.

The initial impact was easy to identify — Juventus were sent down to Italy’s second division for what the investigation revealed to be a leading role in the match fixing, stripping Serie A of its most historically successful club and one loaded with talent. Lazio and Fiorentina were originally supposed to join them in Serie B, but had their relegations reversed on appeal. Both teams, though, were handed stiff points deductions for the following season, as well as AC Milan and a smaller, but still involved, club in Reggina.

The sting quickly spread, though. While Juventus were able to maintain a loyal core of players including Gianluigi Buffon and Alessandro Del Piero, many major stars like Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Fabian Cannavaro quickly left the club in the wake of the scandal and relegation. And they were far from alone from fleeing Italian clubs — in all, some 30 players who had played in the 2006 World Cup that summer, a World Cup that Italy won, left Serie A for other leagues. Such a mass exodus of talent, talent that went largely unreplaced, left Italian teams scrambling to put together teams that could compete both domestically and in European competitions.

That scramble set off a spree of desperation spending from the remaining big Italian clubs — teams like AC Milan, Inter Milan and Roma — to try and rebuild themselves and remain competitive. While there would be some short-term gains from that strategy, with Milan becoming the dominant side in Italy and Inter enjoying their successes as well, including a European treble, the long-term impact of that spending left many teams over-stretched financially, a situation that went from bad to grave when the Italian economy took a dive that it has yet to recover from.

Many teams who used to be competitive with the best sides in Serie A were left a shadow of their former selves, and other teams, including Reggina and more recently Parma, were utterly destroyed. Reggina struggled on in Serie A for a few years after their calciopoli punishment, but once they finally were relegated they fell fast and hard, currently sitting below even the lowest division of professional football in Italy after bankruptcy. Parma were able to string things along with creative finances for almost a decade, but fate finally caught up to them in a big way, leading to an ugly and public debacle that saw them bankrupted and get booted down to that same non-professional level Reggina were in last season.

Now, not all of Italian football’s financial struggles can be blamed on calciopoli — Italy’s struggling economy bears much of that blame — but the over-spending by teams that calciopoli sparked left clubs in a bad position when that economic downturn hit. Add that to another problem, that of truly high-quality players not wanting to come to a scandal-ridden league, and you have a recipe for disaster.

You see, with the aforementioned mass-departure of much of Serie A’s best talent in the wake of calciopoli, Italian teams had to try to fill those now-empty spots in their squads, and they wanted to do it with players as good or, hopefully, better than the ones who left. The trouble was, after calciopoli few players of that caliber wanted to come to Italy, not wanting to deal with the dramatic mess that was unfolding there. That left many Italian sides having to over-spend to attract lesser talents to their teams, with players like Ricardo Oliveira and Adrian Mutu costing far too much that summer, and in later years joined by the likes of David Suazo, Cicinho, Sulley Muntari and others as players teams had to pay far too much for compared to their worth. That only worsened the financial mess they were putting themselves in, leaving teams under-talented compared to their European peers without the financial resources to improve quickly enough.

Even today, a decade later, a lot of top talent tends to shy away from Italy, because the specter of calciopoli still hangs over the nation’s football. Any time a smaller team struggles against a top side, or a result has a huge impact on Serie A’s standings, many around the world joke that the game was fixed — and many others say the same thing without joking about it. While the league’s reputation isn’t quite as tarnished as it was, it’s definitely not healthy yet, and it won’t be for a long time to come.

That loss of standing lead to a slow drain of talent that has eventually seen Milan and Inter spend themselves into frustrating mediocrity, robbing Italy of their two biggest international marketing draws. Roma and Lazio suffer wild swings in form from season to season, and Napoli have risen to being a power in the league largely because they’re one of the very few teams that are run with financial responsibility and growth in mind. No other team has managed to emerge to be a consistent challenger in the league — except, of course, for the return of Juventus.

If anything, Juventus are better off now for their punishment after calciopoli. Yes, they were stripped of titles and banished to Serie B, but that stay in Italy’s second division lasted only a season before they won promotion back. The mass exodus of talent they saw took significant wages off their books and forced Juventus to become a lean and hungry machine, and made them turn to building their academy into being a real source of talent.

They steadily climbed up the Serie A ranks after their return, and when ex-Juve midfield star Antonio Conte was hired to manage in 2011, Juventus kicked down the door and announced that they were all the way back. The bianconeri haven’t looked back since then, dominating the league and winning their first Serie A title since being relegated that season, and winning the scudetto in every season afterwards, for a remarkable run of five straight league titles.

Further compounding all this mess for Italian football? Right when the quality of the league took a hit, football in England and Spain took a big step forward. English teams started getting larger and larger sponsorships and used that advantage in the transfer market to quickly improve their league by leaps and bounds, eventually turning that success into huge television contracts that currently allow virtually any Premier League team to outspend any Italian side. In Spain, Barcelona and Real Madrid rode similar financial success to grow from steady powers in football to absolute juggernauts, with only Juventus appearing to be able to compete with them on the pitch, and no Italian side able to compete with them financially.

So 10 years on, and Italy is back to Juventus dominating the league as has been the case in so many other eras of Italian football — only now the rest of the league behind them is much weaker, because the wounds of calciopoli are still raw and still hurting the league. Only a bare handful of teams are better off now than they were a decade ago, and there’s no end in sight to the nation’s footballing struggles, and too many around Europe are passing them by and leaving them in the dust. In the end, the aftermath of calciopoli hurt Italian football much more than any of the punishments or even the match-fixing itself did.