Italy's Serie A is a league of stories, full of characters, narratives, plots, tensions, climaxes, and clichés. Time and again, the line between fact and fiction becomes so blurred that you just have to throw your hands up and shrug. You really couldn't make a lot of this stuff up.
Here's a storia, and the biggest one looming over the league right now. The Italian Football Federation (FIGC), which controls soccer in Italy, recently held elections for president. The candidates were Demetrio Albertini, a former AC Milan and Italy midfielder, and Carlo Tavecchio, a career politician with five convictions for crimes ranging from forgery to tax evasion. Naturally, Tavecchio was heavily favored a few weeks before the election. Then he started talking.
At the end of July, Tavecchio, addressing Italy's failure in the World Cup, spoke on the process by which Italy develops players: "Here instead we get Opti Pobà [a fictional player], who previously ate bananas and then suddenly becomes a first-team player with Lazio. That's how it is here." Yup, he called all Africans "banana-eaters." Would seem like a pretty big disqualification, right?
Not in Italy! A half-dozen Serie A teams pulled their support for Tavecchio, but instead of giving their votes to Albertini, they urged a third candidate to run, knowing that he would never win. Half the league protested Tavecchio, but did little to ensure that he would lose. He was elected with 63 percent of the vote.
And with that, here are some more more stories we'll be watching in Serie A this year.
SERIE B IS CALLING
Cesena finished fourth in Serie B last year, only qualifying for the top league after winning a playoff. Their squad consists of a couple on-loan youngsters from the big clubs, and some journeymen players who always seem to jump around between Serie B and A. The Seahorses had the third-best defense in Serie B last year, but only scored 10 more goals than they conceded. That's going to be tough to maintain in Serie A.
Similarly, Empoli should struggle to maintain their top-flight status. Last year's Serie B runners-up, Empoli has followed a similar strategy of attracting loanees from the top teams, like Inter Milan's attacking midfielder Diego Laxalt. Empoli were led last year by 22 goals from diminutive, 35-year-old striker Francesco Tavano. He'll need to score at least that many if Empoli have any hope of staying up.
Sassuolo were one of the biggest surprises of Serie A last year, and they finished all the way down in 17th, one place shy of relegation. A tiny club making their first-ever appearance in Serie A last season, the Neroverdi started the season by getting washed 7-0 by Inter Milan, before stabilizing a bit and snatching victories against AC Milan and Fiorentina.
To their credit, Sassuolo actually shelled out some cash for players this summer, signing defenders Šime Vrsaljko from Genoa and Federico Peluso from Juventus for a combined €10.5 million, and striker Simone Zaza for €7.5 million. The attack is led by Zaza and Domenico Berardi, a Juventus-owned player primed for stardom who finished with 16 goals last season, including four in just 47 minutes against AC Milan.
Even with the improved defense and potent attack, Sassuolo will still struggle to compete with the bigger clubs, and the magic may run out this season.
There is a difference between saying that Serie A has a lot of mediocre teams and saying that the quality or excitement level of matches is mediocre. Lets take, for example, the most commonstoria about Serie A: that the league is super defensive and overall boring to watch. While it is true that Italy pioneered the defensive catenaccio with Helenio Herrera's Inter Milan sides in the 1960s, it is unequivocally false that Serie A is where offense goes to die.
In their 2013 "Moneyball for soccer" book The Numbers Game, social scientists Chris Anderson and David Sally conducted a study to determine if the various league reputations (i.e. Spain is high-scoring, Italy is low-scoring) were in fact true. They discovered that from 2000 to 2010, Europe's 4 major leagues were almost identical in terms of goals scored per match; in each league they saw between 2.5 and 3 goals a game, every year for 10 years. In the 2013-2014 season, Spain averaged 2.75 goals per game, England averaged 2.77, and super defensive, boring Italy averaged 2.72.
Unless you consider a huge loss in entertainment from an average of one more goal every 20 matches, Serie A is just as "boring" as the Premier League.
Let's examine some of those teams bound for the middle of the table.
This year, Serie A welcomes back one of its most entertaining teams: Palermo. But Palermo aren't just exciting because of their talented young attackers like Paulo Dybala and Franco Vázquez. No, Palermo is a storia because their owner, Maurizio Zamparini, makes the Cleveland Browns look like a stable franchise.
Italian coaches are notoriously short-tenured, and still, Zamparini tenure as owner is outrageous. Consider this: in 2013 alone, Zamparini hired and fired five coaches, including one twice. It's a minor miracle that the current coach has been there since last September. Palermo should be good enough to stay up, but I'd set the over/under at three different managers this year.
Last season, Cagliari played half its home games over 1,000 kilometers away across the Tyrrhenian Sea in Trieste, while its home stadium on the island of Sardinia was undergoing repairs to fix safety issues after a massive renovation project. Even so, they managed a 15th-place finish. Though in the past year, they've lost their best players in defender Davide Astori, midfielder Radja Nainggolan, and striker Mauricio Pinilla, they should still contend for midtable safety. They certainly won't be boring while doing it, either; the Sardinians hired manager Zdenek Zeman over the summer, who ignores defense the way Arjen Robben ignores a comb.
Michael Bradley's old team, Chievo Verona, should be solidly mid-to-lower table once again. The Donkeys made some intelligent signings in Catania's Mauricio Izco, Milan's Valter Birsa, and Inter's Francesco Bardi (loan), which should help them maintain their Serie A status. Losing striker Cyril Thereau to Udinese may make things more difficult up front, but veteran striker Alberto Paloschi returns, coming off a 13-goal campaign, and they signed Serie A journeyman Maxi Lopez to partner up top.
Atalanta and Sampdoria, while completely different teams from different parts of the country, perform almost identically. Last year, Atalanta finished 11th, Sampdoria 12th; the year before Sampdoria were 14th, while Atalanta finished 15th. Atalanta are led by one of Serie A's most underrated strikers in German Denis, while Sampdoria boast some solid young midfielders in Pedro Obiang and Nenad Krstičić. You'll watch these teams play, possibly even enjoy the game, and then forget about them two hours later.
Genoa are ... another team in Serie A. Though they finished 17th, one spot shy of relegation in both 2012 and 2013, they improved to 14th last year, and they should be safe again this campaign. They'll have a brand new forward line with the departure of Serie A veteran Alberto Gilardino (to China), and the additions of Alessandro Matri from AC Milan, and Mauricio Pinilla from Cagliari. The Rossoblu also took a €5 million flyer on Iago Falque, a spectacular bust at Tottenham, but hey, maybe he'll rediscover his form in Serie A.
Udinese are one of those odd little clubs that give Serie A its unique character. By all respects, there should not be a successful team in Udine, a small industrial city in the far northeast of Italy. But dammit, Udinese know something we don't. Their strategy is consistent; they bring over dozens of players from South America every year at basement prices, and then pray that two or three of them turn out to be good enough to make the senior team. Once the players have proven their worth, they are sold for millions, raking in enormous profits on their initial investments. Wash, rinse, repeat. See: Alexis Sánchez.
Though recently Udinese have been a top 8 team, their luck may run out this season. They sold striker Roberto Pereyra to Juventus and defender Dusan Basta to Lazio, while only splurging on Brazilian midfielder Guilherme. Former Inter manager Andrea Stramaccioni takes the reins this year, and he—just like every Udinese manager of the last 10 years—will rely on phenomenally underrated striker Antonio di Natale to carry the load. Seriously, watch a game with the 36-year-old striker. He's an absolute delight to see play.
Torino had an immense campaign last season, finishing in 7th place. Led by Ciro Immobilie's league-leading 22 goals and 10 assists from Alessio Cerci, the Torino attack was formidable. Cerci's still there, but il Toro capitalized on Immobile's success, and sold him to Borussia Dortmund for €20 million. Trying to replace Immobile's goals will be Fabio Quagliarella, a veteran who scored 23 times…in the last four years combined.
Hellas Verona are probably more well-known for their crazy, insane, virulently racist ultrasthan the quality of their play. Though they finished 10th in their return to Serie A last season, Verona sold holding midfielder Rômulo to Juventus, and young playmaking phenom Juan Iturbe to Roma for €22 million. Luca Toni turned back the clock last season and scored 20 goals in 33 matches. And while that's fabulous and all, if your team is relying on Toni to score goals and new signing Rafa Márquez to stop them, you're not going to be that good.
Lets get controversial now. AC Milan have one of the biggest fanbases in the world, but they finished 8th last year, and that was with a remarkable second-half performance under former Milan midfielder and new coach Clarence Seedorf. So of course they sacked Seedorf over the summer and replaced him with fellow club legend Filippo Inzaghi, who brings zero years of experience to the position.
You could fill up a book with all the storie surrounding Milan. Their "honorary" president is Silvio Berlusconi, the former Prime Minister most known for his bunga bunga parties. In his stead (because of oh-so pesky criminal indictments for tax evasion), the team is run by Berlusconi's daughter Barbara and Adriano Galliani. Barbara Berlusconi engineered Seedorf's departure, as she reportedly just didn't like him. Galliani isn't much better; he reaffirmed his support for Tavecchio after the latter's racist comments.
On the field, things aren't looking that much better, and that was before they sold Mario Balotelli. Sure, the Rossoneri made some shrewd signings, bringing wingback Pablo Armero in on loan and former Real Madrid goalkeeper Diego Lopez on a free transfer. But the signings of central defender Alex and attacker Jérémy Ménez from Paris Saint-Germain don't inspire much confidence, even if they were both for free. Ménez is a hothead who hasn't produced much in the last four years, and it's unclear if he'll pair well with Stephan El Shaarawy. Plus, a projected midfield of Nigel de Jong, Andrea Poli, and Riccardo Saponara is a far, far cry from the days when AC Milan had the best midfield in the world.
And now, the geniuses in the Milan boardroom have decided to fill Balo's boots with their new "top striker": Fernando Torres. Good luck with that.
THE RACE FOR THE SCUDETTO
Teams get pretty crazy when it comes to their scudetti. La storia will tell us that for every 10 titles a team wins, they get to put a gold star on their jersey. You'd think something so simple and objective would be easy to figure out. Then you'd remember this is Italy, and you'd be laughably wrong.
Last season, Juventus won its third straight title, and their 30 th overall. This should have been a big cause for celebration, and the addition of a 3rd star to their famous black and white striped jerseys. But alas, that would have been too easy. Instead, Juventus claimed that the 2013-14 title was in fact their 32nd, ignoring that the FIGC vacated the two titles Juve won in 2005 and 2006 under the influence of the Calciopoli scandal. The team president claimed, and I quote, "when somebody else manages to be able to add the second star on their shirt, we will add the third to ours, just to emphasize the difference."
Yeah, the scudetto's a big deal.
Parma were the best of the meh teams last year, and with Torino's offseason sales, the Crociatilook set to improve their position. The team got royally screwed by its ownership at the end of last season, when an unpaid tax bill eliminated them from the Europa League place that their 6th-place finish qualified them for. So instead, Parma will take out all their anger and frustration on Serie A.
In order to repeat last year's success, Parma will rely on a pair of Italian team members: striker Antonio Cassano and defender Gabriel Paletta. Cassano, fully recovered from major heart surgery a few years ago, is an absolute magician with the ball. He protects the it in the smallest spaces, and finds any and every window to make a pass. That's important for him, because he can barely run more than 20 yards at a time. It's also why Parma have winger Jonathan Biabiany, one of the fastest players in Serie A, who could be poised for a breakout campaign.
The less said about Paletta's hair, the better.
I Biancocelesti are another big team, and they're owned by Claudio Lotito, a man who has been banned twice by the FIGC for various indiscretions. Lazio struggled mightily last season, finishing in ninth, and their managers paid for their stumble from seventh the year before. First, Vladimir Petkovic got the axe in January. Then owner Lotito brought back the coach who served before Petkovic, Edoardo Reja, but Lotito never relinquished control to let Reja do his thing.
These changes, coupled with the sale of Lazio's best player at the very end of January, led Lazio's notoriously fervent supporters to boycott a March match at home. It was, needless to say, a massive embarrassment for the club.
But things are looking up. Lazio quietly had one of the best transfers windows of any Serie A team. They swooped in to snatch Dutch defender Stefan De Vrij from a couple other Serie A squads, signed Italian national Marco Parolo from Parma for €5 million, gobbled up FC Nantes striker Filip Đorđević on a free transfer, and got Udinese wingback Dusan Basta on loan. All those guys should see major minutes, and they represent upgrades across the field. In addition, they'll continue to rely on Miroslav Klose up top and Antonio Candreva, one of Italy's best performers in Brazil, on the wing.
At times last season, Fiorentina were one of the most entertaining teams to watch in all of Serie A. Manager Vincenzo Montella has reenergized the Tuscan squad with a new attacking flair and intricate passing movements. Spearheaded by central midfielder Borja Valero, Fiorentina's quick combinations and lethal finishing led them to score the fourth-most goals in the league last year.
But Fiorentina's problem last year was staying healthy. Strikers Mario Gomez and Giuseppe Rossi missed significant time, and attacking midfielders Josip Iličić and Joaquin only started about half the team's games. If all those players can stay off the trainer's table, and Colombia's World Cup star Juan Cuadrado continues his high level of play while linking up with new loanee Marko Marin from Chelsea, Fiorentina could challenge for Champions League qualification.
Roma were probably the most surprising team in Serie A last year. Everyone knew they were pretty good, but few expected them to contend for the title until the last few weeks of the season and finish in second. Building off that success, Roma then attempted to sign everyone they could.
In came Davide Astori, one of Serie A's best central defenders, from Cagliari. In came Juan Iturbe, a 21-year-old attacker from Hellas Verona. In came Ashley Cole, on a free transfer from Chelsea. Add in former Barça midfielder Seydou Keita and former Milan midfielder Urby Emanuelson, and Roma appear to have made improvements all over the pitch.
But in spite of that, and in spite of phenomenal midfielders like Miralem Pjanić and Kevin Strootman, Roma could struggle to replicate last year's success. For as many signings as Roma may make, the team still revolves around living legend Francesco Totti. Totti is still somehow a world-class player, able to pick out passes few else even imagine, and still curls shots in with the best of them. But Totti is another year older, and at 38 in September, there's only so much longer he can play without breaking down.
They also just lost defender Mehdi Benatia to Bayern Munich. Benatia was the best defender in Serie A by a wide margin last season, and was rated as the fifth-best player in the league byWhoScored.com. That type of production and stability will be hard to replace. And with ancients Maicon and Ashley Cole as outside backs, it may be tough for Roma to defend quicker teams.
Juventus will trot out almost exactly the same team that won last year's title by an astounding 16 points. Their midfield, as of this moment, is still led by all-world players Andrea Pirlo, Arturo Vidal, and Paul Pogba. Their defense is still led by the Italian BBC: Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli, and Leonardo Bonucci, all three Italian internationals. And they have fancy new signings in Álvaro Morata from Real Madrid and Patrice Evra from the red side of Manchester.
So what's different about this year than the previous three? To start, there's a new manager. Antonio Conte, who led the Bianconeri to those titles, resigned abruptly in July, reportedly over disagreements with ownership over the sale of players. Conte is a curious case; he's had undeniable domestic success, but never managed to make a dent in European competitions. A few weeks ago he was announced as the coach of the Italian national team.
In his place comes Massimiliano Allegri, most recently fired from AC Milan last season. Allegri had been on the hot seat for a while in Milan, and only a miracle comeback from 16 th place all the way to third two seasons ago saved his job that year. What Conte brought to Juve in consistency, tactics, and calm, Allegri lacks.
Juventus' trademark over these past few years has been a relentless consistency and approach, characterized by dominating the midfield, fielding three sturdy central defenders, and scoring bunches of goals. It's unclear to me if Allegri is astute enough to maintain the same level of performance, and in any case it will take some time for the manager and his team to gel.
2) Inter Milan
This is not your slightly younger self's Inter. Gone are any and all remnants from the squad that won the Champions League in 2010. Javier Zanetti retired, while Diego Milito, Esteban Cambiasso, and Walter Samuel were let go. Only one player on the current Inter squad, Yuto Nagatomo, has more than 100 appearances for the Nerazzurri. There's even a new owner, in Indonesian businessman Erick Thohir, who also owns MLS's DC United.
But there's reason for hope. After years of fruitless, stupid transfer strategies, Inter went out and made some sensible additions this year. They brought in wingback Dodô on loan from Roma, defensive midfielder Yann M'Vila on loan from Russian side Rubin Kazan, and striker Pablo Osvaldo on loan from one of the three dozen clubs he sometimes plays for. Add in Chile's Gary Medel, coming off a heroic World Cup performance, and Nemanja Vidić for free, and all of a sudden Inter has some much needed midfield bite, and defensive nous.
Up front, Mauro Icardi is poised to blow up. After making headlines on and off the field last season, Icardi appears to be fully healthy and in form. With Mateo Kovačić and Hernanes in attacking midfield positions, and Rodrigo Palacio supporting Icardi, Inter could be a formidable attacking force.
Napoli are a somewhat risky pick to win the scudetto, if only because they seem to have incredibly talented teams every year, and every year, they underperform. But this year seems different.
Napoli is led by Gonzalo Higuaín, primed for a monster year after adjusting to Serie A last campaign. Behind him are Marek Hamšík, who was hurt for some of last year, Dries Mertens and José Callejón on the wings, and Jorginho in central midfield. The defense is pretty bad, but this team's attacking talent should put most teams on their heels.
What will potentially make or break Napoli's season is the performance of a 23-year-old Lorenzo Insigne. Insigne is a robust 5-foot-4 winer who's been tipped for a breakout year the past few seasons, but hasn't quite lived up to his immense potential. If he's given a starting spot alongside Higuaín, though, he should cause devastation with his phenomenal quickness and surprisingly lethal finishing.
So there you have it. Serie A is a profoundly strange, idiosyncratic, legitimately messed up operation. There will be controversy this year, and the worst part is that a lot of the controversy won't be unfounded. But that's what makes it so goddamn fun to watch.
Andrew Harris is a law student who developed a passion for Italian soccer after spending a semester in Italy during college. Since then, he's refreshed his Italian primarily by reading La Gazzetta dello Sport. Follow his soccer rantings and updates on Twitter at @amharris26.
Photo Credit: Getty