Adam Digby1 Comment

A SENSE OF BELONGING?

Adam Digby1 Comment

Italian football carves a unique path yet again.

This past weekend in Serie A saw further evidence of what has become an increasing trend which is almost unique to Italian football and is, to many countries, unthinkable. Saturday night saw Goran Pandev and his new club Napoli take Inter apart at San Siro. An integral part of the Nerazzurri's treble-winning side, the Macedonian striker also won the Coppa Italia with Lazio in 2008-09, meaning he has now played for three of last seasons top five clubs in less than two years.

Sunday nights huge clash between Juventus and Milan however provided an even more glaring example. Italian midfielder Andrea Pirlo became the latest member of an exclusive club this past summer, his move to Juventus making him the eighth player in history to wear the colours of Juve, Milan and Inter. He follows names as illustrious as Roberto Baggio, Giuseppe Meaza and Aldo Serena in repeating this triple crown, an honour also shared by Patrick Vieira, Edgar Davids and Christian Vieiri.

Perhaps the most contrasting alternative to this today is evident in Spain. At Barcelona for example, almost half their current first team squad being products of their famed youth academy at La Masia. Players may leave for other clubs but, as Gerard Piqué has proven - and Cesc Fabregas appears determined to reinforce - the lure of la Blaugrana never really leaves and the Nou Camp motto 'Més que un club' holds a distinct element of truth for those brought up on its footballing values.

This shows a sense of belonging that seems to hold true throughout the country where it is difficult to imagine home-grown players crossing the el Clásico divide and neither Barcelona nor Real Madrid currently field any players who have pulled on both shirts at anytime in their careers. It is hard to imagine anyone on either side changing allegiance, and indeed one cannot imagine Atlético icon Fernando Torres joining Los Merengues later in his career.

Even in England the Spanish strikers move from Chelsea to Liverpool is a rarity, with moves among the traditional big four clubs rarely seen. This summer, and Manchester City's emergance sees an increase in that activity but looking at the traditional 'big four' only Nicolas Anelka, Ashley Cole, Michael Owen, Yossi Benayoun and Glen Johnson have switched sides, and only two of those were direct transfers between the rivals.

In Italy however the story is vastly different, with 25 players among the squads of Milan, Roma, Inter and Juventus who have, at some point in their careers, made an appearance at one or more of the other three clubs. Given that at various times over the past decade Lazio, Fiorentina and now Napoli have broken into the elite that figure could easily be adjusted to also include those clubs.

There are of course many reasons for this curious lack of a sense belonging, not least among which is the aftermath of the 2006 Calciopoli trials which saw Inter take full advantage of the situation. Not only did the Nerazzurri sign two relegated Juventus players in Vieira and Ibrahimovic, but their moves to strengthen in other areas arguably displaced a number of talented players to other clubs. Indeed even today the presence of Nicolás Burdisso and David Pizarro at Roma can be directly attributed to the fallout of those proceedings and the same can be said for Gianluca Zambrotta's arrival at Milan via Barcelona.

Another major contributing factor is the strategy of Luciano Moggi while in charge of the transfer dealings at Juventus. His desire to build a team to win instantly came at the direct sacrifice of the future and, given the prolonged success he brought to the Bianconeri, it is difficult to argue against his methods. However, by using the products of the Turin sides extremely prestigious youth sector as leverage in signing other players, we see many ex-Juve men filling the squads of other Serie A clubs - Simone Perrotta and Antonio Nocerino being just two examples.

The mis-management and distinct lack of a coherent transfer strategy at Inter prior to 2006 is one more reason we see so many players exchanging one top Serie A club for another. Is there any other top club in Europe who has released players as talented as Fabio Grosso, Leonardo Bonucci, Clarence Seedorf and Pirlo over the last ten years without first enjoying the best years of their careers? Unlikely.

Roma's financial difficulties under the Sensi family also play their part, the sale of Alberto Aquilani to Liverpool was strictly done to allow the Giallorossi to continue to survive and compete in an ever-decreasing elite. Yet more than any other reason it is Italian footballs distinct lack of faith in young players that sees so many talented players switch allegiance with increasing regularity.

Of those 25 players to have lined up for more than one of the four traditional giants, astonishingly as many as eight grew up in the youth ranks of another member of this group of clubs, a percentage simply not evident elsewhere among the bigger leagues of European and indeed world football. While some have taken a longer route back to the top after being discarded some - like Roma's former Milan striker Marco Borriello - were sent directly from one to the other. While the presence of Ibrahimovic clearly played its part, the Italian international could provide a viable alternative and give depth to a squad clearly lacking both.

In becoming one of the latest players to cross these ever blurred boundaries and then become part of Cesare Prandelli's Azzurri squad, Alessandro Matri last season broke the traditional top-striker benchmark of 20 league goals. Despite spending almost ten years on the books of Milan he made just two appearances for the club, neither of which was in a game that had any particular relevance. Yet again Juve used the rights to one of their own youth products - cental defender Lorenzo Ariaudo - to secure the player, while themselves fielding ex-Inter defender Leonardo Bonucci in the same position. It would be no surprise to see Ariaudo, now wholly owned by Sardinian side Cagliari, spend four or five years in the provinces only to surface at another big club later in his career.

This is not however a new phenomenon as some of the biggest names in the sport in Italy making the jump from one of Calcio's giants to another as Inter legend Meazza played for both Milan and Juventus as far back as the 1930's. These are far from isolated incidents and there are so many more examples throughout history too, Gunnar Nordahl moved directly from Milan to Roma, José Altafini and Kurt Hamrin played for both Juve and Milan and John Charles may have made his name as a Juventus player, but he also featured in ten matches during a brief spell at Roma.

Perhaps the most bizarre aspect of this whole situation is the fact that Italy is the one country in Europe that can perhaps boast the greatest number of one-club-icons, both now and in its impressive past. Francesco Totti,  Alessandro Del Piero and Javier Zanetti provide the most high profile examples today of a trend that flows from Gianpiero Combi, Valentino Mazzola and Giampiero Boniperti through Gigi Riva, Giancarlo Antognoni and Gianni Rivera to Beppe Bergomi, Franco Baresi, and Giuseppe Giannini.

Like many aspects of Italian life this loyalty - and indeed lack of it - is a complete and total contradiction in terms, a strange juxtaposition with no rhyme or reason, no underlying answer nor simple solution. Prodigies, failed youth, mercenaries and bandiera, Italy truly has them all.

Adam is a freelance Italian football writer & co-founder of juventiknows.com, he is also in twitter here

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