Niccolò Donna, masterSport | From Glory to Tears in Eight Months: So What Can we Say About Italian Football?

Niccolò Donna, head of FIGC Research & Development and chief of the Italian Football Module (MasterSport - University of Parma & University of San Marino) discusses the profile of Italian Football and the strategic assets to focus on, in order to enhance the growth of Calcio.

When Roberto Mancini’s Italy won the European Championships at Wembley, overcoming England to claim their second continental title, it seemed as if Italian football had restated itself as a force in the world game. However, ecstasy was to turn to sadness only 256 days later. On 24 March 2022 in Palermo the Azzurri were defeated by North Macedonia in the 2022 World Cup playoffs, meaning that Italy would be missing out on the world’s most prestigious football tournament for a second successive occasion. 

In light of this rollercoaster of emotions, what conclusions can we draw from the current state of Italian football? 

A strategic asset for the Italian economy  

The FIGC-run module as part of the postgraduate MasterSport programme has presented a snapshot of Italian football, revealing it in numerical terms to be an important industrial sector and a strategic asset: there are 30 million fans (all of the top 50 most viewed programmes in the history of Italian television are football matches), 4.6 million participants, 1 million FIGC members (which if it were a municipality would be the third biggest in Italy by population, after Rome and Milan), a turnover of €5bn (12 per cent of world football’s GDP) and 12 product sectors involved in the value activation chain, with an impact on GDP of €10.2bn and 112,000 jobs created. In the last 14 years, football’s tax and social security contributions amounted to €15.5bn; for every euro invested by the Italian government in football, the country’s economy has received a return of €18.3 in terms of tax and social security contributions. 

While these numbers testify to the relevance of football, it is evident that the sport is still yet to fully realise its potential. 

Loss of competitiveness 

The sport’s decline is nothing recent: the 1990s saw Italian teams reach seven consecutive Champions League finals (winning two of them) and the following decade (2001-10) saw five final appearances and three victories. However, between 2011 and 2022, there have only been two finals and three semi-finals, with no trophies, in comparison to Spain (19 semi-final appearances, seven victories), England (11 semi-final appearances, three victories) and Germany (10 semi-final appearances, two victories). The last time an Italian club won a European competition was back in 2010, when Inter won their fabled triplete (Champions League, Serie A and Coppa Italia). 

This is a reflection of the gradual weakening of Italian clubs’ financial dimension, with Serie A sides less able to compete with their La Liga, Bundesliga and Premier League counterparts in the transfer market to sign top players. The change in fortunes is most greatly exemplified by the widening gap with the English game: in the 1992-93 season, the Premier League’s inaugural campaign, the competition had a turnover amounting to half of Serie A’s (€390m compared with over € 700m), while in 2020-21 Premier League clubs had a turnover of more than double the Italian top flight: €5.1bn compared with €2bn. Considering the media rights, the main source of revenues in both leagues by far, in 2021-22 Norwich City FC, last-placed team in Premier League, had more turnover than Inter, the champions in Italy; €116m for the English club, € 84 million the Italian one. 

Stadiums: a crucial issue 

The difficulties which have caused this scenario are no secret. They stem from a short-term oriented managerial vision which penalises investment in “virtuous” assets, starting from sporting infrastructures: 187 stadiums were built across Europe between 2007 and 2021, totalling an investment of €21.7bn; however this only includes five in Italy (Juventus, Udinese, Frosinone, Albinoleffe and Südtirol). This equates to just 1 per cent of the total investments in Europe, meaning that the current scenario is far from ideal: the average age of a stadium is 60 years and only 7 per cent are privately owned. 

However, the growth potential is notable, with 13 new stadium projects in the planning stage, including at important clubs such as AC Milan-Inter and Roma, with a total investment of € 2.5bn. Should Italy be named as the host nation for Uefa Euro 2032 then such renovation would be furthered. 

Starting again with young Italian talent 

A crucial aspect concerns the exploitation of youth talent. Italian youth national teams have shown their quality in recent years, reaching four U19 and U17 European Championships finals, finishing third and fourth in U20 World Cups and achieving their best historical ranking. On the other hand, the glass ceiling between youth and senior teams persists: in Serie A Italian U21 players account for just 1.5 per cent of the total playing time, compared to 35.9 per cent of Italian over-21s, 59.5 per cent of foreign over-21s and 3.1 per cent of foreign U21s. This unsustainable talent dispersion prompted the Italian football federation (FIGC) to implement some projects, such as the training path for footballers of national interest, with many others in the offing: a system of federal academies, the reorganisation of the youth sectors, the introduction of a rating system for youth teams and the improvement of FIGC scouting. 

Financial sustainability 

There are extremely worrying signs for the financial sustainability of professional football. In the 12 pre-Covid years, the sector was consistently in the red, amassing €4.1bn losses. It’s a structural crisis connected to unsustainable player wages, accelerated by the pandemic: in the two seasons which have been impacted by Covid-19 the aggregate loss was equal to 2.2bn (878m in 2019-20 and over 1.3bn in 2020-21), while debts rose from 4.8bn in 2018-19 to almost 5.4bn in 2020-21. These figures were influenced by the stadium closures (23.1 million lost spectators and 513.3m less revenues from unsold tickets), costs associated with health protocols, but also the continuous increase in salaries and amortisations.  

However, Italian football remains attractive to foreign investors, with 23 overseas owners, including the recent American acquisitions of Atalanta, Milan, Roma and Fiorentina. But the alarm bells are still ringing and must not go unheeded; the objective of the path to reform that the FIGC is developing attempts to bring stability to the sector, with the introduction of progressively more stringent indicators and controls, inspired by the new principles introduced internationally by UEFA. 

The value of investing in human capital for the future of Italian football 

This data testifies the value of Italian football and its untapped potential. It underscores the need to take a new direction, including at a managerial level. There are numerous case studies which testify the added value of investing in Human Capital within sports organisations, and one of these concerns the FIGC itself and its business area. Since 2019, the FIGC has internalised the commercial functions previously delegated to an external advisor, investing in young, well-trained staff members with an international profile, coming in part from the masterSport. The roster has grown from seven to 25 people in the last four years, with extraordinary results: the revenues deriving from sponsorships in the four-year period 2019-22 grew by 22.9 per cent compared to 2015-18, up by €36 million. 

The FIGC case testifies how investing in a new generation of young sports management figures trained through specific courses of excellence is a fundamental step and a new starting point for the future aim of building a footballing model which is able to increasingly combine on-the-pitch results, financial sustainability and social impact. 

This article is part of the 2022 SportBusiness Postgraduate Rankings. To browse the entire report and view the overall tables, click here.