Cristiano can change the way the world views Serie A,
but Italian football needs to make big changes too
In a dusky room on an upper tier at the contemporary Garage Italia Milano in Piazzale Accursio, the excitable din from the audience below filters in.
The principle reason for the fervour does not get lost in translation - the phrase Il Capitano can be continuously heard - with the site of a former petrol station known as the “car temple” from the early '50s to the '90s parked full of football aficionados.
Cutting through the noise is the voice of the man - no, the legend - they are talking about: Paolo Maldini.
In a sharp, navy-blue suit, AC Milan’s record appearance holder and now their Sporting Strategy & Development Director is discussing what used to be referred to as il campionato più bello del mondo (the most beautiful championship in the world) and how Serie A can strive to restore itself as a masterpiece.
The 50-year-old, synonymous with Italian football’s period of superiority, fizzes as he recounts “unbelievable moments, memories to never forget” of a golden age where for two decades from 1989, the country was represented in the final of the European Cup 13 times.
The romanticism of calcio was matched by its might: super teams featuring supreme footballers - Diego Maradona, Marco van Basten, Zinedine Zidane, Ruud Gullit, Franco Baresi; the list is long and swoon-worthy - that ceremonially ruled continental nights.
They swept up at the Ballon d’Or too. Between '88 to 1990, all three final nominees for the award hailed from a Serie A club and the league had 11 winners in the aforementioned 20-year timeframe.
Italy were crowned world champions during that period as well, while finishing second and third at the Euros. When the national team lifted the Jules Rimet Trophy in 2006, however, it was also the beginning of Serie A’s erosion of dominance in light of the Calciopoli refereeing scandal.
A year later, Kaka became the last footballer from the division to claim the Ballon d’Or - with the league not even having a single representative in the shortlist of three ever since.
Maldini, however, feels Cristiano Ronaldo can help reverse that trend. Having joined Juventus from Real Madrid for £99.2 million last month - a move many initially thought was fanciful at best and made up for clicks at worst - the Portugal international is not just an on-pitch phenomenon, but a marketing behemoth. His Instagram following, for example, dwarfs that of The Old Lady by a staggering 124.1 million.
“We don’t have the same investments that we used to have in the league as we did in the '90s and early 2000s,” Maldini tells JOE.
“Cristiano’s move will have a big impact on how people view Serie A now: players, sponsors, supporters. He has been one of the best footballers in the world for a long, long time and he wants to be here so others will follow.
“Over the last year, we’ve seen growing interest in the league again. Roma were in the semi-finals of the Champions League against Liverpool and put up a great fight in the second leg. Napoli pushed Juventus for the title with wonderful football and it felt like the start of something. Cristiano adds to that and now there have been more eyes on our transfer market. I think there are quite a few teams in the world that don’t have crazy budgets or the financial power of super clubs to do a move like this, but they operate smart. And Italians are very smart, so we must use our knowledge.”
Maldini is speaking at the launch of DAZN in the country, in his capacity as a brand ambassador for the global sports streaming service, which will provide over 1,500 hours of live, premium multi-sport content in Italy every year.
They have reportedly parted with around £536m for the rights to show 114 Serie A matches per season exclusively and all 462 Serie B fixtures over the next 36 months.
The former defender, who Sir Alex Ferguson tried to unsuccessfully sign for Manchester United calling him “the best - period!,” rates that such an offering and the funding behind it will help advance the league’s renaissance.
“We need these investments to catch up,” Maldini says. “The Premier League is so strong, so popular, with a lot of money behind it. To get to close to it will take a lot of time and a lot of financial backing. But I think Serie A can, with smart steps, rival La Liga and overtake the Bundesliga.”
There is, however, a fundamental infrastructure issue that needs to be addressed in order to enhance the matchday experience as well as significantly increase revenues.
Of Italy’s traditional six big clubs, only Juventus possesses a new stadium that it operates. Napoli are at Stadio San Paolo , which their chairman Aurelio De Laurentiis has referred to as “a toilet” while it undergoes renovations overseen by the local government.
Milan and Inter share the city-run San Siro, while Lazio and Roma play in the Stadio Olimpico, which is controlled by the Olympic committee.
The latter’s American owners presented a plan in 2014 for a contemporary build - Stadio della Roma - but they have faced several bureaucratic delays.
“We desperately need to build new stadiums, more comfortable ones with modern facilities because we are very far behind,” Maldini admits.
“Some of the stadiums were made for the 1990 World Cup and haven't had work since, some even before that. We have to compete off the pitch too and the fans deserve to have a better experience.”
For much of the pessimism that has clouded Serie A in recent years, the five-time European Cup winner points out that Juventus have had the opportunity to be continental champions twice in the past four seasons. “They’ve been in the final two times and been beaten by Barcelona and Real Madrid, who have been the best teams in the last two decades so there’s no shame in that,” Maldini says.
“The margin between winning and losing can be very, very small. The moves they’ve made in this window, especially signing Cristiano and bringing back Leonardo Bonucci, they are not young, but both are very ready to win. And that’s what Juventus need right now in Europe to make that final step.
“The other teams maybe aren’t really in the same situation and will focus more on a younger profile, but this is what Juventus believe will help them. Actually, it will be good for their young players too. I grew up so fast by having more experienced players next to me. Training and playing with them is so valuable.”
Maldini’s interest in the next generation is evident as he assesses the future of his national team. “It was a pity we couldn’t qualify after 60 years for the World Cup and it was a big shock for us, but sometimes that is necessary to make you understand the reality - the position of the team in the world, how far behind you are, the amount of work that needs to be done to be among the best again,” he reflects on Italy’s absence at this year’s showpiece in Russia.
“We didn’t shake too much, I have to tell you. We just forgot what happen - typical Italians - but I hope that we can make changes as we have a bright future. The Under-19s lost the European Championship final against Portugal this year after extra time and the Under-17s lost to Netherlands on penalties in the final. Ok, they didn’t win, but at least they’re there and look how close it was both times, so that is very promising.
“There is a lot of hope for the young generation and if there are changes from the Italian Football Federation, they will have the opportunity to become great players.”
Maldini, who selects Sergio Ramos and Diego Godin as the best centre-backs in the world right now, will be watching the Premier League with greater interest this season as he tracks the development of Chelsea under Maurizio Sarri.
“I hope he is able to share with them some of the knowledge he brought to Serie A, where with Empoli and Napoli he did great work in the last few years. If he gets the time, if the players understand and accept his ways - you have to think about the language barrier and different demands, a different way of training - then I feel he will be very successful.
“In England, it is the most tough league to come in, especially if you are a manager. It is like a different world with football.
“Sarri is good tactically, with football that you want to watch, but he also has strong discipline to I’d be very, very happy to see him make a big difference in the Premier League.”
Maldini, whose father Cesare managed Milan, Italy and Paraguay among others, had the opportunity to join Chelsea’s coaching staff under Carlo Ancelotti in 2009.
He had only just began his retirement and wasn’t ready for such a role, nor did it truly appeal to him.
“I know and I’ve always known that I wouldn’t like to be a coach,” Maldini admits. “When Ancelotti called me to join him, it was only one week after I played my last game, so I felt it was too early to make a decision like that.
“The more I thought about it, the more I realised, ‘yes, I really don’t want to be a coach.’
“My father was a manager, so I understand very well what happens in the family of the coach - all the tension, the pressure, the demands - you have to be very strong to want to handle that every day.
“I really love football, I still stay connected in different ways to the game, I love watching it and being a supporter and thinking about development, but not being a coach.”
Maldini will instead have the responsibility of rejuvenating Milan, whom he served for 25 years as a player, with 419 appearances coming as their captain.
Re-establishing the Rossoneri as a pre-eminent force in Italy as well as Europe will certainly help Serie A's aim to morph into il campionato più bello del mondo again.