Playing long balls into empty space since 2012.

Thursday, 30 January 2014

Recession, Politics and Football

Reflections on Men and Women's Football in Italy

Greg Downes has sent us another piece from Florence. This time he contrasts the fortunes of the Men's and Women's games in Italy.
Recession, politics and football. You don't have to go too far afield to find a passionate view on any or all three in Italy today. Italy is suffering through its worst recession since WW2, with its Prime Minister declaring that the current economic situation as the "true nightmare of our country". Everyone I speak to has an opinion, from the lovely Michela the owner of a local alimentari who is working two jobs in hope of having her first child, to the mother of an 18-year-old who is fearful that her son will never get work in his home country and the father of a young woman footballer who is fortunate enough to be able to support his daughter in her quest to play the game she loves and at the same time pursue a career of her own. No money, no jobs, no future! The locals seem keen to express their feelings about the issues their country is facing, and it is no more common than on the sidelines of the sport that defines it in so many ways– football.

Having now become an adopted supporter of Firenze Calcio Femminile the conversation at home games often turns to the effects of the recession and the very urgent need to change if in fact the country and football does have a future. Attending my third game I have become recognised by some of the locals (there are not too many so I kind of stand out) and the nonna smiles at me in recognition and tries to chat about the game, which is about to start. Of course I can't fully understand her and have to give up and explain that I non parlo Italiano. She immediately grabs a gentleman sitting in front and introduces him to me - he can speak English! It turns out he is the father of one of the players, with the number seven on her back. Her name is Greta. He introduces himself as Mauro. She is just back from injury and her dad is anxious about how she will play. In the end he needn't have worried; she had a good game in a tight contest resulting in a hard fought win for the locals.

At half time with the locals holding onto a 1 - 0 advantage we talk about the women's game and football in general. Mauro confirms that the league, although the pinnacle of women's soccer, is not professional in that no one gets paid. Clubs meet some expenses but there is just no sponsorship money to go around. When I mention the men’s game Mauro immediately and expressively waves his hands "well that is a completely different thing! Some players are earning a million euros a season! women's football is not so important.” If you take a quick look at the list of player salaries in the Serie A, Mauro’s comment quickly becomes one huge understatement with the majority of players from the top clubs all earning way above the one million euro mark.

While the women’s game in Italy continues slowly to grow and develop unnoticed, the same cannot be said about the once proud men’s Serie A league.

With the recession in Europe affecting many businesses and individuals alike, it seems that the men's top 5 professional leagues (Germany's Bundesliga, Spain's La Liga, France's Ligue 1, English Premier League and Italy's Serie A) are immune to the trend. Deloitte’s football money league 2013 reports that the combined leagues earned a massive revenue total of 9.3 billion euro for the 2011/12 season, representing an increase of 8% from the previous year. However while it remains in the top five, Italy is fast losing ground to the other big leagues in Europe. Once known as the “Hollywood” of football talent and success Italy’s Serie A has become a hot topic of conversation among local supporters, commentators and the media alike, with many calling for urgent action to halt the decline. The Italian Football Federation in a recent report states that Serie A alone is in debt to the tune of 2.6 billion euro, with a total professional club debt of 388 million euro for the current campaign. Finances are not its only concern as the league is suffering from a number of self-inflicted issues, which are fast eroding the value, and culture of the league. A recent article in the Bleacher Report by correspondent Cheyenne Hollis titled, ‘Serie A: The Slow Death of the Greatest League in Europe’ states that “The once-proud league is quickly becoming an afterthought as scandals, crowd troubles and a poor product continue to plague the Italian game”.

Television broadcasting rights which account for approximately 50% of the league’s revenue are essential to Serie A’s survival. As the league begins negotiations with providers it is faced with an increasing list of problems and none more pressing than a massive decrease in consumer spending as a result of the recession. If you include the current level of club debt, increasing concerns about violence, incidents of racism, past corruption and the poor state of club stadiums the league has a lot to be worried about. Match attendance figures alone have decreased a massive 30% over the last 5 years. Cash-strapped clubs can no longer afford to support star international players who were once attracted to the league and are losing local talent just as fast. But what matters most to the broadcasters is that viewers have begun to switch off in large numbers. Supporters can no longer afford television subscriptions and match day tickets and are not prepared to put up with the dilapidated state of their team stadiums. Personal safety concerns and increasing violence and corruption in state and football management is adding to the collapse of the league’s support base.

Joaquin of ACF Fiorentina scores a goal during the UEFA Europa League Group E match between ACF Fiorentina and FC Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk at Stadio Artemio Franchi on December 12, 2013 in Florence, Italy.
Attending the Europa Cup match between ACF Fiorentina (Florence Italy) and FC Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk (Ukraine) at the Stadio Artemio Franchi seemed to confirm all that is worrying about the men's game. Tight security surrounded the stadium as supporters are ushered along outside of a high chain wire fence surrounding the stadium. Many, including myself, are searched and questioned about smoke bombs and flares as they entered. The stands are old and dirty and the complex has no toilets or amenities. The addition of a row of porta loos, while providing to those in need, did nothing to promote the venue. The crowd was in the most part friendly but it did get a bit heated at one end with flares and smoke accompanying huge flags, banners and hearty barracking. Maybe the security checks were only meant for those entering the grandstands, but they didn't seem to have made any difference to me. But what I did notice was the poor crowd attendance. There were many seats left unoccupied. This was an important game for Florence against a club that was determined to overturn a previous loss and to reclaim and leading position within the group. Why were the numbers so low? The stadium built in 1931 has a capacity of 47,000 odd supporters but my guess put the figure at about a quarter of that. While the stadium has a rich history including hosting matches of the 1934 World Cup, the 1960 Olympics and even some games between American service teams at the end of the second world, the stadium is in a very poor state. Despite the conditions the locals that braved the cold night to support their team enjoyed a hard and exciting tussle, with ACF Fiorentina running out winners in the end two goals to one.

Thinking about the crowd numbers, the state of the stadium and the amount of money in the men’s game, as I always do, I draw a line of comparison with the women’s game. While they too struggle for people to attend matches, albeit on a much smaller scale, they have long faced many similar challenges and concerns which are only now starting to affect the men’s game. No media support, no money, no stadiums and no interest. They have never been in a strong financial position and being paid as a professional is just a dream to most. Many women have long been in the position whereby they have to choose between the limited opportunities offered at home or leaving to find greener pastures elsewhere. Not all however in the search of the dollar but to be able to improve their game in an environment which is encouraging and supportive. This is not say that premier women players are not interested in being financially rewarded, it is for the vast majority the only option available in countries where the game is dominated culturally by men.

Amanda Axelson a soccer writer for the Puget Sound Premier League comments on the large number of Italian women soccer players who are travelling to the United States. “Football in the U.S provides Italian females the chance to branch out from their male-dominated Italian soccer world.” Many see football in Italy as only a game for men and because it is so dominant the women’s game is not followed at all. These women see the United States, and other footballing nations that support the women’s game, as a rare opportunity to enjoy the game they love. Interviewed for the same article Italian women’s footballer Alessandra Nencioni commented that all “Italian female players have the American dream to play in a country where soccer is maybe the most followed women’s sport.”

So in facing the cultural and practical realities of women’s football, what really motivates the thousands of young women who play football in Italy today? An article published by Urbino University Professor, Ivana Matteucci titled, ‘Sport as a Cultural Model: Italian Women's Soccer over the Past Ten Years’, may provide some answers. The article based on a survey questionnaire distributed to 100 women who play soccer regularly endeavors to shed some light on the obstacles which block the development of the female sport and what motivates female athletes to continue to play the game.
At the top of the list we find passion for the sport and the enjoyment they get out of playing. Many of them have been repeatedly discouraged from playing the game by parents, relatives and friends for different reasons, but above all, because women’s soccer is not comparable to the men’s game. Many women play for simple personal pleasure and use the sport as a diversion to get a break from the repetition of everyday life. As one might expect, the percentage of those who play soccer only for financial compensation is very low.
Mauro talks again about his daughter and of the game she has loved to play since the age of eight. Greta now shares a flat with two of her teammates (one a former Japanese national goalkeeper) directly opposite the Stadio Comunale San Marcellino where they train and play on the weekend. All are studying at University in Florence. While the club does provide rent assistance Mauro explains that with training four nights a week and a game each weekend, the girls don't have time to work part time (if there is in fact work available) and would not be able to study at the tertiary level without financial support. He is happy to be in a position where he can provide the support that Greta needs to both play the game she loves and to attend University in the hope that she will have the best opportunity for a successful future.

Many find it hard to have any sympathy for the current condition of the men’s game in Italy when most of its problems are self-inflicted due to the league’s unwillingness to act in the face of the challenges at hand. It is clear from the parents and family supporters and that of the many commentators of the game that drastic change is needed both in Government and in the management of football if the both the country and the game is to once again reclaim a leading position in Europe. While they are deeply proud of their country and passionate about the game they love, many believe that the country needs to stop and start all over again if it has any chance of moving forward towards a brighter future.

There are no easy answers to the problems facing both the country and men’s football in Italy, but there just might be some lessons to be learnt from the women’s game. No matter what nationality women and girls just like Greta continually face many hardships and obstacles in order for them to play the game they love. Ultimately the future of the game will depend in part on the willingness of the fans and the old English proverb, “Where there’s a will there’s a way!”

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