A shift in the European balance of power


Mario Gomez gives Bayern the edge in the Champions League second round

Mario Gomez gives Bayern the edge in the Champions League second round, first leg

Inter travel to Bayern Munich tonight with the hopes of a whole nation on their shoulders. The Milanese outfit are Italy’s sole remnant in European competition for the 2010/11 season, with the other six Serie A entrants already eliminated from the Champions League and Europa League. If Bayern can build on their 1-0 win from the first leg at the Giuseppe Meazza Stadium to knock Inter out of the UEFA’s elite competition, it would be a fitting way to seal the seismic shift of power on the European stage.

Regardless of tonight’s result – or the way the rest of the season pans out, for that matter – the Bundesliga will gain a fourth spot in the Champions League for the 2012/3 season at the expense of Italy. UEFA’s intricate system of allocating participants for the two continental competitions looks daunting and indecipherable on face value. However the crux of the matter is this: because the strongest leagues can enter the strongest teams, the balance of power rarely wavers.

Unlike the FIFA International Rankings (which bizarrely lists Greece as the 10th-best international side the world at the moment), the UEFA coefficient table is meticulously devised and gives tangible rewards for football associations that perform well in Europe. Clubs play for their own rewards, but impressive achievements across the board by one country’s representatives can give a high average coefficient score for the year – importantly, this score weighs against the nation for the next five years.

Ukraine topped the UEFA coefficient table for 2008/9 as their four representatives had the highest average score. Romania also topped the table in 2005/6 owing to the success of the three Bucharest-based clubs which constituted their entire contingent that season – though now that five years have passed, that season will be discarded from future considerations. England always perform well in the tables, but averages have taken a hit in recent years with poor showings on the continent by the likes of Everton, Villa and Portsmouth. (A comprehensive view of all the stats, graphs and results that affect this convoluted process are pedantically and brilliantly logged here.)

Therefore, major shifts on the European stage will naturally reflect long-term changes in the domestic leagues – deviant scores are consummately ironed out by this process of footballing-Darwinism. The Bundesliga has taken steady steps in building its global appeal and will finally overthrow the cartel that England, Spain and Italy have had over the prized top-three rankings in recent years, where four Champions League places are awarded. In the case of Italy, it is another nail in the coffin for the decaying Serie A, which topped the UEFA’s coefficient table across the 1990s. Italian football is in categorical decline, and it is hard to say when they will reach their nadir.

Italian mobile tariffs: ungenerous

Italian mobile tariffs: ungenerous

Serie A has largely fallen victim to itself. Ahead of Italy’s World Cup win in 2006, Italian police uncovered corruption of colossal proportions between some of the nation’s most highly-esteemed clubs after they tapped a number of telephones. Known as Calciopoli, the scandal unveiled a dense network of relations between the managers and referees which led to allegations of widespread match-fixing. The original sanctions were eventually slackened by the Italian Football Federation (FIGC), but the legacy still left a deep imprint on the nation.

A total of five clubs faced punishment by FIGC, including Lazio and Fiorentina who were expelled from European competition for the 2006/7 season. However, the primary source of embarrassment for Italy was the heavy involvement from the most successful club in the country’s history: Juventus. The ‘Old Lady of Turin’ were kicked out of Europe, stripped of their Scudetto titles from 2005 and 2006, and demoted to Serie B for the first time in their history (beginning the new season on -9 points). Many superstars of Serie A – especially the foreign contingent – looked for pastures new. Luciano Moggi, the club’s managing director, was eventually jailed for his involvement.

The three banished clubs were replaced by Parma, Livorno and Palermo who entered into the UEFA Cup for 2006/7. None surpassed the third round, and Champions League participants Chievo flopped out in the final qualifying round. AC Milan eventually won the Champions League (after controversially being allowed to enter the competition, despite being punished with a domestic points deduction for their involvement in Calciopoli) but the other Italian clubs dragged Italy’s rankings down. Similarly, Inter’s triumph in last year’s competition under José Mourinho was undone by the abject performances by Genoa and Lazio in the Europa League.

The current season is the fifth since Calciopoli, and therefore shows more precisely than ever what an effect that the scandal has had on the state of Italy’s stake on the European stage. The five-year period (beginning 2006/7) which will directly dictate the make-up of the 2012/3 qualifications can be seen here – with the current season still in play, there might yet be some movement in the table. But even if Inter went on to win this year’s Champions League, it wouldn’t be sufficient to make enough ground to overtake the Bundesliga representatives.

Shakhtar: 2009 UEFA Cup champions

Shakhtar: 2009 UEFA Cup champions and benefactors of Ukraine

France, Portugal, Russia and Netherlands are amongst the chasing pack and presently all have three clubs playing in Europe. Those nations could make further ground on Italy in the near future – especially as they all scored poorly in 2006/7, which will be erased when the five-year period is surpassed next season. Shakhtar Donetsk and Dynamo Kyiv are still flying the Ukrainian flag, and have both performed brilliantly on the continent in recent years.

FIGC and the Italian clubs might take heart from England’s resurrection after their plight during the 1980s. England were banned from European competition indefinitely following the Heysel disaster at the 1985 European Cup final in Brussels when rioting Liverpool fans caused a wall to collapse at the Heizelstadion, killing 39. UEFA eventually lifted the ban after a five-year exile, and English football has been able to thrive again with lessons duly learnt. But there’s the rub – Serie A still needs to embrace transparency and the positives that the modernisation can bring to the game.

Die Südtribüne stand at the Dortmund's Westfalenstadion: boasting space for 25,000 standing spectators

Die Südtribüne stand at the Dortmund

Germany has welcomed changes in the game and is reaping the rewards. Using the infrastructure and stadia that the legacy of the 2006 World Cup left behind, the Bundesliga has established itself as a resurgent superpower in Europe after laying dormant for so long. Many German clubs have vast amounts of ‘safe standing’ – an alternative to traditional terracing, which was banned by the Taylor Report in light of the tragic events of the Hillsborough disaster in 1989.

Conversely, in Serie A this season, many teams have had to stage lock-outs of travelling fans as the Tessera del Tifoso (fans’ ID cards) scheme has caused problems – especially at the start of the year when many clubs failed to prepare their cards on time. Many fans – particularly the infamous ultras of many clubs – have opposed the innovation, and this schism perhaps is evidence of hampering attitude of the average Italian fan.

It was probably fitting that it was Mario Gómez who capitalised on Júlio César’s error at the San Siro, giving Bayern the slenderest of leads going into the second leg. Gómez, the bright German striker of Spanish descent, neatly sums up the cosmopolitan and progressive attitude that has won the German domestic league and national team so many accolades in recent years. On the other hand, Inter exploited a regulation loophole to sign César – they laundered the Brazilian through Chievo in January 2005 as their own non-EU player-allowance was already full, and Inter paid their fee when they had an opening in their quota in July. The evidence of the rotten core of Italian football still lingers.

The Italian side were rarely troubled when these sides met in last year’s final, but this evening’s tie is delicately poised. So if Inter fail to overturn their deficit to Bayern at the Allianz Arena, it will be the most appropriate way for the baton to be handed over to Germany for the time being.

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