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Attracting attention away from Cristiano Ronaldo isn’t easy in Italy at the moment. A full fortnight after “the signing of the century,” the consternation and incredulity endures. It is dominating the news cycle in Italian sport. Every day there are articles about Ronaldo having the body of a 20-year-old, his frankly ridiculous goal average, the fact he makes more money than all but seven Serie A clubs, and where Cristiano Jr. might play football in Turin.
This is what happens when you sign a global superstar who transcends the game itself. It reflects something else as well; a desire to focus on the positives and the relief and gratitude that a major story came along in a World Cup summer without Italy in the tournament.
Until the Ronaldo transfer, the mood among Italy’s pundit class was fairly pessimistic and self-critical. La Repubblica looked down on the business Italian clubs were doing in the calciomercato, observing that there was one common thread running through Javier Pastore’s long anticipated return to Serie A, Radja Nainggolan’s switch to Inter and Cancelo becoming the second most expensive defender in Juventus’ history: none of them were at the World Cup.
What did that say about the league?
There was some regret in losing an icon like Gianluigi Buffon, not to mention break-out stars from last season like Lucas Torreira (now at Arsenal) and Liverpool’s new goalkeeper, Alisson. Bidding arrivederci to the exciting if mercurial talent of Felipe Anderson also came as a shame, even if his reputation had taken a hit from next big thing to little more than the best 12th man last year.
Nevertheless, the beauty of Serie A is found in its ability to regenerate and turn a high volume of no-name players into overnight stars.
Take Patrik Schick and his maiden year at Sampdoria as a great example. Others have a habit of suddenly crossing over from the fringes to the fore with unexpected bravado, bettering their predecessors. The aforementioned Alisson and Luis Alberto stand out in that category. Then you have the waifs and strays who finally find the right home and rediscover old form (Ciro Immobile) and the kids who, after one or two years of finding their feet, catch fire and light up the league. It’s enough to think of how it abruptly clicked for Paulo Dybala at Palermo, Andrea Belotti at Torino and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic at Lazio.
While La Repubblica is right to despair during a summer in which AC Milan has been repossessed after owner Li Yonghong defaulted on his debt, Parma striker Emanuele Calaio placed his team’s promotion in jeopardy with dubious WhatsApp messages to a Spezia player in the build-up to the key game in their return to Serie A, Chievo risked relegation for allegedly inflating profits on player sales, and several clubs (including Bari) went bust, the overall quality of recruitment is not something to be dispirited by.
The most successful active Italian manager, Carlo Ancelotti, is back after almost a decade of winning things in England, France, Spain and Germany. The “Ronaldo of coaches” is how Napoli are spinning his appointment, which has (in PR terms, at least) for now made the idea of losing Maurizio Sarri less painful than anticipated.
The acquisitions of Alex Meret and Fabian Ruiz look shrewd, but the hope, which will probably go unrequited, is that Ronaldo’s arrival in Turin will embolden teams like Napoli and provoke a reaction. Napoli owner Aurelio de Laurentiis has repeatedly downplayed the prospect of Edinson Cavani coming back to San Paolo, saying with typical bombast: “I am Napoli’s Matador.”
Ancelotti’s former club, Milan, have renewed credibility now that the Elliott hedge fund is calling the shots. The change of ownership was critical in CAS’s decision to overrule UEFA and readmit the Rossoneri to next season’s Europa League, while the new (well, old) management team has also restored face. Leonardo’s return as technical director, wiser for the experience of running Paris Saint-Germain, is an encouraging sign. News of efforts to swap Leonardo Bonucci for Gonzalo Higuain is another signal of intent.
Milan had the third-best record in the league over the second half of last season, and without a prolific striker to speak of. Signing a player of Higuain’s calibre would make a stronger case for Milan to end their Champions League exile.
Of course, qualification for the Champions League was something Inter achieved in dramatic circumstances themselves on the final day of last season, and the guaranteed revenue it brings has persuaded owners Suning to be ambitious as they were in their first summer at the helm. The Nerazzurri have added versatility and goals from midfield. And while it’s disappointing that Joao Cancelo and Rafinha’s loans were not made permanent — a sore point given their impact in the spring — Stefan de Vrij is the kind of free transfer for which Juventus get astronomical praise.
Nainggolan reunites with the manager he enjoyed his best season under, and Lautaro Martinez promises big things if he can strike up a partnership with Mauro Icardi. Inter fans have been reassured he isn’t another “Gabigol.”
As for Roma, supporters are bemoaning the sale of Alisson more than that of Nainggolan, who was sold at a time when it felt just about justifiable. Radja did not have a great year by his standards and seemed to jar with Eusebio Di Francesco’s system. It’s different with Alisson, but be realistic. There are some offers you simply can’t refuse even when a run to the Champions League semifinals, new sponsorship and the emancipation from their settlement agreement with UEFA mean Roma’s finances are the best they have been in donkey’s years.
Missing out on Malcom was galling, particularly given the underhanded circumstances in which a done deal came undone. But Roma have practically signed an entire new team while only losing two players. The combination of skill, depth and youth Monchi has procured, not to mention the guile he showed in beating better resourced clubs to the signing of Justin Kluivert, merits recognition.
Aside from Buffon, Alisson, Felipe Anderson, Jorginho and Torreira, Serie A has not lost any of its superstars. Not yet anyway. The fears De Laurentiis expressed of Sarri “dismantling” his Napoli team have not come to pass so far. Icardi has made his annual push for a new contract but remains loyal to Inter. Dybala is eager to play with Ronaldo, and somewhat surprisingly, Milinkovic-Savic is, for now, still a Lazio player.
While Juve’s dominance doesn’t look like it’s ending anytime soon, it’s worth keeping in mind that Ronaldo was no guarantee of the league title in Spain and last season was the most competitive in a long time in Serie A. Unlike the other four of Europe’s top five leagues, the race for the Scudetto wasn’t decided until a fortnight before the end of the campaign. Everything else was still to play for going into the final day.
Il Corriere dello Sport claims that “life beyond Ronaldo” is out there. You just have to look for it.