Juventus’ recent extravagance in the transfer market may give them a dark hue, but Serie A won’t mind the attention it is now getting.
Art comes at a price. Look at the skyline of Florence, for example, and the Duomo di Firenze. Construction of the dome that looms over the city took 16 years to finish. What motivated the designer, Filippo Brunelleschi, to revolutionize engineering and push beyond the limits of the architecture of the era? Glory and artistic immortality? Undoubtedly. Pride? Sure. 200 gold florins? Bingo. Without a commission, the architect’s famous octagonal dome would never have come into existence. Florence was the financial center of Europe and the great artists of the region converged on the city to make their living. This meeting of art and finances kick-started the Renaissance in Western Europe.
These days the money has moved north in Italy, and this is also true for football. Cristiano Ronaldo’s blockbuster move to Juventus of Turin over the summer is proof of that. The Italian champions paid Real Madrid €100 million, a quarter of the club’s revenue from the previous year, for him. That figure does not include his €31 million annual salary which makes him far and away the highest player in the country. Individually, he earns more than half of the teams in Serie A. No other teams in the league can even come close to competing financially. As a result, the Old Lady can pluck talent from smaller clubs with impunity.
Paris Saint-Germain and Bayern Munich enjoy a similar financial superiority in their respective leagues, but even they have stumbled in recent years with PSG finishing second in 2017 and the Bavarian giants struggling to catch Dortmund this season. Seven scudetti in a row shows not just how much more buying power Juventus has over its domestic rivals, but also how ruthlessly it has exploited that advantage. After Napoli pushed them all the way 2016 with Gonzalo Higuain scoring 36 league goals, the northerners simply paid whatever crazy price Aurelio De Laurentiis slapped on him. Or when Miralem Pjanic handed in a transfer request at Roma, Juve was ready to meet his release clause. Paulo Dybala was another gifted player snapped up after he refused a contract extension at Palermo. This financial stability also allows the club to resist interest in their assets from abroad. When Paul Pogba left Turin, Manchester United had to pay a world-record fee. Alex Sandro is regularly linked with a move to Chelsea, but Juve feel no pressure to accept anything other than a massive bid from the Londoners.
No club finds Juventus’s poaching of talent more galling than Fiorentina. The Tuscans hate to lose players to them. The roots of the rivalry go back to the 1981/82 Serie A title race, but it is implicitly about money; the Zebre always have it and Fiorentina never does. So, if there is a player in purple that looks half-decent, it won’t be long before he dons the famous black and white stripes. After the Florentines spent years investing in and rehabilitating a young Roberto Baggio, Juve swooped in and spent a then world-record fee for him. Why? Because they could. Federico Bernardeschi is the latest footballer to travel the well-worn path from Florence to Turin.
When the Bianconeri came to visit the Artemio Franchi at the beginning of December, they were guaranteed a hot reception. There were axes to grind. Even Fiorentina’s journeyman manager, Stefano Pioli, can harbor some ill-feeling toward Juventus from his playing days. As the story goes, when he joined training as a new arrival to the club, he was paired up with Michel Platini for a technical drill. The French playmaker was so disgusted with the lack of skill from the young defender he refused to continue with him. One gets the feeling Signor Pioli’s time in Turin was not a happy one despite all the trophies won.
If Fiorentina was to have any chance at defeating the Piedmontese juggernaut, it needed its two young up-and-coming attackers, Federico Chiesa and Giovanni Simeone, to have brilliant performances. However, “El Cholito” Simeone spent most of the match getting battered by every member of Juve’s backline in turn and was largely ineffective. Chiesa started out wide and had few chances to impact the game; his most telling contribution was tracking back and sliding in on Juan Cuadrado to stop a dangerous counterattack. It was a tackle worth a few added million euros to his price tag.
Despite the energy and endeavour from the hosts, Juventus’s front three were simply a class above. Ronaldo might be the big-money star, but the other two, Dybala and Mario Mandzukic, are stand out as well. Mandzukic is a bastard to play against, hustling and harrying his opponents. He is a one man horror movie, popping up just when a defender thinks it is safe to relax. Dybala might not get top billing, but he oozes class. He spent the evening gliding past opponents and orchestrating the attack by dropping into midfield. Seeing him cross the ball is like admiring the finely balanced forms in the sculpture of Michelangelo.
When the first goal of the match came though, it was not from one of the front three. It was from Rodrigo Bentancur. As he drove forward from midfield, Ronaldo dragged defenders from the center with a terrific run, creating a terrific gap. With so much space, the young Uruguayan simply placed it past the goalkeeper with a minimum of fuss. The fact that he started this match in the center of midfield instead of a rested Pjanic shows the embarrassment of riches available to Massimiliano Allegri.
Up a goal, the visitors were content to go into cruise control at the start of the second half. Finally, perhaps out of boredom, Juve ventured forward. There was a sequence of head tennis from a corner and the ball looped back into the box. Giorgio Chiellini swiveled and struck it as it came over his shoulder. It was an outrageous attempt from a defender, but it went in. It was his first goal in two years, and he celebrated as enthusiastically as one would expect – despite Chiellini’s time spent as Fiorentina player. The Florentines actually held 50% of his rights for a season, but were outbid for full ownership by, you guessed it, Juventus. The assist for the goal, naturally, was provided by another former Fiorentina player: Cuadrado.
Another source of disgust for Fiorentina fans is how “lucky” Juventus always seem to be. As might be expected in a match like this, Juve received a penalty kick from a marginal call. Ronaldo stepped up and struck the ball so hard it hit the net and immediately rebounded back to him. He was so pleased with his 10th goal in his last 11 games, he blasted the ball out of the stadium. He received a yellow card for the celebration, but it did not matter as his number was up on the fourth official’s board. He was replaced by Florence’s native son, Bernardeschi. It was an insult, a backhand to remind everyone who ran things in Serie A.
Fiorentina are not the only team to fall victim to the Juventus’s utter financial dominance. Juve’s next fixture was the Derby d’Italia against Internazionale. The match was decided by a single goal. The provider for Mandzukic’s header was Joao Cancelo. Cancelo spent last season on loan at Inter and impressed during his spell at the San Siro. However, the Nerazzuri could not make the deal permanent and stay within FFP restrictions. It turns out there was one club in Serie A that could afford Valencia’s €40 million asking price though.
After defeating Inter, Juve went 11 points clear at the top of the table. There is hope though for the rest of the chasing pack. A rising tide lifts all boats, and Juventus’s strategy to break into international markets means more eyes will be on Serie A. Brands will spend more money trying to get in front viewers tuning in from around the globe. The league’s new broadcasting deal with ESPN in the United States is a prime example. The hope is that the money once again flowing into the league will lead to a revival of the glorious years of Italian football when the world’s most exciting footballers made their way to Italy. With all those talented artists attracted to the league, a renaissance may be just around the corner.