The history of Italian football is long and colourful, with its heroes writ large. The stories of the game go back more than a hundred years in Italy, and while the faces change, some of the names remain.
Any Italian football historian would concede that while indelible marks have been left on the game from all sorts of sources, from all parts of the country and more recently the world, the biggest impression has come from the north of Italy, and from two cities less than 200km apart in particular.
While the Genoese might take umbrage at their early success, Italian football, particularly Serie A football and from the mid-1900s, European football has been dominated by three colossal clubs.
Juventus, of Turin, and Milan and Inter, from Milan. Between them they have shared two thirds of the titles Italy has bestowed, and those three clubs have combined to win all 12 European Cups that have come back to the country.
The story of Italian football can be told as the power struggle between the three, and each Serie A table is an illustration of where each sat in regard to one another at the time. All of this history and success, and the shadow it casts, is why the 2006/07 season was so interesting.
The Calciopoli scandal is another story entirely, but it is indisputable that when the World Cup winning Azzurri side returned home, they did so to a Serie A that, unthinkably, did not contain Juventus.
How would the league react? Would the void that Juventus left be filled? Would they be missed? Would they be welcomed back when (or if) they returned?
Some of the stories are easier to tell than others. Messina, granted a reprieve for being the highest team in the relegation zone when Juventus were automatically demoted, finished rock bottom the following campaign. They started the season well, perhaps buoyed by the removal of Damocles’ sword, but it swung back against them in a spring that saw the Sicilians win just two points in their last ten games.
Of course, Juventus hadn’t gone away for good, they were simply resting in Serie B. Their players had been cast to the winds, with some ending up at rivals in the top flight. Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Patrick Vieira thumbed their nose at the Derby D’Italia by moving to eventually awarded champions Inter, while Adrian Mutu moved to Fiorentina.
Both Ibrahimovic and Vieira would come to be successful transfers, while Mutu became a huge star at Fiorentina.
Further departures included Fabio Cannavaro, captain of the Azzurri side who won the World Cup in a turbulent summer and Emerson, both of whom swapped Turin for Madrid along with manager Fabio Capello.
Juventus’ were felt keenly, and early. When the fixtures were announced, there was no Derby d’Italia, no Derby della Mole and none of the traditional visits of their bete noire to Florence. That said, the only Napoli in Serie A was in the Inter squad, so there was further interest to be had below the top flight with big clubs looking to return.
As soon as the fixtures came out, there was a feeling that, with Juventus absent, that Inter’s path to glory seemed set to be too smooth. Roma had been closest to the old rivals the previous year, but the deficit was large, and the Giallorossi did not strengthen nearly enough to indicate they might make it up.
Behind them in 2005/06, Milan were docked points, and Chievo, who had finished fourth, were seen as a flash in the pan who were likely to struggle rather than feature in the European spots.
The various points deductions taken into account, it was always unlikely that Inter would have any real challenge for the title – and their main rivals came from outside that pack.
Francesco Totti was to enjoy a stellar season for Roma. He never scored more than the 26 goals he amassed that year, though the Giallorossi’s challenge was to stall in early 2007, as they were unable to compete on all three fronts. Too many draws put paid to their hopes of catching Inter in Serie A, while that famous defeat at Manchester Utd left them with only the Coppa Italia to fight for.
In that, at least, they were able to get the better of Inter, a 6-2 first leg victory being too much to overturn in the return fixture in the final.
The Nerazzurri proved themselves time and again during the course of the season. If there was any doubt that the awarding of the previous season’s Scudetto was unwarranted, that was firmlt put to bed by a relentless run. That they led the league from the 12th week suggests they had no equal, as does the 22 point gap they enjoyed at the end of the campaign.
Indeed, the Nerazzurri were to set all-time records such was their dominance. As well as the streak of 17 wins in a row, Roberto Mancini’s side clinched the title with five games to spare – only the Grande Torino side of 1947/8 had won it as early. Whatever competition they did have was hamstrung.
By the end of the year, Lazio (-3 points), Milan (-8) and Fiorentina (-15) had all made their way into the top half of the table; if it was obvious at the start, it was by the end, Serie A was clearly not able to rise to meet the challenge of its notable absentees – at least not regularly.
There were memorable matches, and outstanding performances, during the season. The absence of one team does not mean football loses its lustre completely.
The first Milan derby was a classic, Inter pulling away in the second half to enjoy a 4-3 away victory. Palermo’s challenge had faded by the time they visited the San Siro in April, but the Rosanero were still able to bloody their hosts’ noses.
An early strike from Andrea Caracciolo was added to just after half time by Cristian Zaccardo and suddenly Inter looked as though they had a challenge on. Julio Cruz and Adriano pulled it back and demonstrated the Champions-in-waiting’s resilience, though it was to get worse.
Next match, Inter hosted Roma, and though Marco Materazzi equalised after Simone Perrotta had put the visitors ahead, the Giallorossi were able to put the champagne on ice, as Francesco Totti and Andrea Cassetti scored late to inflict defeat on Inter for the first time all season.
They were not to lose again. Indeed, next match, in front of 15,000 at Siena, Mancini’s side lifted – retained – their Serie A title.
As so often in the case when one side dominates, the battle for lesser places was the more interesting contest. Once it became apparent that Lazio and Milan were going to be able to reach the top four, despite their points deductions, attention switched to the UEFA Cup spots, and latterly the relegation zone, as teams looked to to avoid the fate meted out to the hapless Messina side.
Ascoli tailed off horribly to finish just one point off the bottom of the league, but above them, the fight involved Chievo, Cagliari, Torino, Siena (-1), Reggina (-11) and Catania – in the final reckoning, only two points separated all of them.
Catania and Palermo, despite their differing campaigns, clashed in early 2007 with tragic consequences. With the Sicilian derby brought forward to Friday evening because it would have initially clashed with the St Agatha festivities. However, violence broke out between the two sets of supporters that culminated with the death of policeman Filippo Raciti. The game was called off, and following that, all football in Italy was suspended.
On its resumption, a number of games were played behind closed doors, and Catania were not allowed to use their Stadio Angelo Massimino home for the rest of the campaign. They travelled around Italy for the remainder of the campaign, and the last match of the season found them facing Chievo at the Stadio Renato dall’Ara in Bologna.
Although other permutations came into play beforehand, the outcome of that game was always likely to be the critical one. Whichever team won would guarantee their safety, while the loser would be almost certainly condemned to Serie B. A tense first half ended 0-0, but Catania took the lead through Fausto Rossini before Mauro Minelli finished the job, and condemned the Gialloblu to the drop just a year after qualifying for the Champions League.
With no real title race, the scrap for minor placings being between teams who had seen their own season plans decimated by Calciopoli punishments, and two of the relegated sides doomed almost as soon as they begun, it is tempting to think of the Serie A of 2006/07 as something of a damp squib – and perhaps it was.
However, if that is the case, the reason would not be Juventus’ absence, although they might have been the only real challengers to Inter, but rather the other points deductions and punishments that were put upon Serie A clubs. Everything became apparent very early on, except the very last relegation spot.
Did Serie A miss Juventus? It is difficult to think that one club is bigger than the league, and certainly nobody in a black and white shirt would dare to consider it, but the nature of their absence is important.
In the 1980s, when Milan fell out of Serie A twice, (albeit only once on merit), it was different. Their absence was keenly felt and their return expected, but it was not as though one of the best sides had disappeared, and not as if when they were to attain promotion they were expected to challenge immediately at the top.
It took the arrival of Silvio Berlusconi a few years down the line before the mid-table Milanese regained their seat at the very top table. With Juventus it was different; their demotion was almost akin to a delay in hostilities, and it was expected they would be back, and back on top, before very long at all.
In part this was because they had retained some of their very best players for the Serie B season. Giorgio Chiellini, Alessandro Del Piero and Gianluigi Buffon all did their turns at the Stadio Nereo Rocco in Trieste (Won 1-0), Stadio Matuso in Frosinone (Won 2-0) and Stadio Comulale in Arezzo (Won 5-1).
Attendances suffered a little in Serie A, as well, the big payday of a visit from the Turin giants being taken off the menu.
The opposite was true in Serie B, as Juventus’ season became almost a parade. It was (as in Serie A) obvious early on that all the suggestions that the Old Lady would struggle were wishful thinking.
Soon they were winning most games in front of full stadia of supporters who were taking a once in a lifetime opportunity. Crowds were noticeably higher for the visit of Didier Deschamps’ side, with the clubs with bigger stadia – Genoa and Napoli, to name a couple – enjoying bumper crowds that dwarfed the rest of their season’s figure. The effect was felt the same with smaller grounds, as well. One can only imagine how those in the home end at Mantua felt as their Mantova side defeated the great Juventus.
From their first away game at Rimini, it was clear that the Bianconeri’s magic had not faded, that they would take with them just as much interest from the press, from supporters and from football as a whole. It was a different season for Juventus, for sure, but it was not the purgatory that it might have been – the Bianconeri fans could well feel otherwise.
There were difficult moments. Buffon was sent for the first time in his career at AlbinoLeffe, but his team-mates were able to secure a 1-1 draw, one of four draws in nine games that followed a run of seven straight victories.
Ultimately, at the end of the season, Juventus regained their place in Serie A, and the year after, they struggled to assert themselves. After a year of triumph, perhaps that struggle was the real punishment. As ever, it did not last.
Serie A had missed Juventus, and Juventus had missed Serie A. The two are indelibly entwined and while the 2006/07 season was interesting, and Inter were an undoubtedly correct champion, it is difficult to consider a table that doesn’t have all three of those big sides in it.