Serie A no longer playing second fiddle

Martin Rogers
Yahoo! Sports

Whether David Beckham ends up in Italy on a permanent basis or not makes little difference – Serie A is back with a vengeance.

The league that was the finest on the planet for much of the 1990s has struggled in recent years, having been pushed behind the English Premier League and Spain's La Liga in terms of importance and interest. Three years ago, a match-fixing scandal rocked Italian soccer and devastated its fans. That followed a period with a mind-numbing level of tactical negativity, earning Serie A the "boring" tag with many neutral observers.

However, the Italian game can no longer be tarnished by such accusations.

Sunday's derby between Inter Milan and AC Milan was a contest of outstanding quality, passion and pace, and matches such as these are no longer the exception. The Champions League has helped Italian teams realize that playing it safe is a route to failure in the modern game, and the action has opened up considerably.

While the top Spanish teams are now paying for excessive levels of borrowing over the past few seasons, most of Italy's big clubs are on reasonably sound financial footing. With the Euro emerging as the world's strongest currency, the ability of Italian clubs to invest in world-class talent has never been stronger.

On the field, there may be no club team in the world that is playing better than Inter Milan. Former Chelsea coach Jose Mourinho has quickly put together a group that looks confident and invincible.

The Champions League showdowns later this month, in which there are three EPL vs. Serie A ties, could go a long way toward proving to a skeptical European soccer audience that Italy is back.

Weekend First XI

1. Get them an Advil

The contingent of U.S. soccer haters was feeling pretty good about itself recently. David Beckham's impending move to Italy will rob Major League Soccer of its biggest name and attendances could dip accordingly.

However, just under 12 million viewers tuned in to watch the United States beat Mexico in Columbus, Ohio, on Wednesday, proof that there is interest in the game that is only likely to increase leading up to the World Cup next year.

2. Get him a beer

Ryan Giggs made his Manchester United debut 18 years ago, but there are still no signs of the Welsh winger slowing down. United has been so impressed with his performances this season that Giggs has been offered yet another contract that will keep him going one more year.

Early in his career, Giggs had the celebrity lifestyle with famous girlfriends and a playboy reputation. That he gave up all that to focus on becoming the best player possible is one of the reasons he will be remembered as one of the EPL's all-time greats.

3. Get him some earplugs

Lyon defender John Mensah was on the receiving end of scandalous racist insults from a Le Havre fan during French Ligue 1 action on Sunday.

Ghana international Mensah allowed his fury at the disgusting comments to get the better of him and he was sent off after 70 minutes. Soccer has done a decent job of reducing racism in recent years, but incidents such as this should serve as a wake-up call.

4. Four corners

• Just how badly dented would the Asia Cup trophy have been if Iraq had kept it for two more years?

• Aviva Stadium doesn't have quite the same ring to it, does it?

• Is "The Ogre" the greatest nickname in soccer?

• Does it really seem like David Beckham is coming back?

5. Catch a flight to …

Donetsk. It will take you an eternity to get there and decimate your bank account, there's not much to do and it's freezing cold. But you'll get to see Shakhtar Donetsk play Tottenham Hotspur in one of the UEFA Cup's more intriguing clashes this week.

6. A round of applause for …

• Nike. The sportswear giant is close to agreeing to a long-term deal to sponsor the Chinese Super League for the next decade. The recent problems suffered by the league, which had its television coverage pulled by government-run channels after repeated violent clashes, means Nike will get a slice of an emerging competition at a bargain price.

• Roman Abramovich. The Chelsea owner hasn't done much right lately, but his appointment of Guus Hiddick as boss until the end of the season was a masterstroke. There is no finer coach in the game.

7. Get them a Kleenex

• Mexico fans. Not only did supporters of El Tri have to witness their team's defeat to the U.S., but they also failed to get what they really wanted – the sacking of Sven-Goran Eriksson.

• Mark Hughes. The Manchester City head coach is now in desperate trouble, having seen his team taken apart by struggling Portsmouth last Saturday.

8. Get ready to say hello to …

Benni McCarthy. Rumors in England are suggesting that the Blackburn Rovers striker could be keen to move to MLS after the World Cup next year. The South African striker is still only 31 and would be a fantastic addition for the league.

9. Get ready to say goodbye to …

Frankie Hejduk. Well, maybe not just yet, but the Columbus Crew defender's age (33) has not stopped him from attracting some European attention. A scout for an unnamed Scandinavian club watched Hejduk in action for the U.S. against Mexico and told Yahoo! Sports that his team was considering offering the right back a one-year deal when the transfer window re-opens.

10. Get excited about …

France's bid to host Euro 2016. With the only other options being unsatisfactory dual-hosting arrangements, plus a potential bid from Turkey that is struggling to gather widespread support, France's announcement last week came at just the right time. The World Cup in 1998 was outstanding and the French would do a great job of hosting the Euros.

11. Why it's good to be a soccer player

Take a look at Helena Seger, wife of Inter Milan superstar Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

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