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It’s been close a decade since Italy had a champion other than Juventus. This season, the Old Lady will go for its ninth straight Serie A title. The juggernaut from Turin is the towering favorite on account of its complete and total dominance dating back to 2011.
And there isn’t much to suspect that anything will change anytime soon. A summer after poaching Cristiano Ronaldo, the second-best player of all time who summarily scored almost three times as many goals as any other Juve player last season, the club went out and won a fierce competition for Europe’s best young defender Matthijs de Ligt, who only just turned 20. It also got coveted midfielders Aaron Ramsey and Adrien Rabiot on free transfers and picked up a few other useful parts.
Such is Juve’s wealth of talent that it’s shopping Argentine forwards Paulo Dybala and Gonzalo Higuain, who would instantly be leading stars on any other Italian team. The only big question mark is new manager Maurizio Sarri and his quixotic playing style, which might be an ill fit for a veteran team. But then Juve always seems to figure it out in the end.
But as Sarri and his side presumably continue to dominate, you’ll also continue to hear from critics that this dominance is bad for Serie A. That the league is predictable and that Juve is just too strong, and that it’s uninteresting and perhaps even unfair.
And that’s where they’re wrong.
It isn’t Juve’s fault that it’s dominated the domestic league as completely and comprehensively as it has. It’s everybody else’s fault for not figuring out ways to become as good as the serial champions.
The argument for parity – a favorite trope stateside – is undercut by the actual evidence that fans enjoy dynasties and oligopolies. The Premier League grew to its global prominence while it was dominated by Manchester United. La Liga thrived while it was controlled by two teams – and the title has, in fact, mostly been hogged by Barcelona in the last decade.
Italy’s problem isn’t Juventus. It’s everybody else.
Juve owes its perch not just to its history and legacy and global popularity. It’s also proved to be Italy’s best-run club of the last decade. Juve came back from the crushing Calciopoli scandal and its attendant relegation to become the rare Italian team to own a state-of-the-art stadium, boosting and keeping its own revenue while most every other club plays in a run-down facility owned by the local municipality, a significant drag on earnings. Juve consciously grew and monetized a global brand. It played the transfer market cleverly.
And so if you wanted to compete with the champions, you’ll have to develop as a club. Because Juve won’t just give its lofty position away. By consistently embarrassing the other major clubs – of which Italy has such a trove – Juve has essentially forced them to become better.
Slowly, its rivals are responding. Napoli, namely, has had its best period since Diego Maradona’s days three decades ago, averaging an enormous 84.5 points over the last four seasons, placing second three times.
Inter Milan has invested massively in its squad again and again and may have finally found the elite manager it craved in Antonio Conte. Across town, AC Milan has also enjoyed an enormous cash influx from its murky new ownership, after several moribund years under the increasingly tight-fisted Silvio Berlusconi.
AS Roma, under American owners, made a concerted push for a new stadium and is slated to finally move into its own venue next season. Smaller clubs like Udinese, Atalanta and Cagliari are following suit. All in pursuit of Juventus.
And for a time, it looked like the gap was shrinking. While Juve has won its eight straight titles by margins of four, nine, 17, 17, nine, four, four and 11 points, respectively, there was momentum among the teams below it. From the 2011-12 season onward, the combined points total of the teams who placed second through fourth rose steadily from 204 to 245 in 2016-17. Since then, it slipped to 240 two seasons ago and 217 last year, when a free-for-all of mediocrity broke out beneath Napoli, and little Atalanta snuck into third place.
But all the while, Juve remained unbeatable. And in the process it brought Italy back to European relevance. Inter was the last team to win the Champions League in 2010, and then followed a steep decline. Serie A produced no semifinalists for four years with a nadir in 2014, when just one team – AC Milan – survived the group stage, only to crash out in the round of 16. Juve has flown the flag since then, leading a slow Italian resurgence with appearances in the final in 2015 and 2017. Since then, Roma also made the semis in 2018.
Juve has set the standard. It raised the bar for a historic and cherished league that suddenly found itself caught in a tailspin. It has essentially proclaimed that if you’d like to be competitive in Italy, if you want to return Serie A to its old glory when a handful of teams could win it every year and it produced regular European champions, you’ll have to become as good as Juventus. Because it isn’t slowing down.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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