It has been twenty years since Italian teams have been a regular presence in the latter stages of the Champions League. This season, however, three Italian sides have made it to the quarter-finals – AC Milan, Napoli, and Inter. This is the first time since 2006 that three teams have made it this far.
So what has caused this Serie A renaissance? In the past fifteen years, the arrival of billionaire owners across Europe has changed the balance of power and the way clubs do business. Italian clubs’ presidents tended to be businessmen who used their teams as a PR tool, and they failed to keep up with the new owners who had global resources and goals. As a result, potential buyers decided to take their businesses to other leagues in Europe.
Recently, foreign capital has bolstered Italian clubs’ coffers and seven Serie A clubs now belong to foreign owners. Napoli are the perfect example of a team that has experienced steady growth over the past decade. President Aurelio de Laurentiis bought the club in 2004 as it went bankrupt and they have since won three Coppa Italia titles and played European football for thirteen years in a row. Last summer, Napoli sold stalwarts such as Lorenzo Insigne and Kalidou Koulibaly, signed superb talents on cheap deals, and saw Victor Osimhen become the most-wanted striker in Europe – all while reducing the total payroll by 30-35%.
AC Milan’s story is similar to Napoli’s, albeit shorter. Today’s Rossoneri are the result of a project built on the ruins left behind by former president Silvio Berlusconi and Chinese businessman Yonghong Li. Red Bird Capital took over from Elliott last summer and have continued the style and strategy put in place. It has been based on a few solid pillars: the identity given by Paolo Maldini’s return; the recruitment of promising youngsters; and the winning mentality instilled by experienced players such as Olivier Giroud and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Two seasons ago, Milan ended a seven-year drought by qualifying for the Champions League, and then won their first Italian league title in eleven years in 2022.
Inter boast the most mature squad and the biggest wage bill of the three Italian teams still in the competition. Romelu Lukaku was off-loaded two years ago to Chelsea, just to come back on loan after a disappointing season in London, while Milan Skriniar has not extended his contract and will leave as a free agent to PSG in July. Inter are less proactive compared to Napoli and Milan but have earned their place in the last eight – obstinate defence saw them past Porto in the last 16 after they deservedly survived a group which included Bayern Munich and Barcelona.
Six Italian clubs are in the quarter-finals of the three European competitions, with Milan, Napoli and Inter joined by Juventus and Roma in the Europa League and Fiorentina in the Conference League. One Italian club is guaranteed to play in the Champions League semi-finals, and it will be two if Inter can eliminate Portuguese opponents for a second round in succession.
The economic gap between Serie A clubs and European football’s superpowers remains vast – and it will not be bridged any time soon. However, that financial chasm has forced some clubs to think out of their usual Italian box with Napoli, Milan and Inter’s runs this season proof Serie A sides can succeed. But those successes do not extend to the whole of Italian football. Not all that glitters is gold, as Italy know all too well after their struggles since winning the Euros at Wembley.