People in the Middle East who are long-time followers of European football look back on the late 1980s and early 1990s as a golden era for Italian football.
Arrigo Sacchi’s AC Milan and Giovanni Trapattoni’s Inter, both of whom featured a mixture of some of the best exports from across the continent and Italy’s finest home-grown talent, captured the imagination in the same ways that Real Madrid and Barcelona later would in the heydays of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.
In the red and black corner we had the Dutch trio of Ruud Gullit, Marco Van Basten and Frank Rijkaard, mixing it with Franco Baresi, Paolo Maldini and Carlo Ancelotti. And in the blue and black corner, the German triumvirate of Jurgen Klinsmann, Lothar Matthaus and Andreas Brehme, supported by Walter Zenga, Giuseppe Bergomi and Aldo Serena.
Between them, Milan and Inter cleaned up, at home and on the continent.
On Wednesday night, the latest incarnations of the Milanese giants will meet in the Supercoppa Italiana, the Italian Super Cup, at King Fahd International Stadium in Riyadh.
Lorenzo Casini, who was appointed president of Serie A in 2022, is very aware of the comparisons between the current Milan and Inter teams — led by Stefano Pioli and Simone Inzaghi, respectively — and their previous, legendary sides.
“It’s interesting because the history of soccer now should be looked at in centuries,” he told Arab News.
“Of course, we have cycles. Milan and Inter are like Real Madrid or Manchester United; some win more, some win less. But we are sure that together with other Italian teams, we are going back to the fabulous ’90s.”
Wednesday’s game will be the third time the showpiece match between the winner of the Italian league and cup competitions has taken place in Saudi Arabia.
In 2018, Juventus beat Milan 1-0, with Cristiano Ronaldo scoring the winner at King Abdullah Sport City Stadium in Jeddah. A year later, Lazio beat Juventus 3-1 at Mrsool Park in Riyadh
“Having the Supercoppa here, it’s very important because it’s a great opportunity for Italian soccer, for promoting our capacity,” Casini said during a lunch event hosted by the Italian ambassador at his residence in Riyadh.
“And we are also happy with the organization because it’s an opportunity not only to promote sports, but also to strengthen our relationship with this country.”
Serie A is in negotiations regarding an extension of the Italian Super Cup’s residency in Saudi. There were even reports during the summer that the format might be expanded to include four teams, similar to the Spanish Super Cup, which concluded on Sunday in Riyadh.
“We, as Italy, we were the first country and the first national league to come here and we were very happy with that,” Casini said.
“We are now aware that there are many proposals on the table, especially the format, and this is something that the national league is assessing very carefully. And of course we are very interested in promoting and exporting Italian soccer abroad.”
Serie A has been going through something of renaissance in the past few years, with Inter in 2021 breaking a nine-year Juventus title monopoly. That was followed a year later by AC Milan claiming their first Serie A championship since 2011. This season, Luciano Spalletti’s wonderful Napoli side are leading the league by nine points, as things stand.
Importantly, some of Europe’s most sought after players have made Italy their home.
“On the one hand it is growing, especially if you see the young (players). Of course financial conditions changed and this moved the teams to find new recipes in order to hire the best players,” said Casini.
“So there is more investment in young athletes. There are also more abilities to find the athletes or players at the end of their contracts, so they might have a better salary.
“So there’s plenty of tricks that were used in order to improve the quality of our championship. And Napoli is showing that, not only in the national league but also in the Champions League.”
With Massimiliano Allegri back at Juventus, Maurizio Sarri at Lazio, Jose Mourinho at Roma and Gian Piero Gasperini at Atalanta, Serie A is now home to some of Europe’s best coaches, too.
“Sometimes the Italian national championship has been defined as the most beautiful in the world; probably is,” Casini said. “And it was and still is the most difficult in the world, for two reasons.
“One is we have very, very good defenders; it is very difficult to score with Italian defenders.
“And second, we have probably the best trainers. So the tactics and the strategy is very important and — this is the downside — it’s probably created sometimes a game that is more fragmented. So this is a problem that we should reflect about.”
While Serie A is bouncing back, however, the Italian national team continue to perplex. Having won the delayed Euro 2020 with a 2-1 win over England in the final at Wembley in 2021, the Azzurri then failed to qualify for the World Cup in Qatar. Such inconsistencies, says Casini, are nothing new.
“That was a paradox. On the one hand, if you see the history of Italian victories, whenever we won something as a national team, the year later or the two years later, we did not very well,” he said.
“It happened in 1982; we won (the World Cup) in Spain. It happened in 2006 (in Germany), so it’s something that belongs to our history. We were also not lucky, actually. But if you see the Nation’s League now, we are again in the final four.”
One Italian triumph stands out above all others in Casini’s mind.
“Probably 1982, because I was 6 years old,” he said. “So I see Paolo Rossi, that was impressive. I remember going to Egypt in 1988, or traveling, and still everyone, from the cab drivers to the shoppers, saying, ‘Italia, Paolo Rossi’ — that was something that is in my heart and will always be.”
Returning to the present, Casini believes that Saudi Arabia is now making a case for being considered a global football hub.
“I believe that and this is what the facts are demonstrating, that Saudi Arabia is investing a lot in the future of soccer, in the future of sports,” he said.
“The case of Cristiano Ronaldo is an evidence of that. Also, the commitment to obtain the award for the Expo, that it’s a more general and cultural perspective, and also the candidacy for the World Cup.
“This clearly shows that Saudi Arabia is planning huge investment in soccer. And this is something that for sure will benefit everyone.”
On Wednesday night, it is Italian football that will be in the regional spotlight and Casini’s efforts to raise the profile of Serie A will continue.
“It’s something that we have always done,” he said. “We went to China, we played in Libya once, we went to the United States, we went to Qatar. So we are happy to be here in Saudi Arabia.”