Pitchside Europe

The big-money Italian exodus may be great news for Serie A


View photo


Some in Italy were rubbing their hands together with glee. Others were throwing them up in the air.

A lot of money came into Serie A last week but as it did a number of its best players left. Napoli sold the league’s Capocannoniere Edinson Cavani to Paris Saint-Germain for €64m (£55m). Roma’s very promising young centre-back Marquinhos followed him to the French capital for [a quite remarkable] €31.4m and Stevan Jovetic bid farewell to Fiorentina after five seasons in Tuscany as he completed his move to Manchester City for €30m.

Though a wrench to see each of them go, the deals their clubs managed to get for themselves, cashing a total of €125.4m for the trio, all represented good business. They sold very, very well and made big returns on their original investments. Napoli’s, for instance, was €47m for Cavani, Roma’s €27m [in the space of a single year] for Marquinhos and Fiorentina’s €22m for Jovetic.

Of them, there’s a case to be made that only one will prove difficult to replace and that’s Cavani at Napoli. They have never had a striker like him. No one as prolific. Last year, Cavani accounted for 40% of Napoli’s goals in Serie A. No one in the league made as great a contribution to their team’s offensive production as he did. Had he stayed, he would almost certainly have overtaken Diego Maradona as the club’s all-time top scorer, taking three and a bit seasons to break a record that he set over seven.

Rather than sign one player and expect him to pick up where Cavani left off, Napoli are buying several to spread the burden. “We aren’t looking for a 40-goal a season striker,” coach Rafa Benitez explained, “also because it’s not easy to find one with these characteristics.” Instead they’re in the market for a target man and a mobile forward.

Behind whoever it is they bring in, be it Leandro Damiao or Gonzalo Higuain, will be Marek Hamsik, a regular source of goals from midfield. And to those already provided by Goran Pandev and Lorenzo Insigne, yet more have been added in wide areas with the signings of Dries Mertens [a superb buy] and Jose Maria Callejon [overpriced at €10m].

So from being dependent on one individual for goals, Napoli are attempting to make the act of scoring a more collective responsibility than it has been in recent times. Whether it works or not promises to be one the most compelling narratives in Serie A this season.

We’ll explore others in this piece, like what Marquinhos’ departure says about Roma, but before we get to that, it’s worth pausing here to compare and contrast the situation Napoli faced with Cavani to that which Fiorentina experienced with Jovetic.

The obvious similarity is that both players felt it was time to leave in order to take up a new challenge. Both clubs also felt that they were in a strong negotiating position because instead of allowing either Cavani or Jovetic’s existing deals to run down, they’d managed to tie them to long-term contracts and had included clauses within them that protected their value. That, however, is where the parallels end.

Relatively speaking there was a time when Jovetic was as important to Fiorentina as Cavani was to Napoli. The first half of the season before last springs to mind when he accounted for 61% of their goals. Without him, they might not have survived that campaign, which remains the best of his career.

Things began to change over the course of the last year under Vincenzo Montella. He oversaw a renaissance at Fiorentina. The team as a whole began to play well and as a consequence they became less reliant on Jovetic, the creator and finisher. Fifteen other players got on the scoresheet. Five other players got more assists. And so, while still important to them, Jovetic was no longer considered indispensable.

Fiorentina felt confident that they could cope without him and, with the money they received from his transfer, were better off too. Giuseppe Rossi was returning from injury. Adem Ljajic had exploded in the second half of last season. Joaquin and Oleksandar Iakovenko were added to the team, as of course and most importantly of all was Mario Gomez, a bargain for many at an initial fee of €15.5m, which will rise to €21m should a series of performance-related add-ons be activated.

One player who definitely can’t be considered a bargain is Marquinhos.

By getting €31.4m from PSG for the 19-year-old only 12 months after paying Corinthians €1.5m up front and a further €3.5m once he had made eight first team appearances, Roma have made the sale of the summer. It’s hard to think of a club making as sizeable a profit so quickly. Arsenal sold Nicolas Anelka to Real Madrid for £22.5m in 1999 two years after buying him from PSG [ironically enough] for £500,000. But even that doesn’t compare.

No league has benefited more from the Qatar Sport Investment fund’s takeover of PSG than Serie A. For that, they have Leonardo to thank. Some are breathing a sigh of relief that on stepping down from his role as general manager he will stop pillaging Serie A. Others are disappointed because it might mean PSG don’t shop in Italy any more. Since 2011 they have spent an estimated €268.8m on players from Serie A.

Of that figure, Marquinhos is the player that PSG have arguably paid the most over the odds for. With him, they’re buying potential and the fee reflects their belief that his potential is huge. Marquinhos did show great promise last season even in a [Zdenek Zeman] defence that was the fifth worst in Serie A. Still, you get the feeling that for Roma this is a little like buying a scratchcard for a few quid and then scrubbing off the opaque layer to reveal you have won a huge cash prize.

After investing a lot in the team over the last couple of years, agreeing a series of lucrative corporate sponsorship deals and announcing plans to build a new stadium thereby giving the impression that they’re in rude financial health, it’s often underplayed how after missing out on the Champions League once again [and Europe altogether], Roma’s American owners have come under some strain. The obligations they have to Unicredit -the bank that is a 40% partner in the holding company they established to buy a 78% share of the club - are often forgotten.

It’s thought that selling Marquinhos eases that strain as do the exits of Maarten Stekelenburg and, lest we forget, Bojan Krkic, who Barca bought back under the terms of the original agreement struck between the two clubs in 2011 for €13m before then sending him on loan to Ajax. Money raised from their departures give the club room to breathe more freely again.

It’s thought that Daniele De Rossi can be retained despite his wages hanging like a millstone [one of the club’s own making] from the payroll and the club can continue to further its ambition, as they have done with the signings of Mehdi Benatia, one of the best centre-backs in Serie A in recent years, and the highly regarded Kevin Strootman, thought of as a future captain of the Netherlands.

Rather than weakening Serie A, last week’s cessioni eccellenti, or excellent sales, promise to make the league more competitive. Providing they reinvest their windfalls well, Napoli, Roma and Fiorentina could shake things up a bit and really take it to the establishment.

Juventus, it must be said, have arguably pulled even further ahead of the competition following the signings of Carlos Tevez, Fernando Llorente and Angelo Ogbonna. But Milan have cause for concern, even if they recorded more points than any other team in Serie A in 2013 and can point to Mario Balotelli’s signing in the spring as their major reinforcement. As for Inter, getting back onto the podium and returning to the Champions League looks to have become more difficult.

Things could get very interesting indeed. The power is still with Juventus in Turin. But below them, much is shifting. A great season in prospect lies ahead of us.

James Horncastle will be blogging for us on all matters Serie A throughout the season. He contributes to the Guardian, FourFourTwo, The Blizzard and Champions magazine amongst others.

Follow @JamesHorncastle

View comments (9)