One of the suggestions in the ongoing “Whole Game Solution” proposed by the Football League is the long-discussed winter break, which seems at odds with the concomitant pledge to reduce the number of league games each season. If such a winter break were to be introduced, many will fear that the traditional Christmas and New Year games might be the fixtures to make way. Every year, perhaps egged on by journalists who would much rather be at home than at press conferences, managers decry the effects of having to play so much football at Christmas. Could it be that, at least at Premier League level, clubs are now so rich they can afford to ignore the revenue that such games traditionally generate? It remains to be seen but in Italy, one of the many countries commonly cited by proponents of a winter break, it is looking like serie A will be taking a page out of the Premier League’s book by bringing football back to the Christmas holidays.
Italy used to play on the 26th December, known as Santo Stefano, until the 1994/95 season when, under pressure from the players’ association, the league agreed to implement a winter break. This break was timed to coincide with the school holidays, with football coming to a stop on the weekend before Christmas and returning at Epiphany. For the next 16 years, the three-week hiatus remained until serie B brought it back by adding two games over Christmas to its fixture list. The second tier has managed to retain its winter break, which is simply shifted into the middle of January, beginning after new year.
This, however, has come at a cost, with the traditional Epiphany bank holiday games exchanged for those on Santo Stefano. It is also important to note that these are leagues where sell-outs are not commonplace and, particularly in serie B, TV deals are not massive, so any attempt to boost gate receipts is likely to be well-regarded by the clubs. In the last few years, attendances would suggest that the change has been a relative success: Boxing Day 2015 saw a 20% increase in crowds across the division, compared with the season’s overall average and a pattern has emerged of many clubs recording their highest gate of the season over Christmas.
There had been plans for serie A to follow suit and bring in Boxing Day games for the current season but these were postponed at a league meeting in April. Newspaper reports suggested that Napoli owner Aurelio De Laurentis had opposed the change, a surprising volte-face from previous statements in favour of Christmas football which may or may not have been influenced by Juventus’ support for Boxing Day. Never underestimate the power of politics in Italian football. There were also issues around how to fit in a three-week winter break, as fixture congestion means that serie A cannot shutdown as late as the second division does, due in part to the Coppa Italia which, bafflingly to outsiders, continues to be played over two legs throughout the whole competition. In addition, the players’ union was reportedly reticent to see the break reduced to two weeks.
Critics of the move claim that serie A isn’t a strong enough “product” to put itself into direct competition with the all-powerful behemoth of the Premier League and now La Liga as well. This may well be the case but, given that the Italian top flight has to compete with these other leagues every other weekend, it’s not an argument which holds a huge amount of water.
If Boxing Day is confirmed for next season (and it’s by no means certain in a country where even “certainties” can be changed at the last minute), then it will be the latest step in the gradual Anglicisation of Italian football. At the vanguard is the all-conquering Juventus, by some way the club which most closely resembles a Premier League outfit. It owns its own purpose-built stadium, a more lucrative arrangement than the majority of clubs which play in municipally-owned stadi communali (and who probably don’t enjoy the sort of terms enjoyed, in every sense, by West Ham United). They also have made big strides in terms of marketing, gaining a lead in the way Manchester United did in the 1990s.
In a broader sense, stricter legislation has been passed to try to clamp down on violence and disorder in grounds, starting with an ID card for away fans which must be produced at the turnstiles and which can be withdrawn in the event of an offence committed by the holder. Banners are also subject to restrictions, including a requirement to submit them to the home club at least seven days prior to the match, along with a wad of supporting documents. They have to be in place at least three hours before kick-off. Rules seemingly designed to make banners too much trouble to bother with. The aim was to deter the sort of deeply offensive banners which have generated unwanted headlines for the league in recent seasons.
All of these moves are a big culture change for Italy, driven by a desire to bring supporter behaviour into line with the Premier League which, these days, is seen as a model to be emulated. Serie A used to be the world’s best league but a combination of incompetent administration, off-the-pitch stagnation and the rise of other leagues has seen it slide down the table. Many of the league’s presidents are very ambitious, as no doubt are the new owners of both Milan clubs. They will want to restore some lustre to Italy’s top flight, even if it’s just for their financial gain. Who knows whether bringing back games at Christmas will be part of reversing that trend or simply a sticking plaster?
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