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Many in Italy consider former Azzurri international Roberto as the greatest Italian player of all time. He may have never won the world cup though he did come very close to doing so, nor did he ever win the Champions League or the European Cup as it was called during his time. However, a few days ago the former Inter, AC Milan and Juventus striker, who is now attaining his coaching credentials claimed that Italian football is on the rise again.

Once a haven for the world’s best players who ensured almost on a yearly basis that the game’s major accolades, both personal and collective, would be received by Italian clubs and its players, calcio has in recent years suffered and this has been no secret.

Corruption and scandal at the domestic level has shackled calcio’s place amongst the top in Europe to such a degree that this season, for the first time, Serie A clubs aiming to participate in Europe’s premier competition next year will have to place in the top three after one spot was surrendered to Germany’s strengthening Bundesliga.

Thus, in the next edition of the Champions League there will only be a maximum of three Italian clubs in participation.

It is symbolic, costly and conclusive of the Serie A’s fall from it’s pedestal, from its former glory years of the 1990’s when Italian sides were feared throughout the continent and the Isles.

In light of this, one may question Baggio’s claim that Italian football is re-emerging again. But, it slowly is. The man affectionately known as the divine ‘ponytail’ asserted this after witnessing the final round of matches in the Champions League group stages last week where Napoli secured qualification to the knock-out phase to join the two Milan clubs whose progress had already been assured. Importantly, however, is that in achieving this the Serie A can boast more representatives in the next phase than two of its biggest rival leagues.

Spain’s La Liga, where arguably the two current best teams in the world play, Barcelona and Real Madrid, will only be represented by these two clubs after Villarreal broke all the wrong records by finishing bottom of Group A with zero points while Valencia, despite their brave efforts, fell short also.

Considered by many as the world’s best league, England’s Premier League suffered a shock as two of its four clubs failed to make the cut-off for the next phase. Incredibly, Manchester United, who have made three finals in the last four seasons, was one of these two teams after failing to negotiate a group many expected they could win. Their local rivals, City, were also eliminated.

Looking more closely, the achievements of Italian sides during the group stages can only enforce Baggio’s assertion. European champions in 2010, Inter are having a torrid time in the Serie A having languished in the bottom half of the table until last Saturday night when their victory over Fiorentina elevated them into tenthplace. Despite their domestic shortcomings, Claudio Ranieri managed to pull his troops together just enough to muster the points required to claim top spot in the group.

Napoli, meanwhile, made it through an incredibly tough group that contained Bayern Munich, Villarreal and Manchester City. The Southern Italian outfit were impressive as they did the double over the Yellow Submarines and went undefeated against City, who are leading the way in the Premier League with a squad that, at least on paper, is one of the strongest in Europe.

Yet, most symbolic about calcio’s achievement in bettering La Liga and the Premier League is that it is the first time it has done so since the 1997-98 Champions League edition. Back then, the Serie A was still enjoying its position as arguably the world’s best league, though it was beginning to wane.

There may be still a long way to go for Italy’s national game to reclaim such a title. The country’s stadia badly need attention, rebuilding a shattered image following Calciopoli and other more recent scandals will be no easy task and a continued improved showing in Europe over the next few seasons is also required before we can jump to any conclusions.

Nevertheless, there have been a few positive signs this season that the good ol’days could be returning. The Old Lady of Italian football, Juventus, has found her feet again in the surrounds of her plush new home in Turin. Napoli are flying high once again while Thomas Di Benedetto’s project at Roma promises much despite a difficult start to his rein in the capital. Not to mention the strength of Milan who are perhaps the country’s best chance of European glory.

It is too early to call now, but, the divine ponytail’s comments could yet prove prophetic. Italians fans will certainly be hoping so.

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