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Sassuolo’s sweet revenge at San Siro leads Italy’s Super League backlash | Serie A

Roberto De Zerbi would have preferred to boycott Wednesday’s match against Milan. “I have no pleasure in playing because they are one of these three teams [who sought to launch a European Super League],” said the Sassuolo manager at a press conference a day earlier, before the breakaway project had collapsed. “I said as much to [the club’s CEO] Giovanni Carnevali. I said it to my players. If Carnevali obliges me to go, clearly, I will go. But I’m upset.”

“I’m angry, because football has fed me for 40 years, but I have given everything I have back to football as well. I don’t consider it as a question about my working life. It’s more important than that. It goes beyond work, beyond your salary. We’re talking about values, about sentiment, about Italian football rivalries, of which there have been many games played, many pages written. I don’t like it.”

Even in a sea of hostile reaction against the short-lived Super League plans, De Zerbi’s words cut through. There was a rawness in his speech, the fury of a person who felt something being stolen from them in what he described as a football “coup d’état”. A day later, he travelled to San Siro and took something back: three points to keep his team in the hunt for European places, damaging Milan’s bid for a Champions League spot at the same time.

There was poetry in how it happened. After falling behind to a Hakan Calhanoglu strike, Sassuolo responded with a double from Giacomo Raspadori: a 21-year-old forward who has been on the club’s books for more than half of those years. He has worked his way up, earning the right to come to Milan and sink the seven-times European champions while playing for his first and only club. Footballing meritocracy in action.

For a time, it seemed as though this would be the night when Italian football took revenge on the Super League three. The Milan-Sassuolo game was an early kick-off, finishing in a 2-1 defeat for the Rossoneri before the rest of the games began. Not long after 9pm, Juventus and Inter were also losing – to Parma and Spezia respectively.

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Both would recover, Inter earning a draw that – aided by Milan’s loss – keeps them comfortably on course for the Scudetto, while Juventus eased to a 3-1 win. Yet even Alex Sandro’s sumptuous equaliser was not enough to raise a smile from the Turin club’s president Andrea Agnelli, watching glum-faced from the stands.

The Sassuolo players celebrate winning at San Siro as AC Milan’s Portuguese forward Rafael Leão (left) walks off.
The Sassuolo players celebrate winning at San Siro as AC Milan’s Portuguese forward Rafael Leão (left) walks off. Photograph: Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty Images

The backlash against the Super League in Italy has taken aim at Agnelli more than any other individual. His previous role as chairman of the European Club Association, and apparent betrayal of a close relationship with Uefa’s Aleksander Ceferin, inevitably placed him in the spotlight. Agnelli also chose to put his face forward, however, when he granted an interview to Corriere dello Sport and La Repubblica in which he sought to justify the move.

Agnelli insists that something needs to change in football, that the current model is unsustainable for clubs and Uefa are able to draw only benefits from the game without bearing the financial risks. He did find support from Inter director Beppe Marotta and head coach Antonio Conte – both former collaborators at Juventus. Marotta argued that “football risks a default. And I’m talking about the entire system. No business can continue to live with a wage bill that is 60-70% of turnover.”

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Conte stressed that he did not endorse the Super League project, saying “meritocracy should always stay in first place, and the Champions League and Europa League should be contested by teams that have earned the right to play in them”. But he added a hope that Uefa would “reflect” on what had happened, arguing that too small a share of the money generated by European competitions went back to the clubs.

Both men also made it clear that they had not been involved in the Super League plans, and that this was a project brought forward by club owners. So did the Milan director Paolo Maldini, who learned about the Super League together with everyone else on Sunday night.

“Nevertheless, I feel a duty to take responsibility and apologise to fans,” Maldini added in a pre-game interview. “In 2021 a football director must know that revenues and sustainability are important, but they should ask themselves how far we could push ourselves. Certainly not changing the principles of sport which are made of meritocracy and dreams that are open to everyone.”

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What repercussions will there be for those who led the attempted breakaway? The Italian Football Federation’s president, Giuseppe Gravina, was quick to state that he would pursue no punishment since the Super League never actually came to be, saying: “You don’t sanction an idea.” Whether rivals will seek recourse in other ways remains to be seen.

Juventus chairman Andrea Agnelli in the stands during the 3-1 win against Parma.
Juventus chairman Andrea Agnelli during the 3-1 win against Parma. Photograph: Alessandro Di Marco/EPA

Questions have been raised about the role of Agnelli in Serie A’s recent TV deal. In recent months, he had been involved in negotiations to form a new media company to manage the league’s broadcast rights, 10% of which would be sold to private groups in order to generate a substantial cash injection for clubs. But Agnelli soured on the deal and Juventus were among the seven teams that voted against, before Serie A opted to sell the next three-year block of broadcast rights to Dazn.

The latter deal was – at €840m per season – bigger than many had dared to hope, yet Gazzetta dello Sport asked on Monday whether knowledge of the Super League plan might have created a conflict of interest. It was reported elsewhere that the private equity groups had sought a clause, restricting clubs from joining any new competitions that could diminish the domestic league’s value.

The Torino owner, Urbano Cairo, raised the matter during a call with the news agency Ansa on Tuesday. “It seems as though the Super League project was registered on 10 January,” he said. “How can you come here and talk about solidarity when you have sabotaged our negotiations, knowing you were already doing the Super League? … It’s a betrayal. It’s like Judas.”

Repairing relationships within Serie A will not be straightforward, and it remains to be seen whether Agnelli will get the chance. He has given no indication that he intends to resign, but the decision could be taken out of his hands if John Elkann, the chairman of Exor (the holding company that owns Juventus) decides too much damage has been done.

Whether even that would heal the wounds felt by people like De Zerbi is hard to predict. “The world of sport is a pyramid,” reflected Gravina on Wednesday. “This pyramid is held together by a glue called ‘rules’. Either you are in football, with its rules, or you are out.”

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