Eric Giardini covers Italian soccer for TSG.
Welcome Back, Coppa Italia. We’ve Missed You
A strange thing happened this year in soccer – the domestic cups actually carried importance. From England to Spain to Italy, these cups, which were usually marginalized by the major clubs as an inconvenience, became key fixtures on a congested club calendar.
One team's Italian dreams will be realized May 29th at the Olimpico
In England, the Carling Cup saw more regular first team players than I can recall – especially from Arsenal. Having Arsenal trot out youngsters to gain experience was the norm until the cries for silverware grew too loud for manager Arsène Wenger to ignore and the Gunners first team squad was seen more in the cup fixtures. Ultimately, Arsenal lost in the final to Birmingham on a late winner from Obefemi Martins, which has Arsenal still in search for silverware.
A rebirth of the domestic cup also occurred in Spain where the Copa del Rey received a shot in the arm with these words from The Special One: “I think the Copa del Rey is an important competition. I know that many people don’t value domestic cup tournaments, but I do value them.” Mourinho kept his word, took each round seriously, and fielded a strong lineup (Cristiano Ronaldo played in eight of Madrid’s nine cup matches after having played in zero the previous year) all the way to defeating Barcelona in the final – Madrid’s first Copa title in 17 years.
Our cup renaissance tour concludes in Italy with the Coppa Italia. The Coppa, the last of these newly “important” competitions to crown a winner, is currently midway through its semifinal stage with four clubs in the top eight of the league vying to meet on May 29 at the Stadio Olimipco in Rome to hoist the trophy. Inter and Roma are meeting in one semifinal while Milan and Palermo are in the second. After the first leg, Inter holds a 1-0 away advantage over Roma and Milan and Palermo are tied 2-2. The second legs are being played in Milan and Sicily, respectively.
(Very Brief) Coppa Background
Although the Coppa Italia has been around since 1922 (with the second tournament being held in 1935), it has only been continuously played each year since 1958. Prior to the invasion of Italy in 1943 during World War II, the Coppa had been played from 1935-1943; however, it wasn’t until 1958 that the tournament was around to stay. Juventus and Roma are tied with the most Coppa titles with nine. There has been a recent dominance over the past six tournaments of Roma and Inter. These two clubs have met in five of the past six finals – including last year’s 1-0 Inter victory. Inter leads the head-to-head 3-2 in these recent finals.
Over the past few decades, with the rise of larger European competitions, the Coppa has been in decline in popularity. One reason for this is the lack of emphasis that the clubs themselves put on the competition. When the clubs do not put a premium on the matches, why should the supporters? Compared to other domestic cups, England in particular, the financial reward for doing well in the Coppa Italia is not there. The money made from television rights, or from sponsorship or FIGC, was not seen as incentive enough for clubs to risk their players in these midweek matches. The lack of money available domestically, coupled with the exponential rise in money available in European Cup matches, led Italy’s big clubs to put an emphasis on qualifying for Europe and, once there, doing well.
Something changed in this season’s Coppa. The big clubs began taking the competition seriously and, although maybe not to the same degree as Serie A and European matches, managers and players were fully engaged in the Coppa.
Rossoneri head honcho Massimiliano Allegri...
Prior to the first leg against Palermo, Milan manager Massimiliano Allegri came out and said how important the cup was to him and his squad. “We want to honor this cup. We have the chance to try and win the Scudetto and at least make the Coppa Italia final…It’s a very important semi-final for us and we want to try and reach the final…There is enthusiasm and it’s important we use it to get to an important objective like the cup final.” While this may very well have been “coach speak,” I think Allegri actually means what he said, and his cross town rivals are playing a major role in this.
Inter’s recent league and, to a lesser extent, cup domination has irritated many around the peninsula. By winning the past five Scudettos and three of the past seven Coppa Italias, other clubs, understandably, are fed up with Inter’s winning ways in Italy. While their run of league championships is about to end, they are favorites to advance to their sixth final in the past seven years. Conversely, Milan has not won any domestic silverware since 2004 and the chance to take two titles away from Inter this year is just too sweet to pass up.
The remaining three clubs in the semifinals have their own incentives for winning the cup. Inter and Roma both suffered slow starts to the league campaign which put a damper on the title aspirations both sides had heading into this season after only being separated by two points in the table last year. That, coupled with Champions League knockouts, has the Coppa Italia as the only piece of silverware that can be won by either of these clubs. While the trophy was not at the top of either’s list heading into the season, winning will be a cause for optimism heading into the summer. Palermo, similarly, has been disappointing this season. There is only so much that TSG favorite Javier Pastore can do and the Sicilian side currently sits in eighth place with no shot at qualifying for the Champions League. With only the slimmest of chances for Europa League, based on their final standings in Serie A, a Coppa Italia victory is their ticket to European soccer and the expense of the sixth place finisher in the league.