Serie 'A' on the slide?

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Serie 'A' is in a serious state of decline - clubs are creaking under mounting debts, its best players are looking to move abroad and average attendances are dwarfed by competitors.

And the imminent sale of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, along with the confirmed transfer of Thiago Silva from AC Milan makes this trend difficult to ignore. The world's best players no longer see Italy as an elite European league.

The Premier League and La Liga have been bigger draws for at least eight years, but now France's Ligue 1 also looks more desirable to the Serie 'A' star. This Italian talent drain has gone from a gentile stream to a full-on torrent in the space of a few years.

Because it hasn't always been this way. Italy's top league was once also Europe's premier club competition. Even as recently as the late nineties and early 2000's, AC Milan spent in excess of €260million to sign Europe's superstars - the likes of Rui Costa, Alessandro Nesta, Andriy Shevchenko, Clarence Seedorf and Andrea Pirlo.

But that era is over. Italian football subjected itself to austere economic measures long before the country - and the rest of southern Europe - did the same. While national belt tightening has largely been imposed by external EU forces, Italy's clubs have themselves recognised the need to cut back. Milan's net spent since 2003 is effectively zero, while the sale of Kaka to Real Madrid demonstrated the severe state of the club's finances.

Kaka was desperate to stay, and said so. "I wanted to stay on at Milan," said the Brazilian. "But the club is in a big crisis [financially]. That crisis has hardly abated, and Milan, along with Juventus, habitually post big losses at the end of each financial year."

In 2008 Milan recorded losses of €112million and in 2009 losses of €84million. Their losses off the pitch were matched by those on it, and Inter Milan, under Jose Mourinho, took advantage. But Inter and Juventus don't fare much better now either - and both posted bigger losses than Milan for the 2010/11 season.

Off the pitch, huge losses, spiralling debts and unsustainable player wage bills strangle the top Serie 'A' clubs, and prevent them from competing with Spain, England and now France for the top talent. Eight clubs in Serie 'A' posted profits, or broke even, during the 2010/11 season, including Parma and Lazio, two clubs to have overcome severe economic crises in the last 15 years. So it can be done - unfortunately, Italy's top clubs record by far the biggest losses.

PSG's new wealth makes them more attractive to the likes of Ibrahimovic and Silva. In years past, Milan would not have entertained the notion of selling their best players. But in the space of three years Kaka, Ibra and Silva - their three top players in their respective squads - have all been sold.

Milan have conducted a necessary clear-out this summer and you could field a very respectable team from the players they've let go. As well as the probable transfer Ibra and Silva to PSG, Nesta, Gennaro Gattuso, Mark Van Bommel, Clarence Seedorf, Massimo Oddo, Filippo Inzaghi, and Gianluca Zambrotta have all moved on.

The vast majority are now too old, and were rightly ushered out, but the desperate state of Milan's finances handicaps the search for replacements. So far, the two biggest signings - Ricardo Montolivo and Sulley Muntari - were both free transfers.

Similarly, Juventus, although linked with Robin van Persie and Luis Suarez, have yet to spend over €10million. Lucio, signed from Inter Milan on a free, mirrors last year's shrewd signing of free agent Andrea Pirlo, and Mauricio Isla has recently joined for a bargain €8million.

Inter Milan have also undergone something of a clear-out, shipping Lucio, Diego Forlan, Muntari and Goran Pandev out. Even Napoli - Italy's most recent success story - have seemingly turned into a selling club.

'The Three Tenors', Ezequiel Lavezzi, Edinson Cavani and Marek Hamsik have already become two, Lavezzi heading for France to sign for PSG, and Cavani is widely expected to depart as well, with Chelsea a likely destination.

But this Serie 'A' decline has not been sudden. Not since the all-Italian Champions League final between AC Milan and Juventus in 2003 has Italian football truly dominated European competition. And not since the days of Pavel Nedved, Zinedine Zidane and Andriy Shevchenko have Serie 'A' clubs boasted the world's best players and teams.

Since Milan's defeat to Liverpool in the Champions League final in 2005, just four Serie 'A' clubs have reached the semi-finals. In the same period 14 Premier League clubs have reached the last four. The Premier League and La Liga have certain advantages over Serie 'A' - mainly in terms of the size and distribution of TV money - but that doesn't make the decline any easier to take.

The Italian league is facing an exodus - the best players want to move because the money's not there to keep them, and the lack of top talent has reduced the league's prestige, further lowering the commercial appeal of the league.

Getting the clubs back on firm financial footing would begin the process of breaking this cycle, and once again, the example of Milan is instructive. The 2007 Champions League winners can no longer rely on Silvo Berlusconi to sweep their losses under the carpet - responsilbity has to be taken to balance the books.

A greater emphasis on living within their means will stand them in good stead, especially with the onset of UEFA's financial fair play regulations.

And Ibrahimovic - the latest world-class star to leave the Italian peninsula said it best.

"Milan's problem is economic," said the Swede. "There is no money to buy five players, or even the ones we need."

At least this enforced austerity will prod Italian clubs in the direction of a new model. The stereotype of Italian clubs as old, gnarled, and defensively sound but tactically dull is unfair - just look at the Italy national team - but there is now a welcome influx of younger players.

At Milan especially it feels like the changing of the guard. Their squad next season will be their youngest for 10 years - at still relatively mature 27 years. And this restructuring is the necessary first step in coming to terms with their finances.

Italian football will not challenge seriously in Europe's elite competition for the next few years, but that's a choice made to get spending under control. Such long-term planning could even put them in front of the likes of Chelsea, Barcelona and Manchester City when financial fair play comes into force.

Unfortunately, many do not see it that way. Gennaro Gattuso, a San Siro legend said it best. After hearing about Ibrahimovic's and Silva's impending departure he issued a withering assessment.

"If I was Massimiliano Allegri [Milan manager]," said the Italian terrier. "I would not be able to sleep at night."

The problem is, Milan's problems are not restricted to that particular portion of northern Italy. With mountains of debt to deal with, and an ever shrinking group of world-class players to call on, many of Italy's top clubs now have a mountain to climb to match their European competitors.

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