Could we see Serie A teams return to dominance in continental football?
Roma’s UEFA Europa Conference League title last May halted a 12-year wait for Italian football to see one of their sides win a UEFA club competition. While the Conference League is often times not given the respect that its sister competitions receive, it is still a European trophy. It was also the first edition, which is all the more special that the Giallorossi ended up on top.
Now Fiorentina’s six-year wait for continental football will end on Thursday as Vicenzo Italiano’s men will face off against Dutch club Twente in the Europa Conference League’s playoff round. There is much ambition in the Viola team of making a similar run in the Conference League this year.
With the season now about to commence on the continental front, the question now becomes: will Italian football build off of Roma’s triumph, or will this be seen as more of a one-off?
Here at Cult of Calcio, we will take a look back at Italian domestic football’s golden era, the 90s. We will compare it to what has happened since, particularly over the last 10 years. Finally, we will see where calcio is heading in the near future and how likely it is to see Roma’s win become a return of a return to great things for Serie A sides.
A Brief History of Italian Clubs in Europe
Historically, Italian sides have always been some of the best in European club competitions. Between the European Cup/Champions League, UEFA Cup/Europa League, Cup Winners Cup, Europa Conference League, and UEFA Super Cup, clubs from the Belpaese have won 38 times. Only Spain (55) and England (40) have more across the aforementioned competitions.
Just looking at the Champions League Final alone, there have been six different Italian teams who have reached European football’s showpiece event, a number only bettered by England (9). It goes without saying that Italy has always had a strong showing in Europe.
From the first European final by an Italian club (Fiorentina) in the 1956-57 season to the first continental trophy won four years later (also by Fiorentina), Italy has a long tradition of seeing clubs succeed on the European front. In the decades that followed, there were periods of excellency across Serie A’s representatives, but the 1990s was a period that world football never saw before and has not seen since.
The 90s: A Decade of Dominance That Has Not Been Repeated
From 1990 to 1999, there was a staggering 24 occasions that an Italian side reached a UEFA club competition final. Across the 30 finals in the European Cup/Champions League, UEFA Cup, and Cup Winners Cup in that decade, there was at least one Italian club involved on 20 occasions. There were nine different Serie A teams to have reached a final in that stretch.
The UEFA Cup was where the Italian clubs put a stranglehold on the competition, winning seven of the 10 tournaments during the 90s. There were also four all-Italian finals in that time period. Juventus (thrice), Parma and Inter (both twice) won the tournament, while Torino, Inter, Juve, Fiorentina, Roma, and Lazio each lost a final, the latter four in an all-Serie A matchup. There was only one final in the decade that did not feature an Italian side.
In 1990, Italian football did something that had never happened before and has seldom occurred since. All three of the club competitions were held by an Italian club at the same time. Milan topped Benfica in the European Cup showpiece, Sampdoria got the better of Anderlecht in the Cup Winners Cup, while Juventus defeated Fiorentina in the UEFA Cup. It is in of itself an incredible achievement for Italian football which is unlikely to be repeated in the near future.
New Millennium, Dwindling Success
The 2000s saw Milan become one of the top clubs in the world, reaching three Champions League finals in the decade (including the all-Italian showdown with Juventus in 2003), winning two of them. That, along with Inter’s 2009-10 title in the same competition, were the most Italian sides have won since then. From 2010-11 to 2020-21, only Juventus (twice, both in the Champions League) and Inter (2019-20 Europa League) have been able to reach a club competition final, losing on each occasion to a Spanish club.
To that point, it has been Spain that has picked up on Italian football’s domination since the new millennium. At the time of writing, Spanish sides have won 35 of the possible 67 European trophies since (Champions League, UEFA Cup/Europa League, UEFA Super Cup, Europa Conference League included). That is more than half of the trophies possible in the space of 22 years!
Between the Champions League and UEFA Cup/Europa League, there have also been seven Spanish finalists, five of them losing in an all-Spanish affair. In this century alone, there have been nine different clubs from the Iberian country that have graced a European final, one more than England’s eight.
The other country that has surpassed Italy on the continental club football stage has been England. Liverpool’s appearance in this past season’s Champions League final marked a 14th by an English club in the 21st century, with three all-English finals and five titles in the competition.
There have also been 10 finalists in the UEFA Cup/Europa League since, with four wins in Europe’s secondary club tournament. In fact, in the 2018-19 campaign, England matched Italy’s 1990-91 season, becoming the second association to have four clubs reach the European finals in the same season. The only difference was, back when the latter did it, there were three club competitions, whereas the former took all four places in the finals across the Champions League and Europa League.
This goes to show the regression Italian club football has seen on the continental front this century. About to drop to fourth in the UEFA National Association coefficients heading into the new campaign, there is a lot to improve on. Roma’s win in the inaugural Europa Conference League should act as a stepping stone for other Italian sides to step up in Europe so that the Giallorossi’s success is not a one-off occasion.
Looking to the (Near) Future
As recently-crowned Serie A champions Milan are joined by Inter, Juventus and Napoli in the Champions League group stage, they should take inspiration from Roma to put an end to the disappointing run the clubs have shown in the Champions League in recent times.
Similarly, joining Roma in the Europa League in September, Lazio should definitely take some free motivation in seeing their local rivals claim their first European silverware. Between the two capital clubs, much will have to be expected there.
As mentioned at the top, Fiorentina is in the Conference League, with the hopes of keeping the tournament’s trophy in Il Bel Paese for another year. It will not be easy for the Tuscans, but surely there is reason for optimism.
With the 2024-25 season earmarking a new era of continental football in Europe, now is the time for Italian football to return to the top of the club footballing world.