Here in the United States, we are still warming to soccer as a mainstream sport. The introduction of superstar David Beckham into Major League Soccer as expected to bring the sport a newfound national audience, but injuries have, at the very least, postponed that coming-out party. But in Europe, soccer is the undisputed king of spectator sports. The major leagues of Europe, like the Premier League in England and La Liga in Spain, are billion-dollar businesses, with some of the biggest and most valuable sports teams in the world under their banners. But there may be trouble in paradise, in one of the top leagues in Europe, Italy’s Serie A.

On the surface, Italian football (as most of the world calls the sport) is on top of the world. Italy is defending World Cup champion, having defeated France in the 2006 final. AC Milan, one of the top teams in Italy, won last year’s Champions League, and so is the defending club champion of all Europe. But all is not well. Controversy has rocked Italian soccer over the past few years, including a match-fixing scandal that involved some of the league’s top teams and fan violence that led to the death of an Italian police officer at a match last season. This was to be the year of recovery, the year that everything got back to normal and Italy took its rightful place at the top. Things haven’t turned out nearly so well.

This was a rough week for the Italian game. First, AC Milan lost an important Champions League match to Scottish champions Celtic, dropping below them in the race to move on in the competition. Then, and perhaps more importantly, three of the four Italian teams in the UEFA Cup, Europe’s second-tier tournament, were eliminated in one day. Though the UEFA Cup doesn’t offer nearly the financial windfall that a long stay in the Champions League does, it can be very important for determining league ranks, which do have cash ramifications.

Two years ago, the top leagues in Europe were separated into two groups – the big three (Spain, England, and Italy), and everyone else. Membership in this big three has its privileges, since it is only the top three leagues in Europe that get to send four teams each to the Champions League. The others send, at most, three. At that time, there was a huge gap between the big three and the fourth-place league, France, a gap of 13 points. Today, the big three are the same, though Italy has fallen from second to third and been replaced by England. However, France now lies less than 6 points away. In only two seasons, they have made up half of what seemed like an impossible gap.

Last season, Italy survived in Europe largely on the back of AC Milan. Their star forward, Ricky Kaka, was widely hailed as the best player in the world, but the rest of the team was, even in their championship season, showing signs of age. One of the oldest top-tier teams in Europe, Milan opts for experience over youth and speed. Now, with the departure of so many teams at once from the UEFA Cup, Italy is once again looking to Milan to keep them afloat and preserve their place in the big three of European football. Time will tell whether they are up to the challenge, but the loss to Celtic certainly showed their vulnerability, and perhaps, the vulnerability of all of Italian soccer.

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