Paddy Agnew’s Notes From Italy: Will Serie-A Reserve Teams Playing In Serie-C Catch On?

Newly elected President of the Italian Football Federation, Gabriele Gravina, the man who was behind the so-called “Miracle of Castel Di Sangro” in Serie B in the late ’90s, will have to call on all his “miraculous” powers to resolve the many problems about to pass across his desk.
As he takes over at the helm of the Italian football movement – he was elected as the only candidiate on October 22nd this year – the forecast would suggest that he can certainly expect some unsettled weather. For a start, this was the fifth time in five years that the ruling body of Italian football held (or tried to hold) elections to pick a leader.
For a second, his mandate in office lasts just two years, a time span considered far too short by no less than Demetrio Albertini, the former AC Milan star who for more than a decade now has been active in football politics. A deputy President of the Federation from 2007 to 2014, he argues that you need much longer for meaningful reform.
Albertini is almost certainly correct but it is at least arguable that Gravina may be able to immediately oversee the completion of one reform, already started, namely the creation of Serie A “seconde squadre” (Reserve or B teams) which will play in Italy’s Serie C, or third level of professional football, starting as and of the 2018-2019 season.    When introducing this reform last May, the Federation explained:
“From a careful analysis of the relevant European context, it becomes clear from all the major European (league) championships that (young) players mature more quickly thanks to being used in the second (B) teams…”.
The basic idea is this. Italian football has always used its U19 “Primavera” as a sort of reserve team. The problem here is what do you do when the player is over 19 years old but not yet adjudged ready to be enrolled in the first team squad. We are talking Serie A teams here and the player in question may be a budding but largely undeveloped talent. In an another culture, the player might be thrown into the first team squad, on a sink or swim basis, but that is not always the Italian way with coaches much slower to blood younger talents.
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Until now, such players have either been sold (with a buy-back option) or loaned out by the Serie A club to a Serie B or lower Serie A club. The advantage here is that, if all goes well, the player gets invaluable, genuinely competive experience, so that when and if he returns to the Serie A club, he is a more valuable player, both on the pitch and on the transfer market.    
The buy back option here is fundamental. Take the case of AS Roma and Italy international, 22-year-old Lorenzo Pellegrini, one of the brightest young stars in the current Italian firmament. In June 2015, at the age of 19, Pellegrini, a Roma youth team player from the age of nine, was sold to Serie A side Sassuolo for a reported €1.25 million euro with a first option, buy back clause of €10 million euro.
Two summers later, Pellegrini, having shown himself to be a more than useful player in 47 Serie A appearances for Sassuolo, rejoined Roma for the agreed €10 million buy back fee. Was this bad business? Roma had to fork out €8.75 million to buy back their own player, one that Roma had originally nurtured and developed.
At first glance, this clearly looks like bad business. Yet, in order to persuade a Serie A rival to take a player like this, you have to offer some sort of incentive. Otherwise, there is the risk that the club will take your young player and leave him on the bench all season long.  
The other club will argue that if they do make good use of a promising player like that, in the process increasing his market value, there is nothing financial in it for them, whatever about his on field contribution to their cause. With a buy back clause, the lower down team has a serious financial incentive to make a good job of developing the young talent.
The idea of the “seconde squadre” is to avoid this situation, allowing the bigger clubs such as Juventus, Inter, AC Milan, Roma et al to hold on to the serious numbers of youth team talents which come through their ranks rather than having to send them off to the “provinces” for genuine, high level competitive football.    
Another solution, of course, is for the leading Serie A club either to buy a Serie C club or to come to some sort of “arrangement” with one. Obviously, not everyone can afford to do that whilst such “arrangements” may run foul of Federation regulations.
With B teams playing in the tough and very real environment of Serie C (divided into three geographical areas and comprising 57-60 teams), clubs can look after their own players’ development, ensuring that they get that desperately needed experience.  Then, if the player develops well, the club can introduce him into their first team squad at no cost, putting themselves in the position of making the most of the player’s much enhanced market value if and when he begins to shine in the first team.   The bottom line is that the club would have much greater control over the destiny of its budding younger players.
That, at least, is the theory. Thus far the practice has proved rather different.  So far, only one such team, Juventus Under 23, has actually registered and is currently playing in Serie C. Other clubs have adopted a wait and see attitude with many of them arguing that the decision to allow Serie A 2nd teams to enrole in Serie C came much too late in the season, leaving them with not enough time to put together all the relevant infrastructure of a B team, including coaching staff, training facilities and a stadium.    
For example, Juventus U23 play their home games at the 8,000 capacity Stadio Moccagatta in Alessandria, a stadium owned by the municipality of Alessandria and until this season used exclusively by Serie C team Alessandria, a former Serie A glory from the 30’s. Obviously, you are not going to stage reserve team games in 70,000 plus seater stadia such as the San Siro or the Olimpico.
For the record, at press time, Juventus U23 are seventh in Serie C, Group A on 10 points three behind the league leaders Carrarese who are on 13. Further point of information is that, in keeping with the overall principle, this Juventus team comprises guys called Zanandrea, Muratore, Kastanos, Mavididi etc – that is, no famous names.
Albertini argues that the B team project will need time to be properly assessed, adding:
“I would be very surprised, though, if other clubs did not sign up for it”.
Underlining his words came a promise from Torino owner, Urban Cairo, speaking at a Gazzetta Dello Sport organised forum in Trent in October, to the effect that “next year, Torino too will have a B team”. If Albertini is right and if Cairo keeps his word, then others may follow the Torino and Juventus example.
For the new Federation President, Gravina, the “seconde squadre” concept could yet prove to be a useful opportunity to prove that he means business when he speaks of reforming Italian football.
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