There are any number of explanations for why that might be. Massimiliano Allegri, Juventus’s coach of the past and present, argues that youth soccer in Italy is, effectively, too tactical: Coaches are so worried about their jobs that they mask the individual shortcomings of their players with strategy.
“Instead of letting kids learn how to defend one-on-one, they give them cover,” Allegri said. “They double up. But that means the kid doesn’t learn. So when they have to play one-on-one, they don’t know how.” That, in his mind, is why “Italy does not produce champions anymore.”
Paolo Nicolato, the country’s under-21 coach, contends that Italy’s soccer culture is too intolerant of errors, which he labels “a necessary step of growth.” It suffers from a “bad relationship with the future,” he says. “We are very focused on the present.”
That assertion is borne out by facts. Last season, of the 50 youngest teams in Europe’s top 20 leagues, only one was Italian: A.C. Milan. Only three Italian sides appeared in the top 100. More significantly, only five percent of all the minutes Serie A teams played last season were given over to homegrown, academy-reared players. Italian soccer remains a culture that is deeply distrustful of youth.
“It is a strange championship,” said Maurizio Costanzi, the head of youth development for one of the few teams to buck the trend: Atalanta. He has spent four decades working with young players in Italy, and he has noticed a definite, incontrovertible change in both the quality and the quantity of emerging prospects.
He wonders if that might be related, in part, to the demise of street soccer, or to the rise in athleticism in the sport squeezing out the sorts of players — playmakers and schemers — who long characterized the Italian game. But he is sure that those who do make it are not given a chance either quickly or reliably enough to succeed.