A complete guide to the game across the country
Italy is the home of calcio and classic clubs of great tradition – many who still play in ageing communal stadiums from the pre- and immediate post-war eras.
Crowds are down, revenues too, and many look back on the 1990 World Cup as a high-water mark of the modern Italian game.
On the plus side, Napoli have put in credible title challenges and reasonably healthy crowd figures now date back several seasons. Atalanta Bergamo have moved the goalposts, too, redeveloping their Mussolini-era stadium and qualifying for Europe five seasons running, including three campaigns in the Champions League.
Nearer the middle of the table, Sassuolo remain a long-running fairy story, a club from a tiny community in Emilia-Romagna taking on the big boys season after season. Only recently folded, ChievoVerona did the same for nearly two decades in Serie A – such heroics would be impossible in England’s Premier League over anything longer than a season.
One of football’s greatest experiences, a visit to Milan’s San Siro, shared by recent champions Internazionale and current title-holders AC Milan, now has a limited shelf life, with a new stadium being built on the same site in 2026. Until then, something approaching a full house is guaranteed most Sundays.
Sadly it’s not all pretty pageantry and colourful fireworks. Much as many stadia have barely changed since 1990, so some attitudes seem stuck in the dark ages. Terrace racism goes on unnoticed, let alone unpunished, and hooliganism still blights the game. In need of their regular revenue, some clubs do little to rock the boat with their hard-core fans, the ultras.
Given Italy’s huge distances – it’s 1,200km between Turin and newly promoted Lecce – visiting support is often scant. Only the most loyal make it as far as Cagliari, on the southern coast of Sardinia, closer to Tunisia than to mainland Italy.
Despite failing to qualify for the last two World Cups, the national side remain one of the great powers of European football, with enviably good records against Germany, England and Holland. The triumphant run of the Azzurri in the Covid-hit Euro 2020 finals relit the fire of Italia ’90, with a cracking atmosphere at the Olimpico and subsequent celebrations across the country.
STATION TO STADIUM
Arriving and getting around by public transport
City transport is nowhere near as advanced as in Spain or France. Both Rome and Milan have metro systems, Turin and Naples rely on local trains to supplement the bus network. In many towns, timetables are works of fiction and displayed schedules confusing.
Italy’s extensive network of motorways is interspersed by regular toll gates, priced about €9 per 100km. Payment is possible by credit card.
TABLES & TROPHIES
The league system, promotion, relegation and cups
The top four finishers of the 20-club Serie A gain access to the group stage of the Champions League. Fifth means the Europa League group stage, sixth, Europa Conference play-off round. The Italian Cup winners also qualify for the EL group stage.
Serie B consists of 20 teams, and those finishing between third and eighth make the promotion play-offs. Recently, the likes of Venezia and Benevento have reached Serie A without setting the world alight during the regular season in Serie B.
The three lowest finishers in Serie A drop automatically to Serie B, whose top two clubs go up. The last promotion place is decided by play-offs between the next six finishers, unless the team finishing third has a 14-point margin over the one in fourth. As this is extremely unlikely, play-offs take place, first a one-leg preliminary round, the lower-placed teams away, then semi-finals and final of two legs.
Four teams drop down from Serie B to Serie C, the bottom three automatically. If the team finishing 18th has a minimum four-point lead over the 19th, they stay up. If not, 18th and 19th play off over two legs – or rather playout as Italians term such relegation deciders.
Categorised into three 20-team regional leagues (Girone A, B and C), Serie C is the last professional division – it’s also referred to as Lega Pro.
Only each regional group winner goes up to Serie B, everyone else down to tenth (!!) place reaches the byzantine play-offs. For these, the First Round is one match, any drawn games decided by previous league position. Then come two-leg knock-outs.
Amateur Serie D consists of nine regional leagues, each with 18 clubs. Nine clubs drop from Serie C to D – the bottom-placed finishers, plus two decided by playout between those between 16th and 19th positions at season’s end.
Serie D is the highest level of the Lega Nazionale Dilettanti, a network of amateur leagues stretching down six flights to the Terza Categoria. In theory, the lowliest village outfit can ascend to Serie A.
The Italian Cup, Coppa Italia, is less prestigious than its counterpart in England or France. It has no pre-qualification process – of the 78 teams, the nine from Serie D are chosen by the Lega, usually the second-placed finishers from last season. The 24 from Serie C are the highest-placed non-promotees from the previous May.
Until the quarter-finals, each round is seeded but, unlike in Germany, in favour of the higher-ranked club, which gets home advantage. Ties are decided over one game, extra-time and penalties, apart from the two-legged semi-final. The final is usually played at Rome’s Stadio Olimpico.
The winners are granted a berth in the Europa League – unless already through to the Champions League. If so, the runners-up do not qualify for Europe.
The season from kick-off to crunch time
Serie A begins in late August and finishes in mid to late May. There’s a two-week break in January.
Sunday is calcio day, though there are usually a couple of games on a Saturday, at 6pm and 8.45pm. Sunday is also staggered, usually with a game at 12.30pm and at least one marquee fixture at 8.45pm, straddling the main kick-off time of 3pm. Kick-off for midweek fixtures is 8.45pm, often with one game at 6pm.
Teams taking part in Champions League fixtures the following midweek often play league games on the previous Saturday rather than Sunday.
Serie B runs from late August to the third week of May, with play-offs and playouts into mid June. Most games are played on Saturday at 3pm, usually with one fixture on Friday evening and one on Monday evening.
Buying tickets – when, where, how and how much
You will need to provide ID details or, if going in person, show your passport. The same goes for purchases from the biglietteria at the stadium, often possible on a match day. Few club shops distribute tickets.
Re-sale agency viagogo is also very active in Italy.
The most expensive tickets (around €50-60) will be in the Tribuna Centrale, then Tribuna Laterale or Distinti (around €30-40). The cheapest (around €20) are behind the goals in the Curva, usually indicated Sud or Nord. This will be with the ultras. Away tickets are rarely sold on the day. Prices usually rise by at least 15% for games against the Milan giants or Juventus.