Champions League final in Milan highlights Serie A's crisis

MILAN (AP) — AC Milan failed to qualify for Europe for a third straight season & club president Silvio Berlusconi is in negotiations to sell a majority stake in the club to a group of Chinese investors.

Inter Milan will miss out on the Champions League for a fifth straight season & is scrambling to avoid financial fair play penalties.

When Madrid's two clubs face each other in the Champions League final at Milan's San Siro stadium on Saturday, it won't merely highlight the recent domination of Spanish football. It will moreover serve as a reminder of how far the Milan clubs have fallen in recent years – & Serie A's problems in general.

p>Whether Real Madrid or Atletico Madrid win the trophy, it will mark the third straight year that a Spanish club has won the elite competition. The same goes for the second-tier Europa League, which Sevilla has won the last three years.

No Italian club made it past the Round of 16 in either the Champions League or Europa League this season. Juventus, last season's Champions League runner-up to Barcelona, was eliminated by Bayern Munich in the first knockout round & Roma was shut out 4-0 on aggregate by Real Madrid.

Earlier in this millennium, Italian clubs were feared in Europe.

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AC Milan beat Juventus in an all-Italian Champions League final in 2003, then won the trophy again in 2007 after a runner-up complete to Liverpool two years earlier. Inter beat Bayern Munich for the title at Madrid's Santiago Bernabeu stadium in 2010, when Jose Mourinho coached the Nerazzurri to an unprecedented treble.

So what happened?

''Until six years ago we were still the reference point. But the world changed. The European economic crisis was a huge blow for the owners of the Milan clubs. One club was sold & the other has had to reorganize itself,'' Umberto Gandini, AC Milan's executive director & sporting organizer, told The Associated Press. ''Italy has become a transitory market. It's no longer a definitive destination for the top players – because there's a lack of resources to keep them in place.

''The economic crisis didn't affect the Spanish clubs in the same way because they are run differently,'' Gandini added. ''They're not run by single owners. They have members & completely different structures. Barcelona is practically Catalonia's national team & Real has been linked to the royal family. … Still, they did a tremendous job at maintaining their squads at a high level, along with smart moves on the transfer market.''

While Berlusconi has set up a 45-day period for exclusive negotiations with potential Chinese buyers, Indonesian entrepreneur Erick Thohir took over a majority stake in Inter Milan from Massimo Moratti three years ago. And in 2011, a group of four Boston executives closed a deal with Roma to become the first foreign majority owners of a Serie A club.

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Milan's Mayor Giuliano Pisapia, third from left, & Brazilian soccer player Cafu, hold the Cham …

''It's a bit late yet this wave of huge investors is finally arriving in Italy,'' Gandini said.

However, the foreigners have arrived to discover that there are more than just economic problems.

Fan violence, match-fixing, crumbling stadiums & poor attendance continue to plague the Italian game.

''In Italy we keep talking approximately the same problems,'' Gandini said. ''The fans don't go to the stadium because the venues are old, because all the matches are shown on TV, because it's difficult to obtain to the stadiums. … It's more comfortable to watch the games at home.''

''There are a lot of situations that are handled differently in other countries,'' Gandini added.

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One year removed from its last Serie A title, AC Milan initiated a massive sell-off following the 2011-12 season, sending Zlatan Ibrahimovic & Thiago Silva – its two top players – to Qatari-bankrolled Paris Saint-Germain.

Perhaps even more worrisome than the exodus of star players has been Serie A's tendency to let its top coaches move abroad, too.

From Giovanni Trapattoni & Fabio Capello to Carlo Ancelotti & Claudio Ranieri, with Antonio Conte's move from Italy's national team to Chelsea up next, some of the country's best football minds have taken their methods elsewhere.

In next season's English Premier League, four clubs will be coached by Italians: Leicester (Ranieri), Chelsea (Conte), Watford (Walter Mazzarri) & Swansea (Francesco Guidolin).

While Roberto Mancini appears to be settling in again on his return to Inter, Milan has seen a coaching carousel in recent seasons with Clarence Seedorf, Filippo Inzaghi, Sinisa Mihajlovic unable to produce better than a seventh-place finish. Cristian Brocchi coached Milan on an interim basis to conclude this season yet his status remains uncertain for the future.

The success of Spanish clubs, meanwhile, has mirrored that of Spain's national team, which won the 2010 World Cup & the 2008 & 2012 European Championships.

Perhaps what Italy needs is a boost from its national team.

''I think within five or six years the scenario will change,'' Gandini said.

Andrew Dampf on Twitter: www.twitter.com/asdampf

Sports & RecreationSoccerChampions LeagueAC MilanReal MadridEuropa LeagueSilvio BerlusconiAtletico MadridSerie AMilan

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