Serie A is spending a lot of money this summer, but why the sudden surge?
Ending austerity is quite the zeitgeist and nowhere more so than in Italy. Cautiously optimistic about moving out of recession this year and seeing accelerated growth in 2016 and 2017, Europe's third biggest economy is showing the first signs of recovery. Italian football would appear to be, too.
"Rich again," declared La Stampa. A year ago, Serie A's clubs had spent €126.4 million on recruitment by the end of June. Even though the market was kind of on standby because of the World Cup, that figure was up on every summer since 2011. Still, it didn't stray too far from the average the league had recorded over that time which stood at around €100 million. The financial crisis, a series of structural factors within the Italian game and FFP still made themselves felt.
Observing what La Gazzetta dello Sport has defined as "precocious activism" in the market over the past month, it's clear something has dramatically changed. Expenditure on players has more than doubled, reaching €266.35 million gross. So far, and it is still early days, Serie A has outspent La Liga (€231.3 million), the Premier League (€188.2 million), the Bundesliga (€161.25 million) and Ligue 1 (€44.25 million).
Since the introduction of the euro in 2002, three of the six biggest deals in Italy have been done in this off-season. The fee Inter paid Monaco for Geoffrey Kondogbia was the second highest in the club's history, while only Gigi Buffon, Lillian Thuram and Pavel Nedved cost Juventus more than Paulo Dybala.
Meanwhile, Milan have only written bigger cheques for Manuel Rui Costa, Pippo Inzaghi and Alessandro Nesta than the one they cut Sevilla for Carlos Bacca, and the money they sent Roma's way for Andrea Bertolacci was more than double what they made out to Sao Paulo for Kaka in 2003. Incidentally, no Italian player has gone for more money (€20 million) than he has in the past 15 years.
The contrast with last summer is stark. The biggest extravagance, Roma's €22 million splurge on Juan Manuel Iturbe, would only rank as the fourth highest outlay this June.
It's worth pausing here to make a few quick remarks. First, the market is crazy. A CIES report last September claimed Europe's top clubs are paying on average 16 percent more than they invested in the five previous years for players with similar characteristics. The Swiss think tank attributes the inflation to a handful of super clubs overpaying for talent like PSG did for David Luiz, Man United for Angel Di Maria and Real Madrid for James Rodriguez.
This inflation, in addition to a player's age, contract status, his potential, prospects for resale and the level of competition for his signature, all drove up the prices of Dybala and Kondogbia. Bacca had a buy-out clause. As for Bertolacci, the perceived scarcity of flourishing Italian players like him mean they now go at a premium like English players in the Premier League.
Notice also how so much of the spending in Serie A this window has been done by the traditional "Big Three." As it stands, their shopping sprees account for 73 percent of the total but each of their circumstances are different. Juventus wrapped up the Scudetto at the beginning of May and have been able to do their business early. Already in rude financial health, their capability has also been boosted by their run in the Champions League. Because of the money spent by Italian broadcasters on the competition, Juventus' status as the only Italian team remaining after the group stages and their unexpected appearance in the final meant they made close to €100 million from it in prize money and TV revenue.
The opposite is true of the Milan clubs. Out of Europe simultaneously for the first time since 1958, they are opening their wallets specifically to get back into the Champions League. Inter have been absent from it since 2012, Milan since 2014.
After years of free transfers, loans and shoestring outlays -- the biggest deals they did last summer were €8 million for Gary Medel and €7 million for Giacomo Bonaventura -- Inter are once again protagonists, no longer spectators. The appointment of Roberto Mancini was indicative of a change of tack by Erick Thohir. "Mancio" wouldn't have returned to San Siro unless fully confident that his new paymaster could be persuaded to put his hands deeper into his pockets.
That has stirred something at Milan. Long-sought investment has been obtained through Bee Taechaubol and the renewed sense of competition under the Madonnina has provoked a sea change in their respective approaches. The duty to restore their clubs to greatness and knock Juventus off their perch has been helped by some creative financial acrobatics and a relaxation in Financial Fair Play.
Neither are done yet in the market. Inter are being linked with Steven Jovetic, Juan Cuadrado and a host of midfielders after missing out on Marseille's Giannelli Imbula, who opted to move to Porto. Milan are hopeful of bringing Zlatan Ibrahimovic back to the club.
Sales will naturally follow, particularly at Inter, and a reaction is also expected from Roma and Napoli, two of the biggest spenders in the years of the Milan clubs' decline. After buying out Cagliari's remaining stake in Radja Nainggolan for €19 million, Roma have covered the cost (with the sale of Bertolacci) and are selling others (Gervinho, Mattia Destro and Jose Holebas) to buy other players, notably a big centre-forward like Edin Dzeko.
Without Champions League football, Napoli are in the process of reorganising and on a smaller scale. If Rafa Benitez sought to give the club an international profile, his successor, Maurizio Sarri, is in the midst of restoring an Italian identity to the Partenopei without compromising on style.
Of course, there is potential for market activity to escalate even further and go to another gear altogether if, for instance, Paul Pogba and/or Gonzalo Higuain were to agitate for a move. After all, there are two months until the window closes.
Given its firepower and tendency to do its business inexplicably late, one imagines the Premier League will soon overtake Serie A in spending. La Liga will probably do too if Real add to the €31.5 million they shelled out for Danilo and Valencia keep investing. The question with regards to Italy is: what's behind the surge? "Will it bring about a renaissance or dispense disappointment?" asked La Gazzetta. "Is it the tail whip of a football system, which remains sick at the base?" Well, that's the worry.
For just as Juventus reaching the Champions League final and Fiorentina and Napoli making it to the Europa League semifinals felt like achievements made despite, and not because of, the system in Italy, so too is this spending.
Even if it does have the second biggest domestic TV deal, it doesn't necessarily follow that it is a rich league. Too many clubs are financially on the brink and the likelihood is that there will be other Parmas in the future. For a second straight year, a club has been denied a UEFA license to compete in the Europa League by the FIGC on account of financial irregularities: Sampdoria have taken Genoa's place. "Spending on players and not investing in infrastructure, stadiums, services and merchandising is suicide," wrote Giuseppe de Bellis in Il Giornale.
Encouragingly the big clubs, are belatedly following the examples of Juventus and Udinese in earnest. Work is beginning on the Stadio della Roma. Milan hope to get the green light for their new ground, although that now looks an uphill political battle. Inter's plans for San Siro were revealed in La Gazzetta on Wednesday and even Atalanta are seeking to restyle the Atleti Azzurri d'Italia. But reassurances have yet to come from the rest of the league and many of them remain in a precarious state.
Of course, Serie A will be more competitive next season, particularly around the top, and that's a good thing. This summer should be enjoyed. Caution, however, is required. The health of the game in Italy overall is still cause for concern. The recovery being made by the league seems partial rather than full, and many aspects of it remain in critical condition.
James covers the Italian Serie A and European football for ESPN FC Follow him on Twitter @JamesHorncastle.