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Let the games begin...

Never a dull moment, eh?

Just when it seemed all the negative vibes that customarily originate in Italian football were being directed at the hapless Roberto Donadoni and his impersonators of World Cup winners, Torino grab the headlines by the throat and corner the market in quick triggering.

With little more than 72 hours before they kick off against Parma on Sunday evening, the only remaining Serie A side in the eponymous northwestern town sacked their coach Gianni De Biasi, replacing him with the experienced Alberto Zaccheroni, a self-confessed Inter fan who steered Milan to the Scudetto in 1999 only to be made redundant by owner Silvio Berlusconi a few months later when his original sin began to weigh more heavily than his side's actual results, which were veering towards the inconsistent.

Not satisfied with having been employed by a media magnate who'd worked his way tirelessly to the top and had identified the football club he rooted for as a child as another means of gaining popularity, Zaccheroni, who'd rejected several job proposals in the last couple of years because he was waiting for the right offer, will now work for Torino owner Urbano Cairo.

Who is, er, a media magnate who's worked hard to rise to the summit and has come back to buy and revive his childhood club, and was even Berlusconi's right-hand man and apprentice for a few years.

A publisher and advertising mogul, Cairo was unhappy at a series of lacklustre pre-season results and decided action needed to be taken immediately, bearing in mind that De Biasi's job had already been on the line a few times during last year's Serie B campaign.

With a good squad built on the strength of Cairo's money and the enticing prospect of being the only Serie A game in town, Torino could challenge for a place in Europe with a strong midfield highlighted by World champion Simone Barone, who joined from Palermo, but it could take some time for the side to adapt to Zaccheroni's ideas, and it remains to be seen whether he will employ his beloved 4-3-3, a formation which could make up for an apparent lack of goalscoring power.

Torino's antics aside, the Serie A season kicked off at last, after an horrible summer of scandal and controvery which was only partially rescued by the World Cup triumph.

There's a completely different look from the previous campaigns, and not only for the obvious fact that Juventus will be playing in the B.

As harsh as it is to know the actual culprits will suffer less than innocent fans and players who will be forced to brush up their geographical knowledge by travelling to smalltown Italy in the shape of Cosenza or Frosinone (raise your hands, you who know where it is), the verdicts were basically not too lenient with other clubs, and the result is a season which seems there for Inter to take it.

Having spent their customary tens of millions on players, including the talented but frustratingly inconsistent Ibrahimovic, Inter have the best squad, albeit with a surplus of strikers which could give coach Roberto Mancini a few headaches, especially if Adriano keeps pulling less than his weight and goes into one of his sulking sessions.

One of their signings was Fabio Grosso, a good deal at 5.5 million euros before he went on to star at the World Cup, and his transfer was one of the very few bright spots in an otherwise depressed and subdued transfer market for Serie A.

After Juve's demise, Italy captain Fabio Cannavaro, Gianluca Zambrotta, Emerson and Lilian Thuram went abroad; in addition, quality players like Martins, Veron, Stam, Rui Costa, Tavano and the inimitable Shevchenko left.

Losses which have considerably lowered the overall quality of the top flight, as no significant foreign player arrived, certainly no one who distinguished himself in Germany.

One of only two players who played in the World Cup and joined an Italian side, Torino's Japan international Misashi Oguro, was deemed an 'unknown' by De Biasi. On second thoughts, one reason for his dismissal may now be clearer.

The exodus of good players, the bitter aftertaste of the scandals and the suspicion calcio has not been rid of shady characters and underground machinations have combined to envelop the start of the Serie A season in a cloud of apathy.

Season-ticket sales are down everywhere in comparison to 2005-06 - which had already been a bad year - except at newly promoted Catania, the Sicilian side who enjoy some sort of cult status for their bright red-and-blue striped playing kit and their stadium, Cibali, which entered Italian football lore several years ago when a radio commentator shouted the name in a frenzy to announce the home side had taken the lead in a match against Inter.

Season-ticket sales at Milan are down 17,000 to 32,000, according to daily Tuttosport, with Inter, despite being last season's scudetto 'winners', down 10,000 to around 42,000, Messina down 14,000.

Roma and Lazio are also way short of last season's numbers and the reason may not reside just in the disillusion most fans feel about the prospect of calico ever getting clean or trustworthy again.

Add the crumbling status, poor or non-existent facilities and bad sightlines of too many stadia, the threat of violence and the fact virtually all matches can be seen live on Sky Italy and it's easier to understand why this season could mark an all-time low in the development and morale of calcio.

Pretending not to notice the moral and structural shambles and getting back to real football, Inter's closest challengers should be Milan, but their failure to replace Shevchenko with a striker carrying a modicum of goalscoring potential has left may observers unimpressed, and the defence, ever ageing, has only seen the addition of Italy fringe player Daniele Bonera, a versatile defender who's been plagued by injuries.

Milan's 8-point penalty and question marks over a couple of positions mean they will have to keep a furious pace in order to catch up with their crosstown rivals, but remember Carlo Ancelotti's side finished 12 points ahead of Inter last year and the gulf in talent between the squads is still not big enough to warrant Inter bridging that on a level plane.

Fiorentina might have been serious contenders, now that the squad mirrors coach Cesare Prandelli's beliefs even more, had they not too been penalized with a killer 19-point deduction which means avoiding relegation will be the first and only goal.

Which leaves Roma, strengthened by the arrival of Mirko Vucinic up front and David Pizarro - coach Luciano Spalletti's former protege at Udinese - in midfield.

Palermo have added former Parma stars Simplicio and Bresciano to a side which includes two World Cup winners in defenders Barzagli and Zaccardo - he of the comical own goal v the USA - and a striker, Andrea Caracciolo, who will play alone up front and at 25 must make the best of this chance to claim a place in the national side - although you'd forgive him for believing this is not the right time to associate himself with the lot that crashed in Paris.

Down at the bottom, the usual suspects are candidates for the drop: Messina, who were relegated on the pitch last year but were gifted safety by Juventus' demotion, Parma, who did brilliantly but lost most of their better players, Catania, perhaps Empoli, who lost the lively Tavano.

Reggina were also hit with a point deduction, 15, and when even your coach says 'we're doomed', as Walter Mazzarri remarked after the penalty was confirmed, you just know even a siege mentality and a desire for revenge over an 'undeserved' punishment will not be enough.

Reggina's squad looks thin and with as much talent as an empty flour sack and even starting on level points with the others might have resulted in relegation.

We may not have a season for the ages, then, and Juventus' absence will surely detract from the atmosphere and competitiveness, but expectations are so low, with so many fans having already voted with their feet, that the paying public would be happy just to know that what we see on the pitch is genuine and will not be a choreographed exercise to pass time in the long winter months before the courts, again, determine next summer which shirt the scudetto will be sewn on.

Please, not again.

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