Are International Owners Bad for Italian Football?

Colin O'Brien@@ColliOBrienContributor IDecember 30, 2013

MILAN, ITALY - MAY 20:  (L-R) Claudio Lotito and James Pallotta attends the 'Il calcio che VogliAMO' (The Football We WANT TO Love) press conference at Sala Buzzati on May 20, 2013 in Milan, Italy.  (Photo by Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images)
Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images

It wasn't so very long ago that Inter's appointment of Jose Mourinho as head coach caused a stir in Serie A. The Portuguese was among the most respected managers in world football, but there was a glaring problem with him. He wasn't Italian. 

The dearth of English managers might make that fact about the Special One seem rather banal to fans of the Premier League, where foreign managers have long reigned supreme. But in the Bel Paese, they take their coaching seriously, and the fact that such a grand institution opted for the imported option sparked wide debate about the state of Italian football. 

Whereas clubs in other leagues throughout the world have long sought to bring in the best men for the job—foreign or domestic—Italy has always prided itself on its coaches. And not without good reason.

So effective have their own been that perhaps the only foreigners to achieve real success at an Italian club were the Serbian Vujadin Boskov during his memorable spell at Sampdoria, the Swede Nils Liedholm at AC Milan and Roma, and the Argentine Helenio Herrera, half a century ago now with the Grande Inter. 

In the top two flights of Italian football in 2008, there were only two foreign managers: Mourinho and Sinisa Mihajlovic at Bologna, who wasn't really seen as an outsider anyway, having spent most of his adult life playing and working in Italy. 

So while the former Chelsea boss' credentials made him a candidate for any job in the world, his arrival at Inter was cause for furrowed brows. What, after all, could it say about Italian football that one of its biggest clubs had to look abroad to find a suitable manager? 

The same patriotic self-esteem does not extend to the country's businessmen, but the influx of foreign entrepreneurs taking over Italian football clubs has raised similar debate. Are things so bad that the entrepreneurial elite in the world's ninth-largest economy are unwilling, or unable, to invest in Italian football and keep the country's top clubs in Italian hands? 

It's a familiar topic in the EPL, in particular, where doubts have long lingered as to the true intentions of investors like Roman Abramovich, the Glazer family and Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan. 

In England or Italy, the concerns are the same. They're only in it for profit. They don't understand the culture. They don't have the best interests of the club at heart.

The suspicion surrounding foreign owners fits a convenient narrative for those commentators who want to create drama and any fan who wants to blame someone other than the overpaid players they worship for a failure. But ask yourself this: Are Arensal the worse off for having Stan Kroenke, and would they be better with an Englishman like Newcastle's Mike Ashley?

There are a number of fine Italian chairmen, of course, Aurelio De Laurentiis at Napoli being one of them. But the film producer only got the chance to buy the club because it had been run into the ground by a string of inept and dishonest owners beforehand. 

Vittorio Cecchi Gori almost destroyed Fiorentina and Lazio are still paying for Sergio Cragnotti's profligacy in the 1990s and early 2000s. Huge debts at Siena suggest that Massimo Mezzaroma has been less than competent in his duties, and it's doubtful even Maurizio Zamparini could keep a straight face and say that he always acts in Palermo's best interests. He averages almost three managerial changes a year. 

Ahn Jung-Hwan: Guilty of scoring a goal
Ahn Jung-Hwan: Guilty of scoring a goalLaurence Griffiths/Getty Images

And before anyone mentions a certain Malaysian tycoon below the line, I'll see your Vincent Tan and raise you one Luciano Gaucci, the former Perugia boss who fired Ahn Jung-Hwan for scoring against Italy in the 2002 World Cup, signed Colonel Gaddafi's son and tried to hire Sweden's female captain, Hanna Ljungberg. He also threatened to add a horse to his first team squad. 

All of which is mad, of course, though not as worrying as the financial and political scandals that have dogged Gaucci throughout his career. No one in their right mind would want a man who spent four years on the run for fraud in charge of their club, but his name tends to avoid mention whenever the foreign vs. domestic argument comes up. 

The point is that there are good and bad owners. Italian owners are perfectly capable of ruining Italian football without help from abroad, so nationality shouldn't come into the discussion. Like too much of football, the misgivings that surround foreign ownership is depressingly parochial. Considered alongside stadium violence, racism and homophobia, it's not the biggest problem in terms of attitudes, perhaps, but it's another ugly flaw to the beautiful game. 

Is there a risk that the investment could be motivated by short-term greed, or that support might run dry once the new backers have lost interest? Of course. Is that risk exclusive to foreigners? Of course not.

It should be so obvious as to not need saying, but it was Italian owners who sold to foreign investors in the first place. The idea that a local owner is more likely to be morally or sentimentally bound to a club than a foreign one is disproved by the simple fact that there are foreign owners. 

For everyone apart from the fans, football is a business. Silvio Berlusconi won't keep spending money at AC Milan if it's no longer financially or politically expedient to do so. He's one of the world's richest men, and didn't get there by gambling his money when it was not in his own best interests.

The same thing can be said for anyone wealthy enough to buy something like a football club, and it's not meant as a criticism. If anything, it's a compliment. They know what they're doing financially, and very few are irresponsible enough to allow one investment damage the rest of their portfolios. Just like everyone else with an active involvement in professional football, they're in it to make money. 

That might be unpalatable to supporters but the irony of it is that they're more likely to be happy with whoever is best at business. If their club is secure and successful off the pitch, there's a good chance it will thrive on the pitch as well. 

Football is best served by financial security and long-term planning. If that comes from a local fan with deep pockets, all well and good. If it comes from supporter ownership as seen in Germany or at Real Madrid and Barcelona, so much the better.

But there are currently no fan-owned clubs in Italy and with the country in a deep recession, few entrepreneurs willing to plunge large sums into such a precarious investment. Italian football needs money—from home or abroad—to nurture talent and for Serie A clubs to compete internationally. 

Take Siena. It's owned by an Italian. It's sponsored by the oldest bank in the world, one that began its life in the city more than 500 years ago: Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena. At the end of last season, Siena were relegated, having been docked eight points relating to a betting scandal involving players and back room staff at the club.

The sponsor teetered on the brink of extinction—threatening to take much of Italy's economy with it—and the club's owners risked losing the club and all their history to bankruptcy when they failed to pay the players' wages.

Massimo Mezzaroma
Massimo MezzaromaGabriele Maltinti/Getty Images

Had it not been for a €10 million parachute payment from the top division—one they had to ask for in advance—the club would have ceased to exist, because the rules state that Italian clubs must prove themselves to be financially sound before signing up for a new season. 

Siena survived and are currently mid-table in Serie B. Their debts have been restructured, and though it remains to be seen who will pay for the new stadium they've got planned, there's still a future to look forward to and a return to Serie A in the near future is a definite possibility.

The same can't be said for Ascoli, once home to the great Oliver Bierhoff, who recently lost their struggle to avoid bankruptcy and are now in liquidation. 

Now compare that to Roma. It's still early days for the capital club's American owners, but it's already fairly clear that the club is in better shape with James Pallotta than when Rosella Sensi left it.

Years of stagnation and mismanagement had left the Lupi crippled, well behind the league's biggest sides. The owner's debts away from football were crippling the club, and there was a danger that Roma could fall so far behind the leading pack as to never be able to catch up, at least in the short to medium term. 

Now, there has been significant expenditure on players and a string of high-profile commercial deals done to help secure the club's financial future. Plans for their own stadium are also well underway.

All of that's happened without the club "selling out," to use the popular phrase levelled at the likes of Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain. The owners might be based in Boston, but the club still has a very Italian identity.

Walter Sabatini
Walter SabatiniMaurizio Lagana/Getty Images

Behind the scenes, Walter Sabatini has wide-ranging powers. That's worth noting because it shows the ownership not only respects the director of football's extensive experience and knowledge of Italian football, but also that they recognise their own limitations. They're working to improve the finances, and want him to look after the football. One doubts he was given such reign by the Italian owners at either Lazio or Palermo. 

On the pitch alongside Daniele De Rossi and Francesco Totti, Alessandro Florenzi is leading the line for a new generation of Rome-born players. There are several exciting talents out on loan right now, but even so the Giallorossi have six Romans in the first team. And Mattia Destro was drafted in at significant expense, a clear message that the club was eager to spend on the best young Italian talent. 

The club was in a poor state when they took over in 2010, and it took some time for them to find their feet. Mistakes were made with players and coaches, and the controversial change made to the club's logo could undoubtedly have been handled better.

But on the whole—an in particular since Pallotta took the reins this year—things at the Olimpico have been looking up, and in a very short time Roma have gone from being the basket-case of Serie A to one of the country's best-run clubs.

Of course, Roma are a much bigger club than Siena or Ascoli. But the comparison serves to show that bad things can happen regardless of where the money comes from.

In that sense, fans mistrust is better directed at the current business model because foreign owners have the same capacity to help and hurt Italian football as their local peers do.

International investment is still a new phenomenon in Italy, and judging from experience elsewhere in Europe it's unlikely that it will always have a happy ending. In all likelihood, it will both help and harm Italian football, and the consequences of it will be so complicated and entwined with other factors that it will be almost impossible to know for sure who or what deserves compliments or condemnation. 

But that's nothing new. Professional sport's always been like that—it just has more of a global character these days. 



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