James Pallotta Exclusive: Roma President on Strootman, New Stadium, Serie A

Colin O'Brien@@ColliOBrienContributor IJanuary 14, 2015

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It's "Inside Roma Week" at Bleacher Report, and today's offering is an exclusive with American businessman James Pallotta, the club's outspoken president.

Read more—Totti exclusive, De Rossi exclusive

For casual observers of Serie A, A.S. Roma's renaissance last year might not have seemed that remarkable. They're a historic club in a large, football-mad city. They should be challenging for titles. 

Fans of the Giallorossi, however, will know that it's never quite been that simple. There have been some unforgettable highs—and plenty of lows that Romanisti would love to forget. 

When a group of American investors took over the club in 2011, their goal was simple: stop the rot that had crippled Roma in recent years and revitalise a club that hadn't been living up to its massive potential. 

"Project" is a word used far too often in football these days, but it does seem appropriate to the Giallorossi. After all, turning one of Europe's underachieving sleeping giants into a global powerhouse, on and off the pitch, is no small enterprise. 

Alessandra Tarantino/Associated Press

But that's just what the current president, James Pallotta, is trying to do. Pallotta is a first-generation Italian-American, born in the North End of Boston and educated at the University of Massachusetts and at Northeastern University. He started out in the early 1980s investing in media and entertainment before moving into technology. 

The 56-year-old doesn't mince words, but he's friendly and polite, and usually more than happy to give some time to journalists and chew the fat about all things calcio. He's clearly passionate about the team—you get the feeling he hates to lose, generally—but also openly pragmatic about the realities of the football industry. It is, after all, a business. Being naive about that will only harm a club in the long term. 

Pallotta is also optimistic—but realistic—about the team's capabilities. He's philosophic about Roma's exit from the Champions League and thinks that the best is still to come from Rudi Garcia's side. 

The Season So Far 

"I caught (Bayern Manager) Pep (Guardiola) at the Juventus game, scouting, we're pretty good friends, and I think that first goal from (Arjen) Robben just opened the flood gates.

"I don't think we were prepared for that change in style—and that's not dumping on the coach, Rudi said that too—but I don't think we were prepared for [the] kind of style change they had for us, that pressing. Other teams have tried it lately, and we've adjusted to it, but that was the first time where we really had four guys coming and pressing the whole time.

Kerstin Joensson/Associated Press

"I can understand what Pep was doing, if you look at our team at the time, (Leandro) Castan's out, (Konstantinos) Manolas is new, (Ashley) Cole's new, Maicon is out, so we didn't exactly have a group of guys who had been playing together for many games.

"The interesting thing is that in the first 20 minutes of the second half, I think we should have had three quick goals. Gervinho hit the post, shot right at the goalie, there was another effort from Florenzi. That might have changed the complexion of the game somewhat, but look, Bayern are great. The way I look at it, it's just one of those 's--t happens' things.

"Think about it. We blew out CSKA Moscow in the first game [5-1], and the next round Bayern only wins against them 0-1, with a penalty. So are we that bad? They're certainly very good, a really well-run team. But I look at it as something that can happen.

"Then we kinda blew that game in Moscow in the last minute, and then [in the last round of games] Pep said he was going to take care of his business, but in the first 10 minutes against Man City, they're a man down because (Mehdi) Benatia—of all people—gets a red card."

Pallotta continues:

"So, it didn't fall our way this time. We certainly belong there and we could have easily still been there. We had a bunch of new players, and we had a lot of injuries and problems.

"I think there's a couple of areas we can be stronger in, but when we look at next year, Castan will be back, and I think he's one of the best defenders in the league. Alessio Romagnoli will be back from Sampdoria [where he's on loan], he's having a great year, and he's only 20 years old. We'll be stronger on the defensive side, where I think we really got hurt, either because of injuries or because the guys hadn't played together.

"Look at our midfield, I think Radja Nainggolan is playing as well as anyone in the league—probably as well as the top five guys in Europe—and there's (Miralem) Pjanic, (Daniele) De Rossi, (Kevin) Strootman will be back, along with some of our younger guys. Add another striker for depth, and I don't think we need many changes.

"I don't think we've played anywhere near our capabilities so far. Everyone's working hard, and you look at games like the Juventus one, that was interesting, or other games when we could have won, and we're still there, even though I don't think we've played close to our potential.

"A lot of that is injuries and so many new guys. They just need some time. We've a really strong group and some really strong young players, too."

It isn't returning to the Champions League or being in contention for Roma's first league title since 2001 that Pallotta says is his highlight of the year, however. For that, the American chooses something more important than results or league tables. 

PHILADELPHIA, PA - AUGUST 2: Defender Leandro Castan #5 of AS Roma participates in the match against FC Internazionale Milano during the International Champions Cup on August 2, 2014 at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Mitc
Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

"The thing I've been most thankful about this year is Leandro Castan. Early on, we were concerned when they found this spot, they didn't know if it was a tumour, was it cancer, but the operation was very successful. OK, he's out for the year, but some things are more important than where we are in the standings. Some people might disagree, but I think most wouldn't."

Dealing with the Rumour Mill

With the exception of a handful of super-rich clubs, no team these days is immune to transfer gossip linking their star players with big-money moves elsewhere.

And given that Roma have already seen Erik Lamela and Marquinhos lured away by attractive offers, it's understandable that the incessant reports linking the Lupi's star midfielders, Strootman and Pjanic, with moves abroad grate a little on Pallotta, even if he knows that's how the business works. 

"I do get annoyed," he admits. "I think the papers have finally given up on the Strootman thing, because Kevin's come out and addressed it, saying he likes it in Italy and he has a five-year contract. And by the way, I wasn't going to sell him anyway!

BOLOGNA, ITALY - FEBRUARY 23: Kevin Strootman #6 of AS Roma looks on prior the beginning of the Serie A match between Bologna FC and AS Roma at Stadio Renato Dall'Ara on February 23, 2014 in Bologna, Italy.  (Photo by Mario Carlini / Iguana Press/Getty Im
Mario Carlini / Iguana Press/Getty Images

"The Liverpool thing with Pjanic is the same. We have another four years with him, and we love him.

"We want to put the best team on the pitch, that's the most important thing. But we're businessmen. If someone comes in with a stupid number for a player, you have to listen to it. You can't just say no, no matter what.

"My view is that I don't want Kevin to go, for example, but if someone offers a huge amount, you at least have to listen to them. You're running a team, so you have to look at what's best for everyone, not just one individual. That's the way the world works."

Roma's New Stadium

"We got an early Christmas present when it was approved at city level, I think about 80 per cent of the vote went our way. Now we have to provide another dossier and go to regional level, but I think the city side is where more difficulties lay, even though I don't think it was really that difficult.

"The mayor and the city council were great about the whole thing. Now, I think whatever questions we're asked, we're fully prepared. Hopefully, we'll be breaking ground in the summer. It had been delayed, a few things happened in Rome, so it got pushed back, but now maybe it'll be fast-tracked a little on the regional side."

World Soccer Talk @worldsoccertalk

AS Roma's new stadium will showcase club ambitions and pay tribute to Rome's history http://t.co/pNnwKOSsRU http://t.co/2oSm1GGLZd

Pallotta's plans for Roma's new ground—he isn't shy about saying it will be one of the best in the world—would be ambitious in any city, but in Italy's capital, they seem almost impossibly optimistic.

As anyone who lives in Rome will tell you, getting things done here isn't always as easy as it could be. The "few things" that happened, as Pallotta politely put it, were a massive police investigation before Christmas that led to seizures of over €200 million in assets and dozens of arrests of past and present public officials, including the former mayor, Gianni Alemanno.

The current incumbent, Ignazio Marino, is famous for his tough anti-corruption and modernisation policies, but there's still a lot of work to be done to reform a complex, bloated city council system that ranks as one of the biggest employers in the country.

Now that most of the bureaucracy is over with, the club can move forward with the 52,000-seater stadium—something that will be crucial if they're to minimise the gap to Europe's richest clubs.

"Construction is going to take, all in, about two years. If we get lucky, it can be ready for the 2017 season. We'd love to have it open sooner, but there's nothing we can do about forcing it."

Working with Other Serie A Owners

"We've spent a lot of time with other owners. Across the board, we've tried to have discussions about what we think could be beneficial for everyone in Serie A. I think we have some areas of expertise that might be better than other teams—stuff that we've done for 30 years—and there are areas where they've got expertise. We're open to listening, it goes both ways.

"People are starting to work on how we get the league back to where it was before. I don't think it's that far away. Clearly, the Premier League has done the best job, but if you look at Italy, I think it's more competitive, with seven or eight teams, than say Bayern Munich just dominating, or in France there's only two teams, or in Spain where there's two or three teams. It won't take Serie A much to get back, it just needs some smart moves at the league level."

The Noisy Neighbours

After the 2-2 draw with Lazio in the Derby della Capitale, tensions continued. The Aquile's president, Claudio Lotito, was angry at Francesco Totti's now-famous selfie celebration, and on Roman radio he insinuated that Roma's accounts would not pass Financial Fair Play rules (reported in English by Football Italia). 

Luciano Rossi/Associated Press

He also said that he'd bet his presidency on the Giallorossi not winning the league. Roma's director general Mauro Baldissoni hit back, joking that Lazio knew plenty about betting, a cutting reference to the club captain Stefano Mauri's involvement in a match-fixing scandal. 

In a statement on the club's website, Pallotta added:

Lotito continues to make foolish and ignorant statements about our club's economics. Next time I come to Rome I will attempt to educate him on our strong and profitable financial position as I would speak to a young child (speaking slowly with as many one syllable words as possible).  If he still can’t figure it out, I give it up.

Lotito and Pallotta are very different types of president. Lazio's owner isn't shy of the limelight and often seems more interested in his own fame. That tendency to insert himself wherever possible has led to him becoming a popular meme online, and he is often inserted into photographs with everyone from Barack Obama to Osama bin Laden. There's even a hashtag: #LotitoOvunque, Lotito everywhere. 

He's also incredibly unpopular with Lazio fans, despite the fact he saved the club from bankruptcy. In the last year, they've boycotted games at the Olimpico and organised protests at Lotito's home (link in Italian). Unsurprisingly, he's not one of the presidents who Pallotta is working with to rejuvenate Serie A. 

Claudio Lotito
Claudio LotitoPaolo Bruno/Getty Images

"Do I speak to Lotito? No. He has a very different view as to how things should be run. I just think he does things to keep his power base rather than thinking about what's best for the league. I'm sure he has a very different opinion about that than me, but you know, actions speak louder than words."

And as for the game itself? In the Roma president's eyes, it has to be part of a bigger picture. The Giallorossi don't want to just be the best team in Rome, after all, so their sights are being set a little higher than just beating Lazio.

"I'm getting used to how special it is for everyone in the city, and I look at it as something that's important for Rome, but it's one game on the way to trying to win a Scudetto.

"All of the games are important. Winning the derby twice a year against Lazio and then finishing in eighth or 10th place doesn't really make me happy. It's important for the city, we want to win it, but you have to look at it relative to how we're doing for the whole year.

"I'm a Boston guy, so we're used to it with the Celtics, the Bruins and the Red Sox. It doesn't do much good if you beat the Yankees 10 times and finish in last place."


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