As foreigners move in, Serie A strongmen fade away
The late Giovanni Agnelli used to wake up his Juventus players
with friendly phone calls at the crack of dawn – just to see how
they were doing.
Massimo Moratti wept with joy when Inter Milan won the Champions
League in 2010, emulating his father’s success as the team’s head
nearly half a century earlier.
At AC Milan, Silvio Berlusconi has been known to dictate lineups
and even formations to his coaches.
The Agnelli, Moratti and Berlusconi families have been the face
of Italian soccer for decades.
Now, though, with a group of Indonesian entrepreneurs taking
over Inter Milan, Serie A leader Roma already controlled by
Americans and Berlusconi deep in legal troubles, the high-profile
strongmen at the top of Italian soccer are fading away.
With crumbling stadiums, poor attendance and repellant outbursts
of racism, Serie A clubs no longer attract the world’s best
Once home to Diego Maradona and Marco van Basten in their
primes, Italy is now behind the English Premier League and German
Bundesliga, losing its fourth Champions League berth.
Great Italian clubs are struggling to compete with
better-financed foreign rivals. Paris Saint-Germain acquired Zlatan
Ibrahimovic from Berlusconi’s Milan after the 2011-12 season and
Edinson Cavani from 2013 Serie A runner-up Napoli last summer.
In the hands-on, family-run world of Italian soccer, the arrival
of aloof, business-minded foreign owners has been a culture
Traditionally, club presidents – not coaches – were the faces of
teams. They answered to the media for each result. They were seen
as fans, not pure businessmen.
That’s still true at Juventus, controlled by the Agnelli family
of auto industrialists since 1923. The Agnellis are considered
Italy’s Kennedys. They control Fiat and Ferrari.
Beside his early morning phone calls, Giovanni Agnelli also
bestowed nicknames on his favorite players. The most memorable was
”Pinturicchio” for Alessandro Del Piero, likening the undersized
player to the Renaissance artist known as the ”little
Yet even after winning the last two Serie A titles, the Turin
club speaks openly about possibly having to sell one of its prized
assets, 20-year-old midfielder Paul Pogba.
”If a huge offer came in for Pogba we wouldn’t be able to hold
on to him,” Andrea Agnelli, Giovanni’s nephew who took over as
Juve president in 2010, recently said. ”Italian football has
pretty much become a transit destination.”
At Roma, the Sensi family ceded control two years ago to four
Boston-based executives who don’t speak Italian and fly in only
every other month or so.
Franco Sensi, the oil tycoon who presided over the club’s third
and last Serie A title in 2001, was a fixture at Roma matches until
he died in 2008. Then his daughter Rosella took over and she, too,
never missed a match, nor hesitated to stand up for the club after
victory or defeat.
While the new owners have a more hands-off approach, Roma won
its first 10 matches this season – a Serie A record – before
Sunday’s 1-1 tie at Torino and leads the standings.
At Inter, the new owners are Indonesian entrepreneur Erick
Thohir and two associates. They take over from the Moratti family
that has deep roots in Milan life but which couldn’t resist the
offer to sell.
Ever the fan, Moratti realized that Inter needed foreign capital
to remain competitive. Moratti will retain a minority stake and
could be named honorary president once Thohir formally takes
”I feel relieved. I’m leaving the club in good hands,” Moratti
said. His father, Angelo, was owner during the team’s early glory
years in the 1960s, when Inter won the European Cup twice.
Thohir is already part owner of the Philadelphia 76ers and D.C.
United. He is chairman of the Mahaka Group, which has business
interests in media and entertainment.
Berlusconi, one of Italy’s richest men and a former three-time
premier, still owns Milan despite occasional media reports over the
past few years that he’s considering selling a stake to
But after the 2011-12 season, Milan sold nearly all of its top
players, sending Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva to PSG.
And as his political fortunes have waned and his legal troubles
mounted, Berlusconi has allowed his daughter, Barbara, to take an
increasingly important role within the club.
Slowly but surely, the era of all-powerful Serie A patriarchs is
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