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

players.

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

shock.

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

painter.”

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

over.

”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

foreigners.

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

ending.

Follow Andrew Dampf at http://twitter.com/asdampf