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Thursday, February 17, 2005

Roberto Gotta

All smiles at Juventus?

Roberto Gotta

It isn't as if Italy did not have enough comical situations in football. Take Monday's general meeting of the Football Association, the FIGC, for instance.

The common sight of empty seats at the Stadio Delle Alpi. (AdamDavy/Empics)

It resulted in the confirmation of Franco Carraro as president with a 94% majority which would have made Saddam Hussein envious, but he will be succeeded in - get this - mid-term by another well-known and well-connected figure, Giancarlo Abete, so that he'll be free to push Italy's bid to host the 2012 European Championships.

Carraro himself recently said about the bid, apparently without a hint of irony, 'everything's ready but the stadia', which are among the worst in western Europe, especially in the sections behind the goals. Another column could be filled with all the conspiracy theories being bandied about as soon as the final whistle sounds every Sunday, some of them examples of paranoia worthy of a university thesis.

But one controversy has filled the pages throughout the past week, and since it brewed at Juventus, Italy's best-supported club although you wouldn't know that by the large swaths of empty seats at the Stadio delle Alpi.

It commanded front-page news in all three sports dailies, whose mere existence is another example of the Italians' abnormal passion not for football itself, but for discussing it and using it as an outlet for God knows what.

Back at Juventus, then. You may never have heard of Lapo Elkann, but the 27-year old may soon become familiar: a grandson of the late Gianni Agnelli, as a member of the Agnelli family he's a major shareholder of Juventus, although his job is as head of marketing and brand promotion for Fiat, the family's car-making company.

Just the other week, the flamboyant Elkann, who once worked as an assistant to former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, said: 'I'd like to see a 'smile' on our jerseys... I like Cassano because he's had a tough childhood. He's hard to deal with, but wonderful to watch, and he was our best player at the 2004 European Championships. If dealt with properly, he can become Italy's top talent.'

Nothing particularly outrageous, and as a marketing man Elkann was probably using a metaphor when he made the reference to the 'smile', the little yellow button with the upturned lips which has come to symbolize a happy face, as you just can't picture Juventus actually putting one of them on their jersey.

Elkann knows Juventus may have the biggest fan base in Italy, but are intensely disliked - more than any other club - by everyone who does not support them, and you have to go back to the age-old accusations of excessive influence on referees to understand why.

That the current trio of top directors (chief executive Antonio Giraudo, general director Luciano Moggi and vice president Roberto Bettega) hardly look like the types you'd invite to liven up your party probably had a big influence on Elkann's words, but the poor guy - although poor is not a word you'd normally associate with him - probably had no idea of what would happen next.

Giraudo hit the roof and hit back during the same radio show, on RIN Radio, that had aired Elkann's words.

He said: 'Without a smile, we won five Scudettos, eight Cups, 2 Golden Balls and three Viareggio Tournaments Italy's top youth event). Juve are one of the more financially stable clubs in Italy, and we managed this without the Agnellis pumping money into the club coffers for the last ten years. Elkann's words now make me smile, because when he mentions being ambitious and signing Cassano he surely means that the Agnelli family will resume investing in Juventus like Berlusconi, Abramovich, Moratti, Sensi and the owners of other top clubs have been doing for years'. Ouch.

You are free to take sides in this, of course. There's no questioning the policy that has brought Juventus back from their early Nineties crisis which saw the Agnelli turn day-to-day control of the club from Giampiero Boniperti, who had presided over most of the Bianconeri's triumphs in the Seventies and Eighties, to Giraudo, Bettega and Moggi.

On the other hand, hostility towards Juventus has grown, as part of an escalating trend towards contentiousness which has been bringing Italian football on his knees more each week.

Gianni Agnelli: Father figure of Juve's grandson is shaking things up. (MarkThompson/GettyImages)

Many neutral fans resent the fact that Juventus quietly established some kind of alliance with Milan, although they recently seem to be growing distant from their scudetto rivals (as it should be, of course), and one of the rumours doing the rounds is that Elkann's words mean the Agnelli family may want to wrestle control of the club back from Giraudo.

Fiat president Luca Cordero di Montezemolo is an ally and friend of Fiorentina owner Diego Della Valle, the most vocal opponent of league chairman (and Milan vice president) Adriano Galliani who has recently stated that Giraudo is his best friend in football and has always had Juve's backing.

As for Giraudo, someone in the press reminded readers that he was once a Torino fan and was rumoured to have flashed a rude gesture at the then Juve directors after Torino scored a vital goal in a derby match years ago, but that would mean unfairly exposing a situation which is hardly unique in Italian football.

Owners or top directors rarely are former fans of their current clubs and are most likely to be local entrepreneurs who eye the opportunity of gaining fame and recognition, along with a huge amount of attrition. Or they are serial owners who jump from town to town in search of the perfect combination of fan base, TV rights and national exposure, and perhaps the chance to build a new stadium because the old one, of course, is outdated.

Fans of Leeds United may look at Ken Bates' arrival with suspicion, but what about Livorno, owned by former Genoa boss Aldo Spinelli, or Genoa itself, where Como's major shareholder of a couple of years ago, Enrico Preziosi, is now in charge?

Both of them, and countless others, do not find anything unusual or morally wrong in offering themselves as saviours of ramshackle franchises. Nothing that any coach and player wouldn't do, of course, and although the figure of the local-born rich guy who steps in and brings a moribund club to success is one we'd all like to see, it is a mythical more than an actual one, given the current situation.

Real life saviours, too, are bound to fall under the microscope of over-ambitious fans: more than ten years ago Giuseppe Gazzoni Frascara snatched Bologna from the yawning gates of oblivion, rescued them from bankruptcy and led them from Serie C1 to Serie A, but as recently as two weeks ago a banner in the home end told him in no uncertain manner that the fans want more.

As a vocal proponent of more rigour in football and an outspoken critic of the clubs who have amassed millions in back taxes and are using those euros to buy players instead of getting their situation in order with the IRS, Gazzoni is one of the few Serie A owners who doesn't bite off more than he can chew, or at least tries to do so.

His refusal to extend the contracts of a few players in mid-season has also prompted criticism in some quarters, but is going to be a good lesson for some players who apparently believe they're world-beaters after stringing together a couple of good performances and immediately knock on the owner's door.

Del Piero: Contoversial figure, but only because Capello doesn't favour him. (Stringer/GettyImages)

On the topic of winning and being liked, then, no final judgment can be made. The history of football- the history of the world, in fact - shows that people who are consistently winning in a competitive environment will soon lose the empathy of neutral observers, and will be as much hated as they are by their own fans.

Of course, Juventus have always enjoyed a higher profile and have therefore been under the microscope more than most, but Elkann's words come at a critical time for the club this season.

After losing twice in four days at the beginning of February, they beat Udinese 2-1 last Sunday and kept a two-point lead on Milan, but the much anticipated (there will be actual people inside the Stadio delle Alpi for the return leg) - Champions League seconr round tie with Real Madrid will already prove one of the campaign's litmus test for Capello. His intense persona, so the joke goes, matches the serious side of the Juventus' brass pound for pound.

Adding to this state of things, the Del Piero situation: Capello does not appear to consider him a starter, not now with Ibrahimovic going strong and Trezeguet just back from injury, but Del Piero's cult status among many fans and his likeable demeanour mean Capello's been cast as the villain in the whole saga, and the fact Moggi praised his coach for the way he's been using Juve's number 10 says all there's to say about the situation.

So, the next time you see Juve on TV, check out Capello and the shots of Moggi, Giraudo and Bettega in the stands. If they smile, they must be on candid camera. There's no other explanation.


4,473 Posts
heh, decent article. Sort of falls apart at the end and fails to show where things may go.

I really doubt things will change much at Juve, unless Capello wins nothing in his reign. The Trio will be in hot water then.

17,969 Posts
Yeah, the article started promisingly enough but then fizzled out tamely at the end.

I'm glad we don't have to depend on the Agnellis to bankroll the club, it keeps us on the straight and narrow financially and the club can retain control over its future and policies. I mean, i am obviously very grateful to everything the Agnellis have done for the club, but our autonomous status quo is ideal.
But at the same time i agree with Giraudo, if Elkann wants to start making suggestions as to who we should get, he should volunteer to back that up with a generous donation a la Berlu or Moratti.
As for the usual attendance jibes, once we renovate Delle Alpi i.e. decrease the capacity, remove the running tracks, etc and develop the surrounding area i think we'll be able to solve the empty seats problem. We just need to be a bit patient.

I think the Triad have been great for Juve and if anything, they have ensured our future by enabling the club to operate profitably as a single financial entity and still stay competitive.

You just have to look at the financial problems that Borussia Dortmund, a club that has among the highest attendances in Europe, are going through and you'll realize how fortunate we are to have the leadership that we do.
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