Council Control | Why Italian Clubs Need To Break Free
If you have any interest in Calcio, you might have heard the recent story of the Fiorentina ultras rallying outside their historic Stadio Artemio Franchi with a digger. The symbolic gesture was made in an attempted to pressure the council for its lack of progress in the club's stadium development plans.
Throughout Italy Calcio has been held back by backward local councils and bureaucratic red tape ever since the tourists left Il Bel Pease after the World Cup in 1990. Serie A's fall from grace has as much to do with its clubs (lack of) infrastructure than anything else. As clubs like Arsenal see a surge in match day and commercial revenue thanks to the Emirates Stadium, Italian giants such as AC Milan and Napoli see theirs stumble along. As a consequence, they've become ever reliant on the black box revenue to see them compete, posing a serious risk to the development of the national game.
If you've ever wondered why Serie A fell so hard, so fast over the last few decades. you've come to the right place.
The management of stadiums in Italy is a major stumbling block to capitalising on the growing commercial game. Most Italian clubs do not own their own grounds, almost all of which are owned by public authorities such as the local council.
There are sadly only a few positives examples in recent times of clubs such as Juventus, Sassuolo, Frosinone and Udinese, who have all taken charge of their own destiny and bought long term leases from their respective councils. This allowed them to rebuild or modify their stadiums, grow their revenues through matchday and commercial activities and keep the profits.
This, however, is an exception to the rule in a league where most of the biggest clubs from Roma to Milan play in council owned stadiums. Think of the San Siro or Stadio Olimpico, two grand historic grounds that are steeped in nostalgia. These are both council owned stadiums that are holding back the potential of these Italian giants.
Modifications to these iconic grounds have been minimal at best, with the only real changes since the 1990 World Cup occurring when they hosted the Champions League final in 2009 and 2016 respectively. Both clubs pay to rent the ground but have little say in its development and day to day running. They simply cannot capitalise on any commercial opportunities in the same way their European rivals can.
As beautiful as it may be, this space ship of a ground is holding back the two Italian giants who play here.
When American business owner Palotta''s took over the reigns at AS Roma in 2013, a new 52,000 all-seater stadium was a priority and a necessity for a club looking to grow domestically and in Europe. Plans were submitted in 2014 and yet 6 years later, not a single brick has been laid. His frustrations at the lack of progress grow, even calling on the club's supporters to put pressure on those in power to invoke change (you'll find a very similar tale from another Serie A side as you scroll down)..
Whilst there will be other variables at play, it looks like Pallotta's time at the Eternal City club is coming to end and the stadium debacle is reported to play a key part in this decision. Pallotta and the investment firm in charge have ploughed over £62 million pounds into the stadium project to no avail. He always stated that he'd leave the club if a new stadium couldn't be built. Spoiler alert, it hasn't.
Blurry nights at the Rome Derby in 2008. Drab game but what an atmosphere.
Napoli owner De Laurentis became so sick of the local council's management of the Stadio San Paolo, he threatened to move the club out of the city and called the ground a toilet. He proposed to move Napoli’s UEFA Champions League games to the 58,000-seat Stadio San Nicola, home of Serie D team Bari (which he also owns).
De Laurentis stated at the time that, “The city has done nothing more than keep it afloat. When I discover that PSG pay €1m a year to rent the Parc des Princes, I realise how far behind we are. With 47,000 seats, they produce revenue of €100m a year. Napoli can’t get beyond €17-18m because we can’t do anything inside the San Paolo — we can’t do any other activities. The city has done nothing for the San Paolo since 1990".
In the summer of 2019, Naples council finally made some alterations to the stadium by rebuilding the dressing rooms and replacing the seats from the faded pink (installed back in 1990) to a sea of blue and white. In reality these modifications were pushed forward by the 2019 Summer Universiade, which took place at the Stadio San Paolo. For the most part these changes were cosmetic and the structure of the ground has been left intact.
De Laurentis's frustrations are echo'd by many club owners, who feel suffocated by deliberately slow councils who have very little incentive to improve stadiums and curtail any proposed move away. Grounds have essentially become cash cows for local councils, providing guaranteed rent by clubs stuck with no where else to go.
Another Italian-American to have bought into the league is Rocco Comisso, who acquired Fiorentina in 2019. Florence is a one-club city that attracts millions of tourists each year and has huge appeal and potential. The tired Stadio Artemio Franchi is past its sell by date and is holding back the famous Viola. The distinct stands behind each goal are protected by cultural and heritage legislation, which puts the club in a tricky position regarding stadium redevelopment. Comisso wants legislation to move "fast, fast, fast" but the club have been pushing a new stadium agenda since 2001. He too recently used fan power to protest against the council and drive forward change.
It's the same story up and down the country as councils look to hold on to their prize assets, provide the bare minimal maintenance (let alone improvements) and lock in their fading tenants.
Fiorentina's Stadio Artemio Franchi back in 2009 from behind the curva. Bar some new purple seats in the Tribuna, it's barely changed since my last visit.
As De Laurentis referred earlier, his club (along with the rest) can't reap the benefits of the commercial opportunities or match day revenue that their European neighbours can.
Analysing the most recent Deloitte Football Money League results, Italian clubs slipped further behind the pack. Inter Milan were the second highest rated Italian club (14th overall), bringing in £44.8 million in match day revenue in 2019, this paled in comparison to clubs like PSG (£102.2m) or Man Utd (£106.3). Roma were off the mark too, raking in just £31.8m. Sure, PSG and Man Utd are superior clubs across the board, but it shows how much the gap has widened, especially for a side like Inter Milan who are a true global club. If you're wondering about AC Milan, they didn't even make the top 20 at all, a club trapped in a deathly cycle of stagnating income, mediocre talent on the field and no prestigious European football to provide the needed cash boost.
Two years ago,, a UEFA club licensing benchmark report concluded that only Greece, Norway and Sweden joined Italy in earning less from gate receipts than in the previous financial year. The final figure for Italy was €198 million which was an embarrassment when compared to La Liga (€464m), Bundesliga (€488m) and the Premier League (€781m), which all registered growth.
It's not just the likes of AS Roma or Inter Milan left behind the economic boom of European football, the smaller sides have felt the pain too.
Take Cagliari, a provincial island side from Sardinia, who won the league title back in 1970 with the legend that is Gigi Riva. The Stadio Sant'Elia, was heavily modified for the World Cup in 1990 (England fans will remember it well) and has since fallen into disrepair. The club's owner at the time (the infamous Massimo Cellino) was tearing his hair out trying to get a new stadium approved on the site.
The club had to make do building a temporary subbuteo-style stadium within the stadium, then move to a temporary structure 6 miles away in the neighbouring town of Quartu Sant' Elena. It didn't end there, the temporary structure was deemed illegal (another story for another time) and the club had to relocate again into the adjacent car park where their current temporary home lies. The whole thing is a farce and sums up the state of play regarding Italian stadium development.
The outer walls of the crumbling Stadio Sant'Elia in Cagliari. I think this picture says it all really (new temporary ground to the far left). Photo credit: @myjapaneseisbetter
In another example of North American owners looking to push Italian sides into the twenty first century, Bologna owner Giuseppe "Joey" Saputo submitted plans to redevelop the old Stadio Dall'Ara in 2019. The ground is an athletics stadium, built during the Mussolini era in 1927. The running track creates a serious disconnect with the fans and the facilities are basic at best. Plans to bring the stands closer to the pitch and cover it have been well received. There will also be new spaces for commercial and entertainment purposes, with the aim to boost the clubs bottom line and propel them into a new era. A year later and we're no closer to seeing the diggers turn up on site.
A year, in fact, feels like a relatively short amount of time compared to clubs such as Lazio, who've seen numerous projects abandoned (such as the Stadio Delle Aquile). Back in 2005, ,Lazio President Claudio Lotito unveiled the Stadio delle Aquile, the new home for the Biancocelesti. The stadium would be in use 24/7 and would give the club a strong foundation to build the club back to its former heights. 15 years later and the club are no closer to fulfilling that dream. Lotito sees this as a missed opportunity for the club, stating '“Imagine. If our new stadium would have been built when I first proposed it in 2005, the proceeds from the constriction sector would have already repaid the system, Lazio would have had higher revenues, and perhaps we would have been in the UEFA Champions League for many years.”'
A Faint Hope
As I'm writing this article from the leafy suburbs of West London, 600 miles away in Bergamo, the historic Tribuna Centrale is being refurbished in what is part of a grand plan to modernise the ground. The club acquired the stadium from the council in 2017 and step by step are redeveloping the place to meet the demands of modern football.
Both curve are set to be replaced whilst the Tribuna Centrale and Parterre Creburg are heavily renovated with better hospitality facilities and new dug outs (amongst other things). It's a perfect blend of respecting the past (staying at the same location & keeping some of the original stand structures) whilst looking forward to the future.
We also can't not talk about the the biggest Calcio success story in modern times, Juventus's Allianz Stadium, which has propelled the club high and above the competition. It's such a great example of a Serie A club moving with the times that it warrants its own article (and that's exactly what we'll give you soon enough). Having bought the ground and land from the council way back in 2002, Juventus dismantled the much despised Stadio Delle Alpi and built a compact, state of the art 41,000-seater stadium on the same patch. Match day revenue shot up from 8.9 million in 2010 to 57.8m in 2019 and the club capitalised on the commercial opportunities that arose from it. The club have since won the league every year running and have attracted some of the best talents in the game including Dybala, Ronaldo and De Light.
Outside the sparkling Allianz Stadium earlier this year. Built on the site of the old Stadio Delle Alpi (and no running track!).
Missed Opportunity & Frustration
What's a shame is that the Allianz Stadium (Juventus Stadium at the time) opened nine years ago and we've barely seen any other clubs make progress since. If you ever needed an example of why a new ground is paramount, look no further than Juventus in the world of Calcio. It feels like the councils cut their nose to spite their face.
The missed opportunity for Italian clubs over the past two decades has been incredible. Lost revenue, jobs, infrastructure and of course on the field opportunity to catch up with the European neighbours has taken its toll on a league sliding further into decline.
Even the influx of savvy foreign owners in the past decade, who clearly see new stadiums as vital to club development, are struggling to push forward change. They've hit a stumbling block through infamous Italian bureaucracy and stubborn local councils unwilling to compromise or support them at all.
Whilst we wait for major changes across the peninsula , we'll have to made do with the cosmetic makeovers like that seen recently at Parma, Napoli and Bologna. What calcio really needs is something more akin to Atalanta, Udinese and Juventus. We wait and hope or as they say in Italy ‘speriamo’.
Written by Richard Tester
Cagliari Photo Credit - @myjapaneseisbetter (Twitter)
San San article by The Football Trimmings
Turin stadiums and the city article by The Football Trimmings