Italian Soccer’s Fractious Chorus Tries a New Tune: Cooperation

Pretty quickly, Paolo Dal Pino realized that the illustrious list of names on his glittering résumé, the long years spent in the boardrooms of some of Italy’s corporate behemoths, the experience that had gotten him the job — none of it was fitting preparation for running his country’s top soccer league.

Serie A, after all, did not function like the industrial giant Pirelli or the telecom provider Wind or the communications company Telit, the companies where Dal Pino had spent his career before, in January, agreeing to take charge of Italy’s top division. The league did not have a defined hierarchy or a sense of purpose. What it had, instead, was 20 presidents of 20 teams, bickering among themselves.

It was a schoolyard and a debating chamber, fraught by internal politics and vulnerable to internecine strife. One faction, including many of the league’s makeweights, gathered around Claudio Lotito, president of Lazio. Others clustered around Juventus, its powerhouse. The growing number of American owners — at Roma and A.C. Milan and Fiorentina — had a different set of ideas again.

The chances of the league’s conjuring a unified response to the coronavirus crisis, then — picking a way through the enforced hiatus, finding a route back to the field, one that satisfied all of the competing agendas — should have been remote. It might have been expected to break the league for good.

Instead, Dal Pino feels the pandemic might have healed it.

“There is more unity than before,” he said. His explanation is, for the president of a soccer competition, a slightly unexpected one: Serie A could work together precisely because there were no games. The absence of action on the field, Dal Pino said, “cleared the table of many issues.”

Without the squabbles that would invariably break out after a weekend’s games — fingers pointed at referees, opponents smeared, rivals scorned, all of it played out in Italy’s ravenous sports media — Serie A’s executives could, at last, find harmony.

“Not having games, not having discussions where they were criticizing the referees or the players, not having the controversies, removed a lot of tension,” he said. “Covid-19 changed a lot of things. It changed the way people interacted.” Andrea Agnelli, the Juventus president, gives at least some of the credit for that to Dal Pino himself: His “diplomacy,” Agnelli said, helped to keep the clubs on board.

The test for Dal Pino is ensuring that sense of togetherness — fostered in the panic of the shutdown — can hold now that Serie A, like most of Europe’s major leagues, has returned to the field. The pandemic was an existential threat; it is far from the only challenge the league has to face.

Dal Pino arrived in his role in January, the fourth man to take up the post of Serie A president in four years. If, from the outside, the job has the air of a sinecure — just someone to hand out the medals at the end of the season, to smile and to shake hands — and an uncertain, short-lived one at that, he wanted to interpret it slightly differently.

In his first official communiqué after taking the role, he urged the owners of the league’s clubs to “come together” to restore Serie A to the position it held in the 1990s, as “the most beautiful league in the world.”

Quite how to do that, of course, has been vexing Italian soccer ever since its demise began in the early 2000s. The sette sorelle, the fabled Seven Sisters clubs that once made Serie A the most glamorous league in Europe, no longer attract the finest players on the planet. The league’s broadcast revenues pale in comparison to those in England and Germany. Its stadiums are largely crumbling, antiquated.

Dal Pino’s arrival, too, hardly came at a propitious moment. A string of racist incidents in stadiums — as well as an ill-conceived anti-racism campaign late last year — had left Serie A’s reputation in tatters. The league seemed unable, or perhaps even unwilling, to combat the problem. Certain clubs seemed to be in thrall to their far-right ultras.

The issue had become so endemic that a number of black players had refused moves to Italy because they feared being racially abused. After Romelu Lukaku, the Inter Milan striker, was abused at a game, a former teammate of his at Chelsea, Demba Ba, urged black players to leave Serie A.

There were economic issues, too. Those clubs seeking to build new stadiums had invariably found that doing so involved diving into a Kafkaesque bureaucracy. Qatar-based beIN Sports, one of the league’s most important rights holders, had been infuriated by the decision to stage the country’s Super Cup in Saudi Arabia, and was threatening to end its broadcast contract. Discussions over plans to create a dedicated Serie A television channel, with the Spanish network Mediapro, had stalled.

  • Updated June 24, 2020

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Yet Dal Pino could see signs of promise. He pinpointed the arrivals of Lukaku and Cristiano Ronaldo as proof that Italian clubs could still attract elite talent, and highlighted that, before the pandemic, Italian soccer was breaking its attendance records, suggesting that fans still had a “hunger” to see games. The Coppa Italia final, staged before the return of Serie A after the hiatus, bore that out, attracting 10.2 million viewers.

But Serie A still seemed a long way from what it once was. The pandemic had dealt a crippling blow, “devastating the industry,” as Dal Pino put it, not just in terms of ticket sales but “all activities related to games, like merchandising and sponsorships.”

“Abandoning the season would have severely impacted the value of both the clubs and the players,” he said.

That has been staved off — for now — of course. Dal Pino is even hopeful that some fans may start to return to Italian stadiums as soon as July. “We need to be prudent and patient, but we are confident that if the health situation continues to improve, the gradual return of fans into the stadiums will be a reality, perhaps partially next month,” he said.

His vision, though, does not stop at a return to normal, not as it was before. His plan, instead, focuses on change. “Any crisis situation represents an opportunity to improve ourselves by all means,” Dal Pino said. “There are opportunities to be seized.”

They encompass a whole range of ideas, from “reducing bureaucracy” for clubs hoping to build new stadiums to, potentially, selling a stake in the league to a private equity firm — CVC Capital Partners and Bain Capital are reported to have made offers, though Dal Pino refused to comment — and changing the way Serie A sells its television rights.

The spat with beIN, for example, has resulted in Serie A’s being blacked out in dozens of countries, a situation that has convinced many in Italian soccer that the league needs to have final control over its broadcast agreements, as opposed to selling them through a third party, as is currently the case. Dal Pino is intrigued by a streaming platform, and he acknowledged the need to “control our long-term destiny.” For Serie A, he said, “digital disruption” might be a good thing.

If any of it is to come to fruition, though, if Dal Pino is to see his vision for Italian soccer grow into something more real, he will need the presidents of his 20 teams — the clutter of cats that it is his job to herd — to remember that they can work together, to keep hold of the harmony they could find in silence, even now that the noise has started again.

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