April 26, 2013 2:47 pm

My Juventus

Has Juve – and the whole Italian game – fallen victim to the nation’s problems itself? Andrea Agnelli, the latest scion of his family to run the legendary football club, offers an answer
The south stand, the ‘Curva Sud’, hailing its heroes on April 21 2013. Juventus beat AC Milan 1-0©Mattia Zoppellaro

The south stand, the ‘Curva Sud’, hailing its heroes last Sunday. Juventus beat AC Milan 1-0

Andrea Agnelli, president of Juventus football club, points to a photograph on his office shelf. It shows a small boy in shorts, with a mop of brown hair, standing beside some sunny rural field where Juventus are playing. The boy is Agnelli himself; the man sitting on a bench in the photo is his late father Umberto, who ran Juve 50 years ago.

The current Mr Agnelli, now 37, inhabits a surprisingly modest office in the club’s mansion smack in the middle of Turin. Juve’s president since 2010 has presided over the club’s return to its habitual place at the top of Italian football. Juventus will soon pocket yet another Italian championship – possibly as early as Sunday, if they beat local rivals Torino and second-placed Napoli don’t win. However, this proud club isn’t where it wants to be: at the top in Europe. In part, that’s because Juventus has fallen victim to the problems of Italy itself.

“Is Italian football interesting to watch today?” Agnelli asks. “Half the stadiums are empty, there is violence. I mean, it’s not the best product.” Italian football – corrupt, beset by violent thugs, economic decline, parochialism and lack of government – offers almost too perfect a metaphor for Italy itself. Like Ferrari (also in the Agnelli stable), or Gucci, or a brilliant corner café, Juventus is aiming for something very difficult: to be a pocket of excellence in a decaying country.

The Agnellis are often called “Italy’s royal family”. Andrea’s great-grandfather Giovanni Agnelli thought there might be a future in horseless carriages, and in 1899 co-founded a company called Fabbrica Italiana di Automobili Torino, or Fiat. In 1923 Giovanni encouraged his son Edoardo to become president of Turin’s football club, Juventus. “The 90 years’ ownership makes us the longest lasting ownership in any sports franchise globally,” says Andrea Agnelli. “Juventus and Fiat are the two eldest ownerships we have.” The family’s other assets, bought by the Agnellis’ investment company, “came and left. Juventus and Fiat are the common denominators of the history of the family”. Agnelli also sits on the board of Fiat, the world’s seventh-biggest automaker, where his cousin John Elkann is chairman. (Andrea’s half-brother Giovanni Alberto was groomed to run Fiat, but died of cancer in 1997 aged 33.)

You wouldn’t instantly spot Agnelli as a quasi-royal. He speaks like the trained international business manager he is, as if keen to prove he isn’t some air-headed heir. Yet his modest office, understated yet immaculate charcoal grey suit, and near-perfect English (polished at boarding school in Oxford) are characteristically Agnelli. “Reserved, stylish, elegant, ‘British’” is the family “myth”, says John Foot, professor of modern Italian history at University College London and author of Calcio: A History of Italian Football. Foot writes that generations of Agnellis have watched Juve, bought players, sacked managers and talked football to a usually fawning Italian press. Andrea’s handsome white-haired uncle Gianni Agnelli, nicknamed l’Avvocato, “the Lawyer”, ran Fiat yet was known to many Italians chiefly as figurehead of Juventus. The club’s 1980s playmaker Michel Platini, who won three Golden Ball awards as European Footballer of the Year, gave one of them to l’Avvocato, saying: “This is something you cannot buy, not even with your money.” “Is it real gold?” Gianni asked, and Platini replied, “If it was, I wouldn’t give it to you.”

Juventus is nicknamed La Vecchia Signora, “the Old Lady”, but Andrea Agnelli notes another description: “Juventus is known as ‘the girlfriend of Italy’. It’s probably the woman everyone wants to be with.” Most Italian clubs bear their city’s name and are tied up with feelings of local belonging, but Juventus bestrides the nation. Gianni Agnelli once said: “Not having the name of a city has brought us great popularity. It makes us national.” Few institutions in divided Italy can make that claim. Juventus estimates it has 11 million Italian supporters, many in the poor south that sent generations of peasants to Turin to work in Fiat’s factories.

Juventus' President Andrea Agnelli looks on before the Europa League playoff second leg soccer match against Sturm Graz at Olympic stadium in Turin, August 26, 2010©Reuters

Andrea Agnelli

Andrea Agnelli credits the family’s “stability of leadership” for helping Juve become Italy’s strongest club. In truth, Fiat’s millions probably did more to allow a team from a provincial town to compete with Europe’s best.

How was Agnelli raised to think of Juventus? “Winning,” he replies. From his office shelves he plucks a child’s drawing. Under the heading, “Juventus You Are a Queen”, it shows a penalty flying into a goal. Nine-year-old Andrea drew it in 1985, after Platini’s penalty defeated Liverpool in the European Cup final at the Heysel stadium – a match now chiefly remembered for the 39 Juve fans crushed to death before kick-off. Agnelli apologises: as a child, he didn’t understand the context. What he registered that night was victory.

His own favourite Juventus team, he says, were the European champions of 1996. He quotes a phrase from Juve’s then captain, Gianluca Vialli: “In the tunnel going on to the pitch, I remember looking at our opponents, who were thinking, ‘Why are we playing against this team, because we have already lost?’” But Agnelli adds: “The current team has great potential. I feel it’s mine, whilst with the others I was, let me say, a privileged observer. This is my creature.” And his creature has started to win.

Juventus’s many enemies see another, darker side to the club’s story. They charge that Italy’s leading football club, backed by Italy’s leading family, has used its web of connections to ensure victory. In a country given to conspiracy theories, this charge sticks. The question of whether referees support Juventus has prompted scuffles between MPs in Italy’s parliament. But sometimes (especially in Italy) conspiracy theories are true.

Juve’s enemies felt vindicated when it emerged in 2006 that the club’s then general manager, Luciano Moggi, spent much of his working week on his mobile arranging which referees should be appointed for Juventus’s matches and which for rival teams. The scandal, known as Calciopoli (each new Italian matchfixing scandal gets its own name), was the nadir of Juventus’s history. One image sums up the despair: that summer of 2006, the club executive Gianluca Pessotto sat in an upstairs window clasping a rosary, and let himself fall backwards on to the asphalt below. Thankfully he survived.

Italian justice rarely offers closure, and still nobody quite agrees who did what in Calciopoli. Agnelli says of Juventus’s role: “It was not match­fixing.” He notes that the club was only ever found guilty of “unsporting behaviour”, not “sporting fraud”. I retort, “But Moggi was phoning referees’ bosses!” Agnelli replies: “Moggi, and a lot of other people, as later came out.”

He sticks to the Juventus line: the club was made the scapegoat for a systemic disorder in Italian football. It was stripped of its championships of 2005 and 2006 and sent down to Serie B, Italian football’s second tier. A year later, Juve won promotion. “Our brand is enhanced now by our tremendous comeback story,” Agnelli says. “That gave us the opportunity to restate, in a louder way, how strong we are and how focused on leading the Italian system.”

Antonio Conte©Mattia Zoppellaro

Coach Antonio Conte before last Sunday’s game

But Calciopoli tarnished Italian football, worsened suspicions between clubs, and was followed by the Calcioscommesse scandal, in which over 20 clubs (but not Juventus) were accused of match­fixing. Juve’s current coach, Antonio Conte, was banned from the dugout for four months last year for having failed to report matchfixing he witnessed while coach of little Siena. Last summer Juve wooed Arsenal’s striker Robin van Persie, but after someone pointed out the sheer extent of Calcioscommesse to his agent, Van Persie joined Manchester United instead.

. . .

This is the context in which Agnelli leads Juve. The beautiful Italian game of old is disappearing. I wrote in my first book, Football Against the Enemy, 20 years ago: “When the football fan dies, he goes to Italy, where he finds the best players in the world, matches shown in full on public TV, and numerous daily sports newspapers. Nice weather, too.” For me as for many fans then, Italian football was hopelessly mixed up with memories of frothy cappuccinos, copies of the pink Gazzetta dello Sport studied at café tables, and sun-kissed stadiums as safe as family restaurants at a time when hooligans ravaged English football.

But Italian football isn’t beautiful any more. As with many things in Italy, Silvio Berlusconi must take some blame. When he was prime minister, Italy became a country where Berlusconi voters and Berlusconi haters watched Berlusconi’s team Milan thump teams subsidised by Berlusconi’s government on Berlusconi’s pay channels, in a league run by Berlusconi’s right-hand man Adriano Galliani, and then watched the highlights on Berlusconi’s free channel. The only thing Berlusconi didn’t do was carry out his government’s laws for making stadiums safer.

The Juventus home crowd cheers a goal©Mattia Zoppellaro

The home crowd cheers a goal

By 2010, Juventus no longer even headed what remained. “It was having issues recovering from the 2006 events,” says Agnelli. “So we decided we needed a family member in charge.” Agnelli being keen on sports management, he was the obvious choice. The family owned more than 60 per cent of Juve. The shareholders increased the capital by €120m (only the Gaddafis, minority shareholders, didn’t participate, being otherwise engaged with the Libyan revolution) and in 2011 Juventus finally opened its new stadium. This had taken 17 years to create. Most Italian clubs play in rundown municipally-owned grounds that they cannot afford to leave, even if they could navigate the local bureaucracy. Only Juventus own their home.

Last Sunday night I saw them play Berlusconi’s Milan there. It’s a very 21st-century stadium: there are even two crèches (“baby parks”, in Italian) for spectators’ kids. The 41,000 spectators sit close to the pitch, English-style. Two hours before kick-off I stood by the corner flag and saw how a player here could look straight into individual fans’ faces just yards away, separated from him only by Plexiglas, watching them scrutinise him.

In Juve’s changing room I found the hairdryers (essentials of life for Italian footballers) plugged in and ready to go. There were hot and cold baths, four treatment tables, and a dinner table set with a fruit basket where the players would eat straight after the game. This was modernity – a rare commodity in Italian football. In some Italian stadiums you worry about firecrackers falling on your head, but the stands at Juventus felt safe. As Agnelli says, this is the sort of clean environment that encourages people to behave.

Before kick-off, Juve’s Ultra fans unfurled three vast banners: on them, two little cartoon footballers from Milan and Inter, Juve’s main rivals, gazed upwards at the tower of Juve glittering with 30 league titles and one to come. The stadium applauded the excellent drawings. This was Italian fan culture at its best.

Andrea Pirlo in action against Milan©Mattia Zoppellaro

Andrea Pirlo in action against Milan

But some Juve fans racially abused Milan’s black midfielder Kevin-Prince Boateng. And the game itself plunged you firmly back into today’s impoverished Italy.

A decade ago, Juve v Milan was possibly the best game in global football; no longer. Andrea Pirlo, Juve’s last great outfield player, turns 34 on May 19, and their great keeper Gianluigi Buffon is 35. Juve’s passing was awkward and slow. Watching poor Mirko Vucinic labour up front for Juve, you longed for the days when Platini and Zbigniew Boniek graced that space. No wonder almost all the journalists in the press stand were Italians: Juve-Milan has become a provincial affair.

Watching this, you understood why Juve recently got thumped in the Champions League by Bayern Munich, and why coach Conte had said afterwards: “In the coming years I don’t see a possibility for an Italian team to be successful in the Champions League.”

Juventus goalkeeper Gianluigi ‘Gigi’ Buffon©Mattia Zoppellaro

Goalkeeper Gianluigi ‘Gigi’ Buffon

At least Juve remain supreme in Italy. They beat Milan 1-0 on a penalty after Milan’s substitute keeper bizarrely and unnecessarily floored Juve’s Kwadwo Asamoah. When I fell asleep in my hotel room after midnight, a platinum blonde woman and three ageing male pundits on state TV were still debating the penalty’s validity. Either way, by Sunday “the Old Lady” could have her 29th title (or 31st, depending on whom you believe).

This is the Italian morass, in which Juventus is trying to thrive. But what to do? England’s Premier League, Agnelli says, makes about €2bn a year from television rights, about half of that domestic and half foreign. Italian clubs make about €1bn, of which almost 90 per cent is generated inside Italy. Agnelli even envies English advertising boards: “You are reading messages in Chinese across all Premier League stadiums. We access multinational companies, but we access their local budgets. We want to be talking to their headquarters.”

In football, money determines success. Agnelli sighs: “Rather than a final destination for top players, we are now a transit league.” Juve’s revenues last year were €214m, less than half Real Madrid’s and Barcelona’s. For now, the club needs infusions of Agnelli money: its net debt has hit €150m after several years of losses, though the new stadium has recently helped Juventus move into profit. The club earned €11.3m net in the six months through last December.

Agnelli still benchmarks Juve against Europe’s best, and he looks abroad for role models. “If one was to look at a perfect situation for a top team,” he says, “it’s a mixture of what you find in England, in Germany, and in Spain.” From England, he would take the stadium and its vendors on match day; from Spain, the freedom of big clubs to sell their TV rights individually rather than having to share them with small teams; and he envies how “corporate Germany” sponsors German clubs. That combination is the fantasy for Italy.

“Now is this possible?” he asks. “No.”

Take something as apparently simple as selling replica shirts, he says. British and German fans flock to buy their team’s new shirt. “In Italy we buy counterfeit shirts. Fake is a problem of this country.” People in a constantly shrinking economy don’t want to pay full whack.

Or there’s the struggle for Italian clubs to build new stadiums: “Italy has been talking for 10 years about passing a law that incentivises building these stadiums,” Agnelli laments.

Andrea Agnelli and father Umberto, 1981©Olycom SPA / Rex Features

Andrea and father Umberto, 1981

I point out that most of the problems he complains about are problems of Italy – of the country whose economy grew more slowly than that of any country except Haiti and Zimbabwe in the decade to 2010. Agnelli’s father Umberto once said,“The team has followed the evolution of the nation.” Today, is the nation dragging down the team? “Correct,” Agnelli replies.

He’s cautious about talking politics, but thinking about broader solutions for Italy, he looks to the UK.“Maybe we should go back to analysing British history more, from [1970s’ prime minister Jim] Callaghan to Lady Thatcher and how the 1980s saw England rewriting its future in a very aggressive and disciplined way. Now, does Italy have the same discipline that England showed? I wish. I hope. But if I was to comment on the last 60 days [during which Italy had had neither new government nor president], of national institutions evaluating how to move forward, we haven’t shown the same capacity as England.

“Italian football, as much as Italy, needs structural reforms. Italy a few years ago was at a crossroads – do we want to tackle this and stay competitive? We chose to do nothing. In football, you need a concerted effort: violence, stadiums, trademark protections. Now there isn’t even a government, so we haven’t got a minister of sports.”

If big football clubs really were the globalised behemoths without local souls that their critics see, life would be easy for Juventus. Then the club could forget Italy and play the international market. But even giant football clubs are irredeemably local. Most of their spectators, sponsors, rivals, and a great chunk of their paying TV viewers live inside their own borders. Juventus won’t sink with Italy. But with the country in its current state, not even the Agnelli family club can thrive.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2014. You may share using our article tools.
Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.

LIFE AND ARTS ON TWITTER

More FT Twitter accounts
SHARE THIS QUOTE