Racing Santander’s forthright new president-cum-manager has been derided by critics but, says Phil Ball, he might just be on the right track
Dimitri Piterman is no ordinary chap. Shortly after buying a 24 per cent majority shareholding in Racing Santander in January, the new millionaire president of the ailing Spanish top-flight club was stopped outside the entrance to the El Sardinero stadium by a TV journalist and asked if he thought that his stated intention of personally running all aspects of the club – right down to team management – was perhaps a tad over-ambitious, even arrogant? Especially when he was not qualified to do so? Piterman leaned into the beam of the cameras and eyeballed the journalist with a withering stare: “There’s a dork running the most powerful country in the world without a qualification to his name. And you ask me for a diploma to run a football team? Give me a break.” And so began one of the lengthiest media circuses witnessed in Spain over the past couple of decades, with the result that the 39-year-old Piterman has become at least as famous as Jesus Gil.
Piterman, or “Doberman” as the tabloids have dubbed him, has kept a dignified distance from the sports media’s various attempts to smear him as an oligarchic madman. In early January, Racing Santander’s month-old announcement that it was severely in debt and in need of a benefactor had been ignored by several wealthy folk who might have been expected to put their hands into their pockets – local hero Seve Ballesteros among them – leaving the door ajar for Piterman, a Ukrainian Jew whose father had lost his eight brothers to the Nazis.
Having survived the war and a lot more besides, the family eventually emigrated to California in 1976, and the young Dimitri soon made his name as an athlete and academic, ending up first at Berkeley and then as a property speculator in San Francisco. Fast forward 20 years and Piterman set up shop on the Costa Brava in Palamós, converting a hotel into a successful sports complex and buying his way into the local football team, then in the Spanish Third Division. He then signed ageing forward Chuchi Cos on the basis of the player’s coaching qualification, and used him to learn more about this aspect of the trade. The team soon won promotion to Segunda B, and were doing just fine when Piterman (and Cos) decided to take a dip in slightly deeper waters, up in Santander. While Piterman was doing his thing down at Palamós, no one cared. But for his first game “in charge” of Racing, away at Osasuna, practically every camera in Spain was focused on him. The Spanish FA, consistent as ever, banned him from the bench, forcing Piterman to persuade the Osasuna authorities to accredit him as a photographer, so that he could sit inside the fence.
All this fuss was because Piterman had actually bothered to explain to anyone who had asked him exactly why he had taken over Santander. His idea was that the managing director of a company should take a hands-on approach to the day-to-day running of the business, as opposed to doing it from the golf course. So he sacked the coach, Manolo Preciado, and the director of football,Quique Setién – both local men and both well thought of, but neither of whom shared their new president’s business vision. Tough, but fair enough. The players stayed discreetly silent, and when they lost that first game, the press had a field day pointing out the alleged tactical naivety of the new playing system – a particularly imbecilic reaction to what was simply a good performance by Osasuna.
Subsequently, although the team has had one good run and one bad one, Piterman seems to be proving his critics wrong. Not only has he won the players over with his imaginative training sessions and his own physical strength (he regularly outsprints the players in the one-on-one time trials), he seems to be genuinely doing it for sporting reasons, as opposed to playing at managers. Footballers, when it comes to their own territory, are not easily fooled by charlatans.
Piterman has been a shade dictatorial in his dealings so far, but at least he has ruffled the right feathers. Who needs a coaching qualification anyway, when most players will tell you that it’s the human side of management that is the most crucial? And the group of Santander’s minority shareholders who are whining daily to the press that “you can’t buy a sentiment” should perhaps reflect on the fact that you can’t dig one up either, once it’s gone out of business and is six feet under.
From WSC 195 May 2003. What was happening this month